"GIVEN THE range of activities we engage in with our Brittany, it is not a matter of if she gets hurt, but rather when and how severely," says Sallie Ehrlich of Santa Ana, Calif.

She was among the attendees at a pet first aid class I took last month, presented by Cindy Otto, an emergency and critical care and veterinary sports medicine specialist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and directs the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

The holiday season seemed like a good time to refresh my knowledge. Pets don't appear to consider the holidays complete without a trip to the ER. "It tends to be busier in the ER around the holidays," says emergency and critical care specialist Tony Johnson, of Indianapolis. "There's more activity, people coming and going and more food around, such as chocolate."

The class was aimed at working or athletic dogs who do search and rescue, police work or dog sports like agility or flyball, but it was useful for any pet owner. The most common problems seen in active or working dogs are cuts and scrapes. Knowing how to clean and bandage them is something every dog owner should know. For household pets, common emergencies include ingestion of toxic substances or foreign bodies that can cause obstructions.

Among the tips we took home:

* Putting antibiotic ointment into wounds can slow healing.

* Keep a wound moist until it can be treated.

* In the absence of bandaging material, clean and moisten a wound with saline solution, then cover it with plastic wrap to hold moisture in until it can be cared for.

* For minor cuts and scrapes, gently clip hair around the injured area for ease of access, clean it with saline solution and bandage if necessary.

* Check wounds regularly for swelling, discharge or discoloration.

The class covered injury assessment; recognizing emergencies; checking vital signs such as respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, gum color and capillary refill time (the time it takes for gums to regain color after pressure is applied); techniques such as applying pressure to stop bleeding and making a muzzle to prevent an animal in pain from biting; knowing when to induce vomiting; and how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a choking pet. Otto noted that teaching a dog to wear a muzzle can be helpful in case he ever needs to have an oxygen mask applied.

What's in a pet first aid kit that's not in a kit for humans?

"The big thing that we really emphasize is clippers, because clipping that hair is so important," Otto says. "The other thing that might not be in a human first aid kit is styptic powder. If your dog tears a nail or you trim it too short, that's going to help stop it from bleeding."

With any luck, your pet will never have a life-threatening emergency, but taking a pet first aid class on a regular basis can help ensure that you will know how to respond. Sign your friends up, too, Otto says.

"When your pet is the one affected, they can help, because your brain is just completely gone."