Pet first aid at the touch of a finger

The American Red Cross is debuting a new first aid app on Jan. 16. But unlike the organization’s previous apps, which have helped users navigate first aid and disaster preparedness, this one has a very particular audience in mind: pet owners.

The Pet First Aid app was developed by the Red Cross with expert guidance from the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Deborah Mandell, an emergency and critical care specialist at Ryan Veterinary Hospital. With a streamlined design, and information about both cats and dogs, the program puts vital pet health care information at users’ fingertips.

“Pet First Aid is not meant to take the place of veterinary care; it’s what an owner can do until they get their pet veterinary care,” Mandell says. “But this app can help owners understand what’s normal in their pet, and when a situation is an emergency.”

Mandell has served as the Red Cross’ pet care adviser since 2006, when she was spurred to begin the partnership by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. In the lead-up to that storm, many pet owners did not evacuate because they were worried their animals wouldn’t be accepted in shelters. Many others had to tragically abandon their pets when they fled for safety.

Wanting to ensure more pet owners are prepared in the face of emergencies, she began working with the Red Cross. Her guidance resulted in two pet first aid books, one for dogs and one for cats. Recently, Mandell has worked with the organization to prepare the second edition of those publications. Updates include modifications to pet CPR guidelines, which were revised as part of the RECOVER (Reassessment Campaign on Veterinary Resuscitation) initiative, an effort led by a Penn Vet clinician.

In her role as a Red Cross adviser, Mandell serves as the organization’s go-to expert when media outlets call for advice about pet health care and first aid. She has also helped the Red Cross standardize the information used in the pet first aid classes taught in local chapters nationwide.

About a year ago, the Red Cross approached her about helping them develop a pet first aid app. Together with web developers, Mandell pulled information from the pet care guides to populate the app’s content with information about urgent health conditions ranging from allergic reactions, to seizures, to wounds.

“We took the format and the structure that was tried and tested and very successful in our human first aid app, and applied that to the pet first aid app to give it a similar look and feel,” says Paul Munn, senior product manager for the Red Cross. “We want people to quickly and intuitively access the information they need.”

The app enables users to not only access information, but also to engage with it through quizzes, for which they can earn “badges” for successful completion. Users can also post information—like quiz results and pet photos—directly from the app to social media sites like Facebook.

Mandell says one of her major goals is to help pet owners understand their pet’s healthy state better, so they know when emergency veterinary care might be needed.

Accordingly, the app has a “Knowing What’s Normal” section in which owners can record their pet’s typical vital signs, including breathing rate, pulse, and temperature. The app also describes early warning signs of potential problems, such as appetite changes or lethargy that may signal to owners that they should take their pet to the vet before an illness becomes an emergency.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, well in hindsight he hasn’t been finishing his food or he has been hiding,’” Mandell says. “If we can get owners to recognize a problem sooner, that’s helpful.”

The app also has many photos and videos, separated into dog and cat sections, to demonstrate proper techniques for emergency first aid procedures, such as CPR, wound care, or choking treatment.

In line with the Red Cross’ focus on disaster preparedness, the app includes a “Prepare” section where owners can access a pet-friendly hotel locator as well as tips for traveling with pets and what to do in the case of a lost animal. The app also includes a section that lists the top 20-plus toxic substances for
pets, including chocolate and raisins. This links to a list of the top poisonous plants for pets, compiled by Lisa Murphy, an assistant professor of toxicology.

Munn says Mandell has been indispensable to the app’s creation. “She’s been amazing, tireless, and passionate,” he says. “At the core, we want to put out correct information, and she has been meticulous about every detail.”

The American Red Cross Pet First Aid App is designed for iOS and Android mobile devices. People can purchase the app for 99 cents in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store for Android by searching for American Red Cross.

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