Fur Your Information: When an animal gets hit by a car

The other day, I narrowly missed hitting a neighborhood cat with my car. When my heart rate returned to normal, I thought to myself, What if I had hit the cat? Should I call 911? Do I try to help the animal or keep my distance?

What should people do if they see a pet get hit by a car?

Vetstreet's Dr. Ernie Ward answers: When you injure an animal with your car, it can be one of the most frightening and unnerving accidents anyone can experience. The key is to act quickly. Too many people simply go on their way, ignoring the animal who's suffering and in pain. Unfortunately, 911 is typically reserved for human emergencies, so it may be up to you to get the pet to the hospital.

Take a first-aid class. The best thing that you can do in this situation is to already have some skills under your belt by taking a pet-first-aid course through the Red Cross or another organization. This way, you'll be equipped with the confidence to better evaluate an injured pet, safely restrain him, and even administer pet CPR or rescue breathing, if necessary.

Call the vet. However, even if you have these skills, you should still call an animal hospital for advice on how to handle the situation. They may give you directions on how to muzzle a pet using items in your car, such as a leash, belt, rope or straps. They can also tell you how to safely move an animal without causing further injury, as well as tips on how to keep the pet warm and calm.

Be safe. Of course, dealing with an injured -- and potentially enraged -- animal can be tricky. It can also be dangerous to stop your car in the middle of the road to rescue a hurt animal, so keep these risks in mind.

I hope that you do find the time to sign up for a pet first aid course, especially since you seem like the kind of person who really does want to step up when it comes to helping animals!

Dr. Ernie Ward is the founder and chief-of-staff at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. In 2005, Dr. Ward also founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. He has contributed to more than 55 veterinary journals and has published three books, including Chow Hounds. He shares his home with his wife; two daughters; his beach mutt, Sandy; and two feisty cats, Freddie and Itty Bitty Kitty.

Steve Dale, certified pet behaviorist and author of "Good Dog!: Practical Answers to Behavior Questions," answers: If you see an animal in distress that's injured -- hit by a car, or anything else – if you can safely call that animal to you, that would be your first choice. So you're not going to the animal; the animal's coming to you, therefore you're not nearly as threatening to the animal. And it's a good idea to keep something in the back seat of your car, if possible, that you can put around a dog's neck, such as a slip lead. Theoretically, you can use that for a cat, but good luck trying to put that on a cat.

Another good thing to keep in your trunk are some big towels -- beach towels, big ones. For a cat or a small dog, you can roll the animal up in a towel, burrito-style. I answered the easy part, because mostly, an injured animal is not coming to you; they're either too afraid or hurt, so they're unable to do it.

If they're not coming to you, of course, then go to them. Keep some dog and cat food if you can in the back of your car; see if you can distract them with food. If they are growling, hissing, or letting you know, "Hey, don't get any closer 'cause I'm hurting," then I would adhere to that warning, for most people, for the time being. See if you can just sit as close as the pet will allow; assess if you're going to be able to ultimately pick up this pet, and [not] cause more harm by doing so; in this intervening time, if you have a smart phone, you can see where the nearest emergency clinic is … if there's no emergency clinic nearby, where the nearest veterinary clinic is. See if there's tags on the animal. Then you can try calling the owner of the animal; hopefully the animal isn't too far from home.

If all that fails, and the animal has calmed down, then gently wrap the animal -- [but] there could be a broad range as to what's wrong, and I feel uncomfortable commenting on that because I'm not a veterinarian, and also the range is too wide, so if you think you are safely able to pick up that animal, do so. I mean, there is no ambulance you can call, so you're it. And if you can safely – meaning the animal's calmed down a bit, [you can] get the animal into your car, now you know where you're going because you've looked that up, that's great.

If the animal is still not letting you -- and you know, wonderfully friendly dogs and cats will growl and hiss because they're in pain, so for a cat…if the cat is not moving away, this cat is really hurt. And to a degree that's actually true for a dog too, so, if they're growling, if they're snarling, and if you sense they're afraid [but] they're not going anywhere, this animal's really hurt. And with a cat, what you may be able to do is take your hand from one way, hold the head down, and quickly then wrap up the cat.

If you're not adept at doing that, you can try calling a friend – and if you feel uncomfortable, like you're going to get bitten or scratched, then don't…it's not worth the risk to you. Try calling that veterinarian or emergency clinic that you found, and talk to someone on the phone who can hopefully come out, if you live close enough.

Also calling the police is a possibility, in some communities police really will be helpful. The police may not come out and have expertise, but what they do have is an extra pair of hands. And if you're traveling with a companion, that helps too. And by the way, I should have mentioned this at the very beginning, when you first walk up to that animal, when you get, I don't know, six feet away? Now you're not walking up anymore, you're squatting. But again, if that animal begins to then walk off, either limp off, or the animal's bleeding, if you're too aggressive, all you're going to do is force that animal far away, so if that animal begins to back off, you go back to your car, and then call for help.

Sometimes the calling for help, that'll work. That's it. All you need to do. Animal Control may come out and help. But the problem is that, in some communities, Animal Control is so understaffed that they'll say, "A week from Tuesday, we'll be there," you know, so that's not gonna help. But usually, if you say "there's an animal on the side of the road," Animal Control might help, the police might help, you can get somebody else out there. And if it's Animal Control, they'll have equipment with them, obviously. And that's what they do.

Two things we don't want are the animal backing off, walking or running away so you're not going to see that animal again, which is not helpful, so now you've got an injured animal that just runs off with wounds; or you being bitten, or scratched. We don't want that to happen either, because you don't know this animal; it's bad enough an animal's hurt, now we don't want a person hurt too.

Steve Dale is an author, podcaster, and pet advocate. Shine Pets interviewed him recently, and you can learn more about his books and other work right here.

Further reading:
Dr. Ernie Rogers, animal CSI
What to know about tail injuries