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First Aid for Burns Depends on Type of Burn

June 12, 2018

Since animals have a natural fear of fire, most pets are burned because of their human-centric environment. Frequently, burns involve the paws and are due to chemical contact burns, stepping on hot surfaces like a stovetop, or touching a hot car muffler (especially cats). Occasionally, pets are accidentally scalded with hot water. Some pets are burned when they chew on electric cords, lick at caustic chemicals, or are left directly on electric heating pads. House fires and open flame burns are a rare occurrence, but can be devastating since regional or whole body burns may occur.

Burns caused by heat, chemicals, radiation, or electricity all lead to tissue injury. Superficial burns, while quite painful, are generally not serious. On the other hand, deep burns can be serious and may even result in death due to shock, loss of body fluids, and infection.

Burns can be difficult to detect because a pet's hair coat may mask the damage to the underlying tissues. Usually, a superficial burn is characterized by pain, singed hair that has an unpleasant odour and does not pull out easily, and reddened skin. 

A deep burn, on the other hand, can be more or less painful; less when the nerve endings have been destroyed. The pet may progress to having a dull or depressed attitude or even develop shock and collapse if not treated. The skin may appear normal, or it may appear burned (dark, red or pale, dry and dull) and the hair pulls out easily. If the burn extends deeper than the skin, the tissue may appear ulcerated underneath the skin layer when exposed by loss of skin cover. Swelling of a burned area may occur.

When confronted with a superficial burn, one should NEVER apply butter, fat, grease, or ointments. Instead, immerse the affected area in cool water as soon as possible to prevent heat from penetrating deeper into the tissue and causing further damage. Gently pat the area dry, cover the area loosely with a clean, dry bandage if possible, and then contact your veterinarian, as you prepare to travel to the clinic.

For deep burns, soak a towel or cloth with tepid water and apply it to the burned area as quickly as possible. Keep it wetted until veterinary assistance is obtained. Keep the patient warm and quiet and transport the patient to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Be aware that until pain medication is administered and takes effect, a painful pet with deep burns may bite by reflex if moved while sore. A gentle cover for the muzzle may be necessary to protect handlers. A simple transport muzzle can be fashioned at home for the trip to the clinic using a knee-high pantyhose wrapped around the muzzle top to bottom just behind the level of the fangs (canine teeth) and gently, but firmly, tied with a small bow. This may not work for short-faced dogs like pugs or a short-faced Persian cat—in this case, wrapping the pet loosely with a thick cover like a bed comforter over the pet will put some cushion between the pet and the handler for transfer to the vehicle and out again. Ask a veterinarian for advice before transport to prevent injury, as they may recommend another option.

Do not give any medications without consulting your veterinarian. If more than 50 per cent of the body has been burned, the chances for recovery are low. Pain management, nursing care and hygiene, nutrient dense food, and intravenous fluids will be prescribed. Other care may be required for each individual patient.

For chemical burns, wash the affected area with copious amounts of tap water for approximately 15 minutes and, if available, apply an appropriate antidote (as marked on the product label) and bring the package with you to the veterinarian.

Burns are notoriously painful. Pain management is essential and strong narcotic medicine will be used for humane management of the patient’s comfort.

Secondary infection of burn areas is a serious potential complication, so the veterinary healthcare team will use strategies to minimize this risk.

Burns are not a home care situation, though these initial first aid strategies can support your pet until professional care is obtained. It is essential that there is no delay in seeking care. Many times smoke inhalation or hidden burns will complicate the situation and the pet will benefit from a professional comprehensive treatment plan.

Kathleen Cavanagh, BSc DVM MET
Consulting Online Editor CVMA

Dr. Christine Savidge DVM
Consulting Editor

Leigh A. Lamont, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVAA
Consulting Specialist Editor

June 8, 2018