updated 3/2/2009 6:06:05 PM ET 2009-03-02T23:06:05

Taking a pet first aid class could save your pet's life. Instructor Lynne Bettinger knows this from personal experience.

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Her emergency happened on a weekend when the vet was closed, as these things seem to do.

"One Sunday evening, my 15-year-old cocker was acting weird — pacing, restless, drooling, dry vomiting," says Bettinger, a Red Cross pet first aid instructor.

Those symptoms could have meant many things, but then she noticed that the dog's belly was distended. When she felt it, it was hard as a rock — a sign of bloat, a life-threatening gastric condition that is common in some larger breeds, but rare in cockers.

"If I had not taken pet first aid, I would not have recognized the symptoms," she says. "I might have said let's wait and see how he's doing. If I had waited any longer, he would have died."

Red Cross pet first aid classes, which last about four hours, are a combination of lecture, discussion, video presentation and live demonstration. They can be taught for dogs, cats or both, and topics include actions to take in an emergency — such as CPR and controlling bleeding — and how to recognize one, as in the case of the bloated cocker.

Students learn how to perform CPR and rescue breathing on stuffed animals modified to simulate lungs and airways. Breathe into a tube in the stuffed animal's mouth (covered with a sanitary mouthpiece), and its chest expands and contracts.

Real animals aren't quite so cooperative, and there are risks — like cracking a rib — that make sense if your pet isn't breathing, but not if it's done for practice.

The pet mannequins are also used to practice making emergency muzzles out of cloth strips. These can be necessary for human safety when an animal is in pain — "dealing with a sick or injured animal, even the nicest animal may bite you," she says — but students also learn when not to muzzle, when the emergency involves choking or difficulty breathing.

The Red Cross first began offering pet first aid classes in 1997; prices are set by individual chapters.

Separate courses for cats and dogs
The course was revised in 2007 to separate care for cats and dogs, which are different in some important respects.

"A cat is not a small dog," says Deborah C. Mandell of the University of Pennsylvania, veterinary adviser to the Red Cross. For instance, she says, while urinary blockage is possible in dogs, in cats it's one of the most common life-threatening problems, and it's critical to recognize the signs.

Another source for pet first aid classes is Pet Tech, which has 300 trained instructors in 30 states, Canada and Mexico. Started 13 years ago by Thom Somes, a former emergency medical technician and a human first aid instructor, the company offers first aid and CPR, dental care, and senior pet care classes.

The most important thing students take away from first aid classes, according to Bettinger, is confidence in their abilities.

"Based on feedback, the biggest benefit is that you feel better prepared," she says. "You may not remember every little detail you learned in class, but you feel calmer when faced with an emergency."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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