Performing Pet Treatments at Home

What can and can't or shouldn't be done at home

Published: February 25, 2013

Photo by Karen James
For most pet owners a trip to the veterinarian is an intuitive, knee-jerk reaction when your pet is ill. Veterinarians have the knowledge, resources and compassion, not to mention the drugs and technology, to get our pets back on all four of their feet (apologies to kangaroo, fish and bird owners). But for pet owners, being a part of the overall treatment plan and doing certain treatments at home can not only speed the return to health, it can save money and make you a part of the healthcare team alongside your veterinarian.

For some people, being involved in a pet’s treatment is a chance to deepen the bond and feel involved. For others, it is merely a practical matter – the costs of hospitalization may be prohibitive, so performing some of the recommended treatments at home becomes a necessity. Whatever the reason, home treatment becomes obligatory from time to time, and a discussion about just what can and can’t or shouldn’t be done at home needs to happen between the pet owner and veterinarian.

Some things, such as subcutaneous fluids (see below) can be easily done at home with minimal risk, while others, such as bandage or splint changes, involve a great deal of training and too much risk to be undertaken safely at home. Even some things that are part of the usual ‘at home’ tool box can become risky if you are dealing with either a desperately ill patient or one who resents being handled. You don’t want to try something at home that lands you both in the hospital; I have seen it happen many times. That cute little ball of fur can turn into quite the whirling dervish of claws and teeth if you try the wrong thing, or even the right thing in the wrong way. I had a cat who loved to while away the hours on my lap watching Wapner, but turned into the devil himself if I tried to even so much as trim a tiny toenail. Rather than face another messy exorcism, I elected to have one of my colleagues restrain and sedate him whenever he needed routine maintenance.

How can we know what is doable at home and what is risky? The best way is to have an open, honest discussion when you are talking over the therapy plan at the hospital. Your doctor will have some idea of your pet’s temperament when ill (which is far different from when they are feeling well) and the complexity of the sort of intervention you are planning. For your part of the discussion, make sure to tell the veterinarian what you feel you can do, and work hard to not be overconfident; you may think you can change a splint to save some money, but every time I have seen a leg have to be amputated because of a splint that was applied wrong at home it was due to overconfidence. Some of these unfortunates even had to be euthanized.

Some things that can be easily done by your average pet owner on your average dog or cat at home (make sure to protect yourself with a muzzle if you think you might get bitten) include:

  • Subcutaneous fluids: Giving a salt solution under the loose skin at the back of the neck – especially good for chronic kidney conditions and/or mild dehydration. (Note that not every animal will tolerate this.)
  • Some types of injections: insulin is easily given to diabetic pets, as long as they are able to be handled safely (not all will tolerate it) and some chronic medications (like DOCP  for dogs with Addison’s disease or Adequan for dogs with arthritis) can be easily give at home with the proper monitoring.
  • Along the lines of diabetes – you can check your pet’s blood sugar at home. This sort of falls under advanced pet ownership skills, but it can be done. There are good videos and your veterinarian can provide you with resources and a glucometer.
  • Nail trims: for dogs and cats with the right disposition (unlike mine).
  • Giving Valium by suppository or in the nose for seizures. Not all vets are okay sending home Valium for this purpose, but it can help break a seizure. Make sure your next stop is the hospital after using this – no matter if day or night!
  • Dental care: No, not teeth cleaning – that takes general anesthesia– but daily tooth brushing can help minimize the frequency of those dentals and keep the pet tooth fairy out of business.
  • Care of small wounds: With prior direction from the veterinarian, and only if less than a dime in size and not deep. Bite wounds are the exception; they need to be seen by the veterinarian, as frequently there is more damage and they are deeper than they originally appear.
  • Induction of vomiting: Again – with direction from the veterinarian. Some substances should not be brought back up, and some patients should not be made to vomit.
  • Emptying the anal sacs: Just because you can do this (and you can) doesn’t mean you’re gonna want to!
  • Ear care: many simple ear cleanings and medication application can be easily done at home.

A good and veterinary-approved list of pet first aid information can be found online at Veterinary Partner. Many of the things on this list can be done safely at home using common household materials.

And then…there are some things that are better left to the professionals. As I have already intimated, splints and bandages may seem like simple things to change but the risks of a bandage or splint that slips and cuts off circulation is just too great – I have seen literally dozens of cases of this. I know that the costs of having the veterinarian change them can seem prohibitive. The care of large or deep wounds is also something that is best to let the hospital staff handle. Similarly, giving IV fluids is just not practical or safe at home and in addition, the intravenous catheter itself requires maintenance and care. In the hospital, they are given in precisely measured amounts, often using a computer-controlled pump. Giving them at home runs the risk of ‘fluid overload,’ which can cause fluids to build up in the lungs. This is especially dangerous for smaller pets.

One final point should be made here: don't give any medications without prior approval from your veterinarian.

Most pet-related medical things are probably best accomplished by having your veterinarian do them - not all, but most. I may not have thought of everything, so feel free to post in the ‘comments’ section those things that you and your vet have decided that you can do at home.

While there are lots of ways you can help out, be part of the medical team and save on costs, it is vital to remember that you can make things worse if you try the wrong thing at home instead of seeking qualified medical care for your pet – or wait too long before you seek out veterinary care. Trying to save a few pennies can cost you thousands in the long run, and, more importantly, endanger your pet’s health and well being. Make sure you have talked through the plan with your veterinarian, and are sure that you can tackle the task at hand.

If you have a good discussion with your vet about how you can shoulder some of the burden of care at home, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Let the healing begin!


May 21, 2013 

Giving home care involving subq fluids and allergy shots was part of what inspired me to become a vet tech.  I'm glad I had the opportunity to discover that I could provide that kind of care. 

April 11, 2011

I am most fortunate to have a really excellent vet who has superb communication skills. If he tells me he thinks a pet needs hospitalization, I don't question him.
Knowing what you are comfortable with and having open communication and a relationship with your vet is essential.

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