KBR Quick Tip

Treating Shock Until the Vet Arrives

Breath of Life with a Cutting Torch

1995, Willis & Sharon Lamm

The secret to success on any farm or ranch is in knowing how to improvise. Sometimes one's creativity can mean the difference between life and death.

Severe shock, which can result from a variety of accidental or medical causes, is a true life-threatening event. Circulation is depressed and sufficient oxygen isn't getting to the brain and vital organs. If left untreated, severe shock can lead to permanent damage or death.

With humans, we can dial 9-1-1 and receive prompt care from the nearest ambulance, rescue squad or fire department. Oxygen can be administered until the victim can be given drugs and fluids by paramedics or emergency room personnel. With our animals, we have to be more self reliant. We can haul the small ones in to the vet. With the larger ones, we usually have to do the best we can until the mobile veterinarian arrives.

Everyone who owns livestock should have some owner oriented veterinary books on hand along with some basic first aid supplies. When an emergency occurs, these resources will offer some kind of positive action which can be taken until the vet arrives.

Here's one action you probably won't find in the "do-it-yourself" veterinary books. In the event of severe shock, particularly if the vet is a long way off, you may also need to improvise some oxygen therapy.

Signs of Shock:

Common signs of shock include dullness or loss of consciousness, rapid heart beat, sweating in horses and humans (dogs, cats and pigs can't sweat), empty, vacant eyes usually accompanied by dilated pupils which respond poorly to light, and pail or grey skin color under the lips and eyelids. In shock, effective blood volume is often lost due to dilation of the blood vessels, bleeding out (internally or externally), and/or dehydration. The dilation of blood vessels can be due to a number of causes including an injury, an illness or a medical condition, or even an anaphylactic reaction to vaccinations or insect stings.

As a result of shock, oxygen is not sufficiently profused to the brain and vital organs. In horses, blood can pool at dangerous levels in the intestines. Proper care must be provided immediately.

First, call your local vet and advise him/her of the emergency. Most vets nowadays have pagers and cellular phones so you shouldn't have to wait a long time for a contact.

Next, take appropriate action. Keep the animal comfortable and quiet.

Your animal's temperature control system won't be working, so protect him/her from overheating or from chilling. In cases of shock resulting from heat stroke, wetting down with cool, not cold, water is indicated. In other instances, providing shade from direct sunlight should be sufficient. Move the horse to shade while it can still walk, or rig up some form of shade cloth if the animal is already down. If you are on a gentle slope when the horse needs to lay down, try to encourage it to lay in a direction where its head is lower than the rest of its body.

If the onset of shock immediately follows vaccinations or insect stings, administering epinephrine is indicated. (If you give your own shots, epinephrine should be a part of your first aid kit.)

Follow all applicable directions given to you by your vet, and/or provided in your veterinary books and manuals.

At this point about the only remaining aspect of the emergency that you can control until the vet arrives is the amount of oxygen being carried in the animal's depressed circulatory system.

Improvising Oxygen Therapy:

We have successfully improvised oxygen therapy for animals by using the ranch's oxy-acetylene torch set and a one gallon plastic water jug. We simply cut the bottom off of the jug forming a cone-like appliance to fit up to the animal's nose. We next removed the tip from the torch set, turned on only the oxygen, and fed it gently into the small opening at the neck of the jug.

Does it Work?

Some time ago one of our ranch dogs suffered a heart attack. We found him unconscious, in deep shock with a weak heartbeat, pupils fixed and dilated, ashen grey skin color under the lips, and non-responsive to pain. He was too weak to transport to the vet. Fortunately one of the area's mobile vets treats dogs, so we called her. We had grave doubts as to whether the dog would survive until she arrived.

We initiated our cutting torch oxygen therapy. By the time the vet had arrived the dog had some pupil response and his other vital signs were starting to improve. The vet administered steroids and a liter of normal saline by IV, and we continued oxygen therapy for about an hour.

By the next day, the dog could move about and a week later was taking care of business around the ranch. Except for some loss of stamina, he fully recovered and "stayed with us" for some time, patrolling the ranch as he always liked to do.

Applying Oxygen Yourself:

You may be faced with a similar situation involving one of your animals. If you have a torch set, then you are in good shape. If you board at a stable, odds are they have a set for making repairs. If they do, talk with the proprietors in advance about borrowing it in case of emergency.

If you decide to improvise oxygen therapy, be sure to consider the following guidelines:

  1. If you can reach your vet, consult with him/her first regarding the propriety of administering oxygen.

  2. Fashion an oxygen cone out of an old water or milk jug. If one isn't available, a fair sized plastic pail (like the ones supplements come in) can work. Punch a hole in the bottom to pass the torch nozzle through.

  3. Take the tip off of the torch set and turn the oxygen on gently. You want just enough oxygen to enrich the atmosphere near the animal's nose. You should feel it gently waft out of the cone. Turning the oxygen up too high will waste it (you might run out) and may irritate the animal.

  4. Don't try to stuff the animal's nose into the cone. Placing the cone next to the nostrils will provide a significant increase in available oxygen.

  5. Don't let anyone smoke near the oxygen or inside any closed building where oxygen is being administered. Don't use oxygen in any building where there are open flames (e.g., heaters, gas fueled appliances, etc.)

  6. If there will be a considerable delay before the vet arrives, don't wait until you run out before hunting down another oxygen cylinder. When you reach 500 p.s.i., you probably have 10 to 20 minutes of oxygen left, depending on the size of the cylinder.

  7. Due to the size and weight of the cylinders, most mobile vets do not carry oxygen. If oxygen is helping your animal, plan on locating enough oxygen yourself to continue the therapy after the vet arrives.

  8. Remember that industrial oxygen is not certified as medical oxygen and should not be used in lieu of proper medical oxygen when it is available.
We can't predict when and how we will be confronted with medical emergencies, but we can prepare ourselves so that we can take the best possible actions, with the least amount of stress. Hopefully this Quick Tip will motivate you to go over all of your emergency preparations, not just consider getting out the torch set the next time an animal passes out!

Ride safely and enjoy yourself!


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KBR Quick Tips, 1995 Lamm's Kickin' Back Ranch and Willis & Sharon Lamm. All rights reserved. Duplication of any of this material for commercial use is prohibited without express written permission. This prohibition is not intended to extend to personal non-commercial use, including sharing with others for safety and learning purposes, provided this copyright notice is attached.
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