When your pet is in distress, every second counts. That’s why it’s important to be prepared in the event that your animal goes into cardiac arrest. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, can get the heart going again, whether the victim is human or not.

Heart attacks in dogs are generally caused by pre-existing conditions such as an enlarged heart or murmur; it can also be precipitated by heartworm. The cholesterol buildup in arteries that so often triggers heart attacks in people normally isn’t an issue in animals.

Be Ready to Help

"Your knowledge and skill could be what saves your pet’s life," explains Megan Whelan, MD, of the Angell Animal Medical Center’s Emergency & Critical Care Unit in Boston. That’s why in 2012, the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS) and the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care (ACVECC) launched a widespread campaign to encourage veterinarians to teach pet owners how to respond to an emergency. Whelan says that all pet owners can benefit from following their advice and being prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Pet Rescue 101

One way to be prepared is to know how to perform CPR on your dog or cat in case the animal’s heart stops beating. This can happen when a pet chokes on an item, drowns, or has some other heart or lung condition that causes him or her to go into cardiac arrest. If this occurs and your pet stops breathing, administering CPR could save his or her life.

The information here refers to dogs, but can also apply to cats and other furry friends. Speak to your pet’s veterinarian about CPR for your animal.

Here are Whelan’s pet CPR steps:

  1. Know Your ABCs: "The first thing a pet owner should do is to open the pet’s mouth and search its airway for an obstruction," she says. "We call this ABC: Airway, breathing, circulation." Clear any obstructions before proceeding.
  2. Give Rescue Breaths: Close your mouth on top of your pet’s and exhale into the animal’s lungs. (If the dog is large, put your mouth to his snout—mouth to snout. Close your pup’s mouth and breath into his nose to inflate the lungs.)
  3. Right Side for Rescue: If the pet’s heart has stopped, lay the animal with his right side against the ground.
  4. Position Your Hands Properly: For a small dog, place your palms on each side of the chest, near the heart. For large dogs, perform chest compressions on the left side of the chest—at the top of the left front leg.
  5. Perform Compressions: Push down on the chest and hold for one count, then release and repeat. Stop to breathe into the animal’s nose every five compressions. (If someone is helping you, have him or her breathe into the animal’s nose every 2-3 of your compressions.) Ask your veterinarian how frequently to perform compressions; the rate will depend on your animal’s breed and size.
  6. Repeat: Continue the compression/breathing pattern until the animal begins to breathe.

If your pet hasn’t responded to CPR within 10 minutes, your efforts haven’t been successful.

Make Every Minute Count

If there’s someone who can drive you, it’s best to immediately transport the pet to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital and perform CPR while en route, "since time is the biggest factor in determining if your animal will survive," according to Whelan. When you arrive at the hospital, let the staff there know you have been doing CPR so they can take over and perform the appropriate intervention, such as an intravenous catheter and emergency drugs. It can be helpful to bring along any information about your pet’s health history and regular medicines he or she takes.

Word of Warning

While performing CPR on your pet at home can be a life saving measure, you’ll need to understand that it comes with some risks, too. Breathing too forcefully, for example, can burst a small animal’s lungs. Attempting rescue breathing on a pet that isn’t unconscious might cause him to bite you. So, proceed with caution and if you have any questions, ask your veterinarian for advice before you might need to take these steps.

First Aid Pet App

To help you in a pet emergency, the RedCross offers a mobile app that you can download onto your smartphone and use to help guide you: redcross.org/mobile-apps/pet-first-aid-app.

Megan Whelan, MD, MSPCA reviewed this article.


Megan Whelan, MD, MSPCA. Angell Animal Medical Center’s Emergency & Critical Care Unit, Boston. Email interview February 21, 2014. 

"CPR for Dogs." PetMD. Accessed February 22, 2014.