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David Watts, founder of "Animal Medics," an Antioch ambulance company for pets, demonstrates how to give CPR to a dog, to residents of The Commons at Dallas Ranch, an assisted living facility in Antioch, Calif., on Thursday Nov. 15, 2012. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

ANTIOCH -- David Watts picked up the limp form of a large brown dog and, grasping it from behind just below the rib cage, applied a quick upward thrust with both fists.

The burly veterinary technician didn't skip a beat in his brisk narrative as he demonstrated the Heimlich maneuver.

An animal's muscles relax when it falls unconscious, and that, in combination with pressing on the abdomen to dislodge an object that's stuck in its throat, can prompt your pet to empty its bowels -- but don't let that distract you, he said.

"Every now and then, it causes us to get a little dirty," Watts said.

A rapt audience watched as he worked on Coco and Casper, two canine mannequins he uses to teach pet owners basic lifesaving techniques.

Watts, who also owns a pet ambulance company in Antioch, was visiting The Commons at Dallas Ranch assisted living facility last week to show residents how to respond if their cat or dog needs emergency help.

Alternately performing procedures on Coco, a fuzzy stuffed toy of indeterminate breed, and Casper the Dalmatian, a lifelike "resusci-dog" designed to be a veterinary school teaching aide, Watts galloped through the steps a person should take if he discovers his pet has stopped breathing.

For starters, look around the room for clues to what might have happened, he said, recalling a 1994 case in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in which the owner found her dog passed out on the floor with a broken vase lying nearby.

Make sure the animal hasn't chewed on a live wire, Watts added, noting that people have been shocked when they touched their pet before cutting the electricity.

After that, run your hand along the animal's back to check for injuries while calling its name to get a response, he said.

Position yourself at eye-level with the pet's head and look down the length of its body to see if its sides are rising and falling, and put your cheek next to its nose to detect air flow, he added. Also take note of whether the animal is still warm to the touch: The heart still can be beating even if it's not breathing, Watts said.

"Nobody is dead until they're cold and dead," he said.

To resuscitate a dog or cat, pull the animal's tongue out as far as you can to clear the airway, then place your mouth over its muzzle and exhale before checking the femoral artery in the groin for a pulse, Watts said.

The idea of having such close contact with her Chihuahua-mix didn't faze 83-year-old Phoebe Welch, who lives at the facility with her dog.

"A pet owner will do whatever it takes to help their pet, unless they're very strange," she said.

Even if the heart stops beating, there's still a chance a pet can cheat death, Watts said, although he readily acknowledged the odds aren't good: Administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the first 15 minutes after cardiac arrest has a 37 percent rate of success at best, he said.

The vast majority of pets will have one or more additional heart attacks within five to seven minutes of the first, Watts added.

He positioned his hands just behind the Dalmatian's elbow and pressed down on the spot where the heart would be with both hands.

"One and two and three ...." Watts paused to breathe into the mannequin's mouth, and its abdomen visibly expanded.

Then he resumed his quick, steady pumping.

"You will break ribs -- do not be afraid to do that," Watts said.

Linda Koukis, business office manager at The Commons at Dallas Ranch, didn't know a thing about doing CPR on an animal before sitting in on Watts' presentation, and that evening she practiced checking the femoral arteries of her two small dogs for a heartbeat as well as mouth-to-snout breathing.

The Antioch resident's thoughts turned to Sammy, an 8-year-old Cockapoo she once owned that already had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart when he began coughing and struggling to breathe.

She rushed him to a pet hospital, but the little dog died en route.

"I wish I had known (CPR) then. Maybe I could have breathed for him," Koukis said.

As for situations in which a pet is choking, first try to remove the object with your finger, Watts said. If that doesn't work, use the remaining air in the lungs to force it out by applying the Heimlich maneuver.

He emphasized the importance of having a Plan B if these efforts don't produce immediate results. What if you don't drive? Or if your dog is too heavy to carry to the car? And what do you do if you're losing steam doing CPR, and there's no one else in the house to take over?

Think ahead, Watts said; line up a neighbor you can call in the middle of the night for a ride to the animal hospital.

And even if your pet's life isn't at stake, you should have an action plan in the event of a natural disaster, he said.

That means putting together a "go bag" of pet food and medications that you can grab if your neighborhood is evacuated, Watts said, adding that having proof of ownership on hand is also a good idea in case you and your pet become separated.

Above all, don't wait to act, he said.

Too many pet owners either don't notice when their cat or dog starts behaving strangely or fail to pick up the phone right away, and the consequences can be fatal.

"You always want to be aware of your pet's condition," Watts said. "We're emergency responders, but we're not God. Sometimes it's too late."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

SAVING YOUR PET'S LIFE
Pet owners can take a full course in lifesaving techniques from David Watts, who offers two options:
A four-hour class on CPR for $35
A six-hour class that covers both CPR and trauma management for animals that have been bitten, hit by a car or otherwise injured for $45.
The class includes a test at the end; those who pass it receive a two-year certificate from the California Veterinary Medical Association.
For more information, call 925-956-2911.