The Creative Cat Welcomes Guest Columnist Karen Sable

Karen Sable with cat and dog models.

Karen Sable with cat and dog models.

In June I took a certification class in Pet First Aid with Karen Sable of Pet Emergency Training, LLC; I had also written a press release about the class for Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation, the host of the class, so I’d interviewed Karen. I was so impressed with her knowledge and experience that I recently asked her if she’d write a monthly column for me on timely topics concerning pet first aid and disaster preparedness for our pets.

But we almost missed the first column for a disaster! She was on call for deployment during the days we watched Hurricane Irene roll up the coast, but thankfully did not have to leave.

Karen’s first column will publish this Friday on the very timely topic of disaster preparedness, and the first Friday of every month thereafter, with perhaps a story from the field in between.

pet first aid class

Our Pet First Aid Class

Certifications and affiliations

Karen is the founder and owner of Pet Emergency Training, LLC, and both teaches the full spectrum of pet first aid and is on call for deployment with several national and local rescue response organizations who arrive after disasters to set up rescue shelters for animals.

Karen holds a Veterinary Assistant diploma, and her training certifications include Emergency Animal Sheltering, Large Animal Rescue, Animals in Disaster, Livestock in Disaster, Hazardous Materials, Incident Command and National Incident Management.

She completed the Pet Tech Instructor program in March, 2011, and is a trained responder with several national animal response/rescue teams, including American Humane’s Red Star Animal Emergency Services Team, United Animal Nations’ Emergency Animal Rescue Service, and Noah’s Wish Disaster Response Team.

She is also a member of the PA/Allegheny County Animal Response Team and Westmoreland County Animal Response Team, and is a volunteer animal rescue transporter.

Before animal rescue

Prior to Karen’s current career in animal rescue, she did something else entirely, though it was still in a helping profession. She spent 25 years as the Human Resources Director at Mayview State Hospital in Bridgeville, PA.

“I don’t know why I didn’t go into animal medicine, but I started out in pre-med, and was bored out of my mind, I just wanted to skip all the boring stuff and go right into surgery—at 17 in college, how do you know what you want to do with your life?” she said. She studied labor relations and attended the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school in Human Resources, and began her career in Harrisburg working with labor relations, eventually moving on to her position at Mayview.

“But ever since I was a little kid I’ve always had a thing for animals—I was the kid who brought all the strays home,” she remarked. “My mom raised canaries, and she was the woman in the neighborhood to whom all the neighbors brought their sick animals. I remember using a toothpick to splint the leg on a canary,” Karen recalled.

While in her position as Human Resources Director, Karen decided she wanted to begin a career change and finished two full semesters in veterinary technician training.

Next, she needed to complete a 200 hour clinical practicum to graduate, but Mayview State Hospital was closing, a long and complicated process in which the Human Resources Director plays a big part as departments are closed and union and non-union employees are released. She and her department were putting in 10 and 12 hour workdays, coming in on weekends.

“That made it impossible to put in 25 hours a week in a practicum, and you have to do it within a certain period of time,” she explained.

Once things calmed down moved over to veterinary assistant training and graduated with her certification.

bandage on dog model

A successful bandage.

Then came Hurricane Katrina

While she had begun her training in animal medicine a few years before the event, “I got involved in disaster response watching Hurricane Katrina, seeing animals on rooftops, knowing people had to leave them behind and that many of them would die without help,” Karen explained. “I decided that the next time something like that happened I wanted to be a part of it.”

Hurricane Katrina changed the way disasters are handled for both people and animals, Karen noted.

“That was the first time anyone realized that people wouldn’t leave without their animals, and if they didn’t do something for the animals they’d be rescuing a lot of people who decided to stay behind,” she said. “And it was truly a wonderful thing that so many people just went to New Orleans and did what they could, but we learned that the effort needed to be organized.”

While the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act was passed to set standards for human disaster relief, the PETS Act amends that legislation “to ensure that State and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.” It also “authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency.”

This was an immense change in the way our society considered animals, especially domestic pets, and it also led to basic standards for organizations who specialized in assistance for animals after a disaster. Some organizations had always been there, ready to deploy to disaster sites, such as the American Humane Association and Humane Society of the United States. New organizations formed, such as Noah’s Wish created in direct response to Hurricane Katrina, and basic standards for training were set so that rescuers could travel with any of the organizations and know the procedures.

In order to comply with the PETS Act, states and municipalities form an agreement with one or more of the rescue organizations so that they can call on them at the time of a disaster. Trained individuals become affiliated with one or more groups and are on call to be deployed if needed during an emergency.

woman muzzling dog

Student learning to improvise a muzzle.

Deployments so far, disasters and rescues

“I set up with Allegheny Response Team during the flooding in Pittsburgh in 2004 and I spent a few days recently in Arkansas after the tornadoes there,” Karen said. “The organizations set up the shelter and I provided first aid and care to the animals in the shelter.”

But deployments are not always around disasters—often they are rescues as well.

“In rural southeast Ohio, over 260 pit bulls were rescued from a breeding and suspected dogfighting ring, and kept for a number of weeks in a shelter until the animals could be adopted and taken by rescue groups for adoption,” she said. “And there was a huge hoarding situation in Elk County [PA] where we set up a shelter to care for about 400 cats.

“In these cases the animals often need to be kept for a longer period of time because they not only need to be rescued, but they are also evidence in a crime,” she said.

While the PETS Act only provides for domestic pets and service animals, “There’ve been times when we’ve had dogs and cats and cows and emus to take care of, we just do our best with whatever animal needs help.”

And while being on site after a disaster or seeing the results of hoarding or dogfighting can be traumatic, “You meet some of the most awesome people in rescue situations,” Karen remarked.

Not just natural disasters, and preparedness for our pets

Speaking of fairly weather-calm southwestern Pennsylvania, Karen said, “We live in an area where there aren’t those big natural disasters—tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes—but we do have these other possibilities to consider.

“What if you live near railroad tracks? Remember ‘Snowmageddon’? Marcellus gas wells are popping up everywhere and there have been fires and chemicals associated. There are a lot of things that happen locally that we need to be aware of,” she continued. “What if the police knocked on your door and said you had 15 minutes to evacuate?”

Obviously, being prepared for disasters is something we all need to do for our pets and ourselves and there might be much less rescue as a result. In addition to her first aid classes, “What I’m hoping to do is put together sort of a 90-minute presentation on pet disaster preparedness to help people get materials together and be ready to leave if they need to,” she said.

Caring for senior pets as part of pet first aid

“Animals, because we’re taking better care of them, are living longer,” Karen said. Senior pet care is offered as part of the eight-hour Pet Tech “Pet Saver” class, but she’d also like to do a 90-minute segment on senior pet care. ” Some folks may not be able to fit the full five-hour certification class into their schedule, but may have a senior pet, and would like to at least learn about things they can do to improve the quality of their senior pet’s life,” she said.

karen's cats

Two of Karen's current household.

Karen’s pets

Karen’s pets must be the luckiest pets around to have such a skilled mom! Because of her schedule she always kept only cats, and even now that she is retired from her position at Mayview, her teaching and deployments keep her away. She lives with four cats at the moment, and is about to foster two more for a relative who is expecting a child, plus she feeds a number of strays and ferals in her back yard and is an “aunt” to two schnauzers, Maddy and Rocky.

She did put a good many of her skills to the test for one of her own cats a few years ago. “Sometimes there is a pet who becomes that special part of your life, and Lacey was that for me,” she recalls. “First she was diagnosed with hyperthyroid disease and she’d spit out her medicine, so I had the radioactive treatment done,” Karen explained. “She came through that fine, but two years later developed nasal lymphoma, and after chemo that went into remission for a couple of years, then it showed up in her intestine and we did chemo for that.”

Lacey never had any reaction to the chemo and remained “queen of the house”. “You could do anything to her, she was fine and dandy with whatever they did at the vet’s and they just loved her.” Lacey needed tube feeding after the treatments started. “For years I had an IV hanging in my living room,” she said.

As for the cats she feeds in her back yard, “They have it like Club Med back there—the three that I see nearly every day that are out there waiting for breakfast every morning, and I’d better never be late!” she said. She bought a feral cat feeding station and for winter has a heated water dish for the cats, heated cat house, as well as heaters in bird baths. “They are all are well taken care of,” she said, including the raccoons, groundhogs and other animals which come to visit.

Meeting Deb Chebatoris and Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation

Karen and I are both families whose cats have been cared for by Deb Chebatoris and I asked how she first found out about Deb.

“I saw an article in the paper and cut it out and kept it because I knew I’d need it sometime,” Karen said. “It came time for Cagney, my first cat, and I called her and discovered what a wonderful setup she had.”

I look forward to bringing you Karen’s articles beginning this Friday on the topic of Disaster Preparedness. October is National Pet Wellness Month, November is Senior Pet Adoption Month, December is the holidays, full of dangers, and Karen will also be writing on these topics as well.

Karen’s website is

Pet First Aid Certification Class

pet first aid class

Our Pet First Aid Class

“About 60% of emergency visits are the result of accidents,” Karen Sable told us at the beginning of our Pet First Aid certification class.

“Being able to administer first aid could mean the difference between a short and long hospital stay, needing further treatment, and even life or death,” she continued.

A few kitties I’ve lived with have been in a big hurry to literally inhale their food, especially dry food; on the occasion they’ve gagged on a piece I’ve realized I have no idea what to do if one of them would actually choke on a piece of food, or on one of the other interesting things they decide to eat. I’ve been lucky they’ve expelled it on their own. In that moment I have vowed to learn how to help them in the case of choking and the myriad other things that might happen in a house full of curious, active cats. Only recently have pet first aid classes been offered by my local shelters.

Earlier this spring Deb Chebatoris of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation worked with two families who lost young dogs who may have been saved if their families had been able to administer first aid. Coincidentally, she also met Karen Sable through arrangements for her kitty Snowball, and learned that Karen had recently become a pet CPR and first aid instructor, and the two began to plan a series of classes sponsored by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation.

About our teacher

Karen is the owner of Pet Emergency Training, LLC certified through Pet Tech, Inc., the first international training center dedicated to teaching pet CPR, first aid, and pet care. She is also a trained responder with several national animal rescue/disaster response teams, including American Humane’s Animal Emergency Services Team, United Animal Nation’s Emergency Animal Rescue Service, and Noah’s Wish Disaster Response Team. I’m also a member of the PA/Allegheny County Animal Response Team.

Our class

When asked, most participants remarked they’d been considering learning pet first aid for a while and had been looking for an opportunity. The class of 14 animal lovers was about equally mixed between dog and cat owners, and most were long-time pet owners and multiple pet owners, each a little bit uneasy at the thought of their pet being in an accident that required such care, but ready to learn what to do in the case it would be necessary.

“This class qualifies you to perform first aid on your pet, but not necessarily another’s pet,” explained Karen. “You need to get permission to treat people, and you also need to get permission for pets.”

“Of course,” she went on, “you would always want to help in any way you could, but be aware of the legal ramifications of what you decide to do.”

The animal may have been injured or it may be exhibiting vague symptoms of physical distress. Its condition and what it needs may not be at all clear, but the goal in performing Pet First Aid is to assess and stabilize the animal, not necessarily to treat its injuries or symptoms without further veterinary care.

Karen Sable with cat and dog models.

Karen Sable with cat and dog models.

First, be prepared with information

In addition to techniques, pet first aid also includes preparation and prior knowledge, especially in your own home where you have the most control. Karen used the acronym PETAID:

Protect pets, people and yourself; safety first.

Environmental precautions should be observed—check your house for chemicals, plants, heat or cold, insects, snakes and other creatures, plus holiday dangers such as decorations, lights or candy.

Traffic is the number one cause of injury and death in pre-senior animals, especially unneutered males; never trust your animal’s prey drive. This includes accidents inside your vehicle where your pet should always be restrained.

Keep up to date with the Agencies and associations in your area to whom you can turn for help in an emergency, such as veterinarians, emergency clinics, shelters and rescue groups, and have the information handy.

Compare Injury and wellness by conducting a health assessment to determine the baseline statistics for your pet’s species and your pet in particular, such as heart rate, breathing, temperature. In addition, get to know as much as possible about the species and even breed of your pet so that you have some information should symptoms arise.

Know Diseases that can be transmitted to humans from animals, such as rabies, ringworm, Lyme disease and pinkeye, for your own safety before handling an animal in an unknown health condition.

Make an initial assessment

There are only three situations you will encounter with a pet that needs first aid. This is your first assessment and determines what your course of action for the animal.

1. The animal has a heartbeat and is breathing.

  • NEED: first aid, which is what you’ll do 99% of the time.

2. The animal has a heartbeat, but is not breathing.

  • NEED: rescue breathing, mouth to mouth or mouth to snout

3. The animal has no heartbeat and is not breathing.

woman muzzling dog

Student learning to improvise a muzzle.

Time to get our “hands on”

After this introduction, Karen invited us to choose a stuffed toy model of cat or dog and a pack of basic safety equipment and get ready to learn what to do when we encounter various situations, and how to handle the animal. No live models in this class—Karen explained that real animals may not react well to being a demonstration model.

When you encounter an animal that may need first aid, protect your own safety first—don’t run out into traffic or leap into a river or touch live electrical wires in your haste to get to the animal—and don’t touch the animal without trying to get its attention by other means first. Yell, stomp your foot, or stand where it can see you and wave your arms, judging its reaction when you do. Once you’ve determined the animal is safe to handle, Karen demonstrated how do a quick check of its vital signs, checking for a pulse, for breathing and for circulation, from there to determine if the animal needs first aid, rescue breathing or CPR.

If the animal is biting or scratching or being in any way violent, you will need to restrain it for its own safety as well as yours. We learned the basics of restraining and muzzling, done unless the animal is vomiting, having seizures or breathing difficulty, because any animal in pain may bite you, even your own, or even if it may initially appear unconscious. Use caution and the least amount of force, remembering that in this situation, “a 10-pound cat is equal to a 50-pound dog, or even a 75-pound dog” in how it will resist a muzzle or any other treatment. In addition to looking at various muzzles, we learned to improvise one from a long strip of felt.

We also learned the techniques for rescue breathing and CPR with cats and dogs, and even with various breeds of dogs, and while we laughed when Karen held up the calico cat model to demonstrate the “taco” style of CPR, most of us remarked that we weren’t so sure it would be amusing in the case we needed to use it.

Karen then reviewed what to do in cases where the animal is apparently choking, determining if it is simply having breathing difficulty from an allergic reaction or heart condition, for example, or if the choking is caused by an object, and if so how to assess what it is, where it is, and the best way to remove it.

Bleeding and shock and bleeding protocols were next as we moved through levels of severity and complication in injury, and our next task was to learn a “bandage roll” on our demonstration pets in order to control bleeding. In all cases, but especially here, “It’s important not to try to be a hero,” Karen said. “After an injury or emergency situation, animals often deteriorate rapidly and first aid is intended to maintain the condition they were in when you found them, or to bring them back to consciousness, then get them to assistance.”

bandage on dog model

A successful bandage.

Part of first aid after an physical trauma is assessing and stabilizing fractures and limb injuries without worsening the injury or causing more pain, and while minimizing contamination and risk of infection.

Poisoning from ingestion or inhalation is difficult to determine because you usually can’t see any injuries and the symptoms don’t always appear until some time after the animal encounters the toxin, so you may have no idea when, or with what, or how the animal became ill. In the case of a suspected poisoning, collect as much information as you can—if the pet has a substance in its mouth or on its body, or if it vomits, collect a sample in a plastic bag, take note of specific symptoms you see that are unusual, then either call a veterinarian or emergency clinic or one of the poison control centers immediately. Don’t induce vomiting unless you are told to.

Snake and insect bites or stings are considered poisoning and are treated as such, and are usually found on the nose and paws. You may remove a stinger if you find one, and apply a baking soda and water pack on the area, but toxins from bites and stings can affect any or all of an animal’s vital signs so keep checking these, even hours afterward.

Injuries from heat and cold are just as serious as physical injuries—simply being outdoors in the sun for too long or walking on ice can cause heat stroke or hypothermia without you or the animal realizing the conditions are that severe. In addition to carefully cooling or warming the animal, any areas of the body affected by burns or frostbite must be treated as well, all done best by a veterinarian.

Animals can have serious burn injuries, not just from flames but from hot things, like hot sidewalks or electrical cords, or from chemicals. Burns put the animal at an extremely high risk of infection and their severity may not be apparent for a day or two after the injury when skin starts sloughing or wounds begin oozing. They may also go into shock from the pain of a burn.

And the final condition we covered was seizures and convulsions, which may be a result of an injury or poisoning, or may be from a medical condition within the animal. In either case, you can’t do much for the animal while it’s seizing, but be very observant and report the effects to a veterinarian especially if it’s the first seizure your animal has exhibited or different from other seizures you’ve seen in the animal.

When to see the veterinarian

There are times when you can stabilize an animal and just observe from there, but unless you are a skilled caregiver you may not recognize a minor or underlying symptom that a veterinarian would, or think to look for other related symptoms when a condition arises. Karen listed these conditions, recommending that the animal see a veterinarian:

  • trauma
  • seizuring, especially the first or an unusual one
  • arterial bleeding
  • fracture
  • poisoning
  • shock
  • respiratory distress
  • inability to walk
  • bloat
  • unconsciousness

Your First Aid Kit

An important part of being prepared to give your animal first aid is to have a first aid kit on hand that is specific to animal needs, much as you should have one for yourself and family members, and if you leave home with your animal, pack a traveling kit as well. You can purchase one, but if you put your own together you know what’s in there.

  • Photo of you with your pet or pets, plus names, address and contact information
  • set of muzzles or long ribbon to improvise a muzzle
  • leash and harness
  • rolls of gauze
  • materials for splints
  • small blanket or towel
  • automatic hot and cold packs

Think also in terms of emergencies or natural disasters, add:

  • copy of medical records
  • any medications or materials for treatment, such as needles or an IV line
  • food and water, bowls
  • litterbox and litter

This last obviously isn’t portable, but keep it handy if you need to make a quick exit for any reason.

Now we are certified

We all received our certificates and wallet cards at the end of the class, along with a packet of information from Pet Tech, LLC. I honestly hope I never need to use the knowledge I gained in this class, but I can say that I feel much more confident that I may actually be able to do something should the situation arise.

my pet certification

My certificate.