On a recent rainy night at the Alexandria Red Cross, Jean Flaherty of Olney was getting discouraged. She couldn't feel Rover's pulse after several valiant attempts at CPR. "I think he's dead," she said sadly.
Luckily Rover, a large stuffed animal dog, was never alive. Rather, he's the star attraction in the Red Cross's popular pet first aid class.
Taught mostly by volunteer instructors, the one-session class aims to outline the ABCs of emergency care for cat and dog owners and lovers. "This class does not teach you to be doctors," said instructor Steve Demma. "It teaches you the signals of when to take [the pet] to the vet."
For $25, participants receive a copy of the detailed book, "Pet First Aid," written by veterinarian Bobbie Mammato and approved by the National Humane Society. They also get the opportunity to ask Demma questions as he briskly covers the basic topics: CPR, poison control, bandaging wounds, taking pulse and temperature, transporting an injured animal, dehydration, frostbite and basically how not to make bad situations worse. "If you already knew about adult CPR, this course would be a breeze," said Demma.
Although none of the five female participants in the class had recently taken CPR for humans, all were eager to learn how to help their pets in times of trouble. "People are more attached to their animals than to human beings," said Demma wryly. Yet devotion has its limits. For those squeamish about performing direct "mouth to snout" CPR, Demma suggests cutting off the top of a two-liter soda bottle, fitting the wide side over the snout and breathing through the spout.
Class member Linda Starke seemed the most openly enthralled with her dog, J.J., a yellow Labrador retriever puppy. Starke, who lives in the District, seemed doubtful that she would be able to remember everything from the class. "I'm sure that whenever something happens, I'll panic," she said.
But even before thinking about emergencies, said Demma, pet owners can do something for their pets right after leaving class: Write down each pet's normal vital signs--pulse and temperature. "I once had to take the temperature of my dog," said Dorrell Edstrand of Alexandria, the doting caretaker of an 80-pound mongrel. "For the next few weeks whenever I picked up a pencil or something, she went under the bed."
In the class, Demma dispensed an overload of useful information--such as: approach an injured animal from behind; lift a dog's skin to test dehydration (if it snaps right back, the dog is fine); and never pull string out of an animal that has ingested it (visit a vet quickly--the string often gets caught in the intestines). But most participants took the class for the opportunity to test out CPR on an animal, even a stuffed one.
Demma told his students that if the pet had an open airway but was not breathing and showed no pulse, it was time to administer CPR. The initial steps include laying the animal down, tilting the head back and pulling the tongue between the front teeth. Then close the animal's mouth or muzzle and shoot four or five breaths rapidly through the nose. If the animal does not start breathing on its own within 20 minutes, chances of survival are slim. If the animal does start breathing, chest compressions of an inch to three inches, depending on the animal's size, should be administered, then alternate chest compressions and breaths until a pulse starts. As soon as the condition is stabilized, swiftly spirit the animal to the vet.
"I know he's not going to leap up like Lassie, but will he jump and get agitated" after revival, Starke asked. Shaking his head, Demma said no, the dog would "probably be so weak. When your heart stops, it's a bad day."
The Los Angeles branch of the American Red Cross developed the pet first aid class in the early 1990s. The Alexandria chapter started offering the training last year and conducts sessions about four times a month, depending on interest. "Old Town has a large population of people who have dogs," said Mona Assaf, director of volunteers and community education for the Alexandria chapter, the only local one that carries the class in its curriculum. "This is definitely a place where people care about their pets."
Instructor qualifications include human CPR and first aid certification and a love of animals. In addition to running the class, the Alexandria chapter sells the pet first aid book separately as well as a first aid kit.
All the people taking Demma's class owned pets and most attended the class for similar reasons. Cheverly resident Diane Heil, a Humane Society volunteer, spotted a notice for the class in a newsletter. "Since I'm around animals all the time, I figured it would be a good thing to learn all this good stuff," she said. Heil shares her home with three cats--Pumpkin, Peetey and Smitty--and two dogs, Jake and Maverick. She plans to review the book quarterly, so the information will stay fresh in her mind.
After the CPR lesson, Demma ran through the abdominal thrust for dogs, snakebites (don't suck out the blood), appropriate foods, bloating and even what to do if the eyeball pops out of your dog (keep the socket moist and take dog and eyeball to the vet). "Now we're going to have some fun," said Demma as he handed out stuffed cats to use for practice bandaging such injuries as a broken paw, a bleeding paw and an impaled object.
Demma stressed the importance of stopping the blood flow and maintaining body temperature as class participants wrapped layers of gauze and tape around their faux felines, careful not to tape directly on synthetic fur. If a car hits an animal, said Demma, do not lift the animal without using some type of support, such as a board or even a roll of newspaper. Lifting without support potentially causes more damage if the back is broken.
As Demma sifted through the pet first aid book, he admitted that some things were "no-brainers"--like keeping the number for poison control in your wallet. Other bits of knowledge were less obvious. "Do not call 911" if your pet has been hit by a car, said Demma. "They will laugh at you." The animal's owner bears sole responsibility for getting the pet to a vet.
Even after they had completed the class (for which they receive certification cards), Demma told his students, graduates are still at a disadvantage if their pet needs first aid. "What's your biggest problem? You're going to be emotionally involved with the situation," he said. "If you can have somebody else do it, it's better."
The Alexandria chapter of the American Red Cross is located at 123 N. Alfred Street. For class information, call 703-549-8300.