Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in Exotic Animals

Key Points

  • The basic principles of cardiopulmonary resuscitation are the same for all animals. Guidelines and drug doses in non-traditional species are extrapolated from dogs and cats, however there are differences related to patient temperament, anatomy, physiology, and size.
  • Preparation is essential. A “crash cart” with emergency supplies should be readily available, as well as a dosing chart for resuscitation drugs. Calculate drug doses, particularly for tiny patients that will require dilution for safe and accurate delivery. Emergency and reversal drugs can be drawn up ahead of time.
  • Atropine may not be effective in the rabbit due to the presence of atropinase or high doses may be required.
  • Endotracheal intubation of rabbits and many rodents is challenging. Ideally, the veterinary professional should be proficient in multiple techniques prior to presentation of the patient, however forced mask high flow oxygen ventilation may be the most successful technique in some small herbivores.
  • Lower levels of oxygen or even room air delivered via a bag valve mask can be preferable in the reptile patient to stimulate respiration.
  • Due to the presence of the sternal plate or keel, direct compression of the heart is impossible in birds, however sternal compression does serve to push air through the bellows-like air sac system.
  • Birds and reptiles lack a diaphragm, therefore closed-chest compressions cannot utilize the thoracic pump mechanism to increase negative intrathoracic pressure.
  • Small patient size means that supplemental heat and warmed fluids are required during resuscitation. Hypoglycemia is also a concern.


Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a comprehensive term used to describe the fundamental rules of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, life support, and post-resuscitation care. There are many excellent resources on CPR in the veterinary patient, however there is very little specific information about CPR in exotic animal species. Although the principles of resuscitation are the same for all species, there are important species-specific considerations related to patient disposition, anatomy, and physiology (Fig 1).

principles of cardiopulmonary resuscitation are the same for all species, however there are unique species-specific considerations

Figure 1. The principles of cardiopulmonary resuscitation are the same for all species, however there are special considerations for exotic animal patients. Photo credit: Katrina Lafferty, CVT, VTS (Anesthesia/Analgesia)



A “crash cart” with emergency supplies should be readily available (Fig 2) (Table 1), as well as a dosing chart for resuscitation drugs (Table 2). Before handling a critically ill patient or performing any anesthetic procedure, it is prudent to gather all tools and emergency drugs beforehand. Calculate drug doses, particularly for tiny patients that will require dilution of emergency drugs for safe and accurate drug delivery. Many exotic animal veterinarians draw up drug doses ahead of time (Fig 3).

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation crash cart

Figure 2. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation crash cart. Photo credit: Dr. Marla Lichtenberger


emergency Rx Lafferty

Figure 3. Calculate and draw up emergency and reversal drugs before all procedures in critically ill patients. Photo credit: Katrina Lafferty, CVT


Table 1. Crash cart supplies (Source: Dr. Marla Lichtenberger)
Supplies to be kept WITHIN the crash cartSupplies to be kept NEAR the crash cart
EpinephrineCPR Drug Resuscitation Protocol
AtropineSyringe pump
GlycopyrrolateWarming equipment for patient
DoxapramBag valve mask (e.g. Ambu bag)
1, 2, and 3-mm endotracheal tubesCrystalloids and colloids
3-0 absorbable suture1 bag of crystalloids (i.e., LRS)
3-cc syringesIndirect blood pressure equipment
24-gauge cathetersPulse oximeter
Heparin and saline (saline used to flush drugs into endotracheal tube)
3-cc syringes filled with saline flush
Scissors to cut wide part of red rubber tubes
5 and 8 French red rubber tubes
1-inch porous tape
1-cc syringes with 25-gauge needles (or smaller)
Tuberculin syringes
25, 22, 20 and 18-gauge intraosseous catheters
Table 2. Dosing chart for resuscitation drugs based on body weight of small exotic pets
Drug (concentration)DosemL/50 gmL/100 g
mL/kgmL/2 kg
Epinephrine (1:1000)

(1 mg/mL)
0.01 mg/kg0.00050.0010.010.02
Atropine (0.54 mg/mL)0.02 mg/kg0.0020.0040.0370.074
Glycopyrrolate (0.2 mg/mL)0.02 mg/kg0.0050.010.10.2
50% Dextrose

(diluted 50% with saline)
0.25 ml/kg0.
Calcium gluconate (100 mg/mL)50 mg/kg0.0250.050.51.0
Doxapram (20 mg/mL)2.0 mg/kg0.0050.010.10.2
Vasopressin (20 U/mL)0.8 U/kg0.0020.0040.040.08
External defibrillation2–10 Joules/kgn/a124
Naloxone (0.4 mg/mL)0.02 mg/kg IV

0.04 mg/kg IM




Atipamezole Same volume as
medetomidine; IM only

Early recognition of cardiovascular instability is imperative in exotic animal patients. Anesthetized animals should ideally be monitored with an electrocardiogram and Doppler blood pressure measurements at minimum. Bradycardia is often observed just prior to CPA (Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012).

Early recognition of a problem is particularly challenging in the reptile patient. General anesthesia normally induces respiratory arrest and the heart rate will fall as body temperature falls. At lower temperatures, cardiac output is typically maintained by an increase in stroke volume (O’Malley 2011).



The prognosis for respiratory arrest is good, especially when caused by an overdose of isoflurane or sevoflurane anesthesia. Otherwise the expected outcome for CPR of the exotic animal patient can be grim, particularly in patients suffering from chronic diseases. Cardiac arrest in birds carries a poor prognosis because direct compression of the heart is not possible due to the overlying sternum. Additionally, birds and reptiles lack a diaphragm and closed-chest compressions cannot utilize the thoracic pump mechanism to increase overall negative intrathoracic pressure. Nevertheless, positive outcomes can and do occur with conventional CPR techniques (Fernandez et al 2013, Buckley et al 2011).


Basic principles

The basic principles of CPR can be applied to exotic animal species (Table 3). Download the CPR flowchart shared by Dr. Marla Lichtenberger circa 2007.

Table 3. Basic principles of cardiopulmonary resuscitation Source: Dr. Marla Lichtenberger
AirwayIntubate using an endotracheal tube or catheter
BreathingPositive pressure ventilation is performed. Consider doxapram to stimulate higher respiratory centers in select patients when mechanical ventilation is suboptimal or not possible (Daly 2015).
CirculationCardiac compression (Although this is not possible in the bird due to the overlying sternum, the action is still performed to force air through the air sacs).
DrugsEpinephrine 1:1000 IV, IO, IT
Atropine IV, IO, IT
Glucose is given at 0.25 ml/kg of 50% dextrose with an equal volume of saline IV, IO
Calcium is given in documented hypocalcemia cases only at 100 mg/kg IV, IO
Vasopressin 0.8 U/kg IV or IO is considered in asystole
ECGMonitor the patient using ECG, Doppler, and carbon dioxide levels
IV: intravenous IO: intraosseous (ulna preferred site) IT: intratracheal



If the patient is anesthetized, immediately halt anesthesia. If any reversible sedatives have been administered, reversal agents like flumazenil (0.01 mg/kg IV, IO) for benzodiazepines and atipamizole (0.05 mg/kg IV, IO) or yohimbine (0.11 mg/kg IV/IO) for alpha-2 agonists can also be beneficial (Fletcher and Boller 2015).

If an endotracheal tube is not already in place, intubation is the first step for respiratory arrest however patient size and anatomy can make this vital step extremely challenging. Most birds and reptiles can be easily intubated using a non-cuffed endotracheal tube. A catheter or feeding tube of appropriate size can be used instead of a commercially available tube if patient size dictates. Air sac cannula placement into the caudal thoracic or abdominal air sac is also an option for airway control in birds. If the patient is already intubated, ensure the airway is clear as mucus plugs are a common problem in birds and reptiles.

There are multiple techniques described for endotracheal intubation of the rabbit. Although the blind technique is quite popular, proficiency with at least one other technique that utilizes visualization will be needed for resuscitation. Unless your intubation skills in rabbits and rodents are stellar, forced mask high flow oxygen ventilation may be the best technique to successfully ventilate the small mammal (Mans 2013, Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012, Lennox 2012, Buckley et al 2011, O’Malley 2011). This technique relies upon the fact that rabbits and rodents are obligate nasal breathers.

To employ forced mask high flow oxygen ventilation in the rabbit or rodent, place a tight-fitting mask over the nose and mouth and ventilate the patient. Potential complications can include failure to ventilate due to poor seal, and accumulation of air into the stomach. Bloat can limit expansion of the diaphragm, however this problem can be addressed after successful resuscitation.

Nasotracheal intubation is another option for airway control, and as a last resort, tracheostomy can be performed (Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012, Lennox 2012, O’Malley 2011).



Reptiles can survive long periods using anaerobic metabolism. While 100% oxygen is always delivered to birds and small mammals during respiratory arrest, a reduced partial pressure of oxygen stimulates respiration in the reptile. Therefore, lower levels of oxygen (no more than 30-40%) or even room air delivered via a bag valve mask (e.g. Ambu bag) is preferable in the reptile patient. Although all small patients should be provided with supplemental heat, reptiles should be maintained at their preferred optimum temperature zone in an effort to trigger spontaneous respiration (O’Malley 2011).

Recommended ventilation rates vary widely (Table 4). Approximately 10 breaths per minute (bpm) is the target rate in cats and dogs. In small birds or mammals with higher metabolic rates, approximately 20-40 bpm have been recommended. Perform sternal compressions in the bird to push air through the bellows-like air sac system by placing a hand or finger on each side of the sternum. In reptiles, anywhere from 1-6 bpm have been described (Whiteside 2015, O’Malley 2011). Avoid hyperventilation in all species, being careful not to overinflate the lungs. A peak positive ventilation pressure not exceeding 8 cm H2O has been recommended in reptiles (Whiteside 2015). Avoidance of hyerpventilation is particularly important in reptiles as this can raise the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2), further depressing respiration.

Table 4. Recommended positive-pressure ventilation rates (Whiteside 2015, O’Malley 2011)
Taxonomic groupVentilation rate (breaths per minute)
Exotic companion ammals20-40
Dogs and cats10



If no heartbeat is ausculted, perform chest or sternal compressions to support circulation. The chest of many small patients is highly compliant, so take care not to overcompress the chest (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Compressions are generally performed at a depth of one third to one half the width of the chest, delivered in uninterrupted cycles of 2 minutes (Fletcher and Boller 2015).


Small mammals are best placed in lateral recumbency. Perform compressions in these patients by wrapping a hand around the sternum over the heart or placing a hand (or finger) directly over the heart (Fletcher and Boller 2015). In dogs and cats, chest compressions are performed between 100-120 times per minute (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Based on rapid resting heart rates, effective chest compression rates are assumed to be extremely high in exotic pets. Recommended ranges of 80-100 and 100-120 times per minute have been described in the literature (Table 5) (Lennox 2012, O’Malley 2011).

Table 5. Recommendations for chest or sternal compressions (Lennox 2012, O’Malley 2011)
Taxonomic groupRecumbencyRate (per minute)
Exotic companion mammalsLateral80-120
Dogs and catsLateral, dorsal*100-120
Reptiles (lizards, snakes)Lateral---
*Dorsal recumbency is recommended for barrel-chested dogs like the bulldog

Birds and reptiles

The avian patient is best placed in dorsal recumbency and sternal compressions are made at a rate of 60-80 or 80-100 times per minute (Table 5). Direct compression of the avian heart is not possible due to the overlying sternum or keel, and again this compression serves mainly to pump air through the air sac system. Also, since birds and reptiles lack a diaphragm, closed-chest compressions cannot utilize the thoracic pump mechanism to increase overall negative intrathoracic pressure.

I could find no recommendations for chest compressions in reptiles. The reptile heart rate depends on many factors, including temperature, body size, and respiratory rate. Heart rate falls during periods of apnea and is generally much lower in reptiles than in mammals (O’Malley 2011).

Management of life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias

Defibrillation is not recommended for birds or mammals less than 1 kg body weight. When external defibrillation is performed, values ranging from 2-10 joules/kg have been described for small mammals (Lennox 2012) (Table 2).

Fluid therapy

While one team member is performing chest compressions, another should obtain vascular access. If the patient is hypovolemic, administer intravenous (IV) or intraosseous (IO) isotonic crystalloid fluid boluses during CPR (Lennox 2012). Recommended fluid bolus rates have ranged from 10-25 ml/kg IV, IO over 5-7 minutes for the avian patient or 25 ml/kg in the rabbit (Mans 2013). A bolus infusion of 7.2-7.5% hypertonic saline (3 ml/kg IV, IO) over 10 minutes has also been described (Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012). Fluid boluses can be harmful to patients with fluid overload or even normovolemic individuals so careful patient selection and monitoring is crucial (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Remember that small patient size means that supplemental heat and warmed fluids are also critical!

For advice on catheter placement in the exotic animal patient, view videos and text in LafeberVet’s Intravenous Catheter Placement in Small Mammals, Intraosseous Catheter Placement in Small Mammals, Intravenous Catheter Placement in the Bird, Intraosseous Catheter Placement in the Bird, and Catheters in Reptiles, as well as the article Intravenous Catheter Placement in Rabbits.


Cardiac output during CPR is often 30% or less of normal (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Life support interventions for asystole and pulseless electrical activity include vasopressor therapy, such as epinephrine or vasopressin, and parasympathetic therapy, like atropine, especially in cases of bradycardic arrest secondary to high vagal tone (Fletcher and Boller 2015).

Many but not all rabbits possess atropine esterases. Atropine only briefly induces a moderate tachycardia, unless higher doses are used, which in turn increases the risk of ventricular arrhythmia. Glycopyrrolate is used for longer effects (Allweiler 2016, Mans 2013).

Vasopressor therapy

The best-studied vasopressor during CPR is the catecholamine epinephrine, which causes peripheral vasoconstriction. Epinephrine and other catecholamines lose much of their effectiveness when the body is in a state of hypoxia and acidosis (Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012). Vasopressin may be more effective under these conditions and can improve the rate for restoration of spontaneous circulation and survival (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Vasopressin can be used interchangeably or in combination with epinephrine during CPR, and because of its positive effects vasopressin should be administered first, followed by epinephrine (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Both vasopressin and epinephrine should ideally be given by IV or IO routes, however these drugs can also be administered via endotracheal tube. Avoid intracardiac injections because of the risk of lacerating coronary vessels. Use of both vasopressin and epinephrine use have been described in exotic companion mammals.

The drugs selected and doses used during CPR in exotic animal are directly extrapolated from those used in dogs and cats (Table 6). Although different species may require different drug doses to produce the same physiologic effect, empirical information is lacking in all but the rare laboratory specimen (Chen et al 2010, Chen et al 2009, Chen et al 2006, Chen et al 2006b). Effects of low, medium, and high-dose vasopressin were compared in a study with 40 male Sprague-Dawley rats. Findings indicate that these different doses of vasopressin resulted in a similar outcome of CPR, with no additional benefits afforded by high-dose vasopressin during or after CPR (Chen et al 2009). In another study comparing high and low-dose epinephrine during CPR in a rat model (Chen et al 2010), different doses of epinephrine produced a similar rate of restoration of spontaneous circulation, but high-dose epinephrine inhibited the recovery of spontaneous ventilation and caused relative bradycardia after CPR. Low and medium doses of epinephrine were optimal for CPR in the rat (Chen et al 2010, Sharman and Meert 2005). To achieve low- or medium-doses in small mammals, keep the diluted 1:10,000 concentration of epinephrine in stock to reduce the potential risk of accidental overdose. Finally, the administration of naloxone alone or in combination with epinephrine (0.4 mg/kg IV) was found to improve the resuscitation rate following asphyxial cardiac arrest in rats (Chen et al 2006).


Just as in kittens and puppies, small body size also means that hypoglycemia is an important concern in both birds and small mammals. Glucose can be given at 0.25 ml/kg of 50% dextrose with an equal volume of saline IV or IO.


The use of glucocorticoids in the treatment of shock is controversial as the potential adverse effects of these drugs (immunosuppression, gastric ulceration) can outweigh their benefits in select patients. The use of steroids in shock caused by hemorrhage and hypovolemia is not currently recommended.

Table 6. Drugs commonly used in emergencies
Atropine sulfate (0.54 mg/ml)

0.02-0.04 mg/kg

0.04 (bird)



Recommended for bradycardic arrest and high vagal tone
0.01-0.04 mg/kgIV, IO, IMSugar glider (McLaughlin 2016)
0.05-0.2 mg/kgIV, IO, IMHedgehog (McLaughlin 2016)
0.05-0.4 mg/kgIV, IO, IMSmall rodents (McLaughlin 2016)
0.1-0.5 mg/kgIV, IORabbit (Huynh 2016)

May not be effective in the rabbit due to the presence of atropinase or high doses may be required, which in turn increases the risk of tachycardia and ventricular arrhythmia. Consider glycopyrrolate instead.
0.2 mg/kgIV, IO, IMBirds
0.08 mg/kgIT
0.01-0.2 mg/kgIV, IMReptiles
0.5 mg/kg IV IO, IM, ITTurtles and tortoises, snakes (Mans 2013)
Calcium gluconate100 mg/kgIV, IO slow bolusOnly give in documented cases of hypocalcemia
Dexamethasone sodium phosphate2-4 mg/kgIV, IOUse with caution. Steroids are not recommended in shock caused by hemorrhage and hypovolemia.
Dextrose (50%)0.25 ml/kg IV, IODilute with equal volume of saline
1 ml/kg IV
Doxapram 1-2 mg/kgIV, IO, IMStimulates respiratory centers but also increases oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production (Daly 2015). Administer only when absolutely necessary as when mechanical ventilation is suboptimal or not possible
2-10 mg/kgIV, IMHedgehog
5 mg/kg IM, IVReptiles
5-10 mg/kg IM, IVSmall rodents (McLaughlin 2016)
2-4 mg/kgITLennox 2012
Epinephrine (1:1000) (1 mg/mL) 0.01 mg/kg IV, IO
0.02 mg/kgIT
0.1 mg/kgIVReptiles
0.003 mg/kg IV, IOSmall rodent, hedgehog, sugar glider (McLaughlin 2016)
(0.2 mg/ml)
0.01-0.02 mg/kgIV, IM30-60 second onset of action
(20 mg/ml)
1-2 mg/kg IVRabbit dose for treatment of ventricular tachycardia (McLaughlin 2016)
(0.4 mg/ml)
1 mg/kg IV
(20 U/ml)
0.8 U/kg
Use as an alternative or with epinephrine in asystole

Every other cycle of CPR
1.6 U/kgIT
IV: intravenous IO: intraosseous IM: intramuscular IT: intratracheal (insert a tom cat catheter or red rubber tube down the endotracheal tube)



Minimize the risk of another arrest by ensuring optimal ventilation, oxygenation, and tissue perfusion. Also work to recognize and address reversible causes of CPA (Fletcher and Boller 2015). Use an electrocardiogram, blood pressure measurements, and end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to evaluate the effectiveness of CPR. End-tidal CO2 monitoring can be particularly useful because this parameter is resistant to motion artifact (Fletcher and Boller 2015, Tourma and Davies 2013, Grmec 2001). In many species, once rectal temperature approaches (98°F (36.7°C) adrenergic receptors begin to respond to catecholamines and fluid therapy (Lichtenberger and Lennox 2012, Rudloff 2001). Monitor core body temperature and provide supplemental heat and warmed fluids.



There is little empirical information available on CPR in most exotic animals. Fortunately, the basic principles of CPR are the same for all species, however there are important species-specific considerations. The ease of establishing airway control can vary dramatically. Most birds and reptiles can be intubated relatively easily whereas gaining control of the rabbit or rodent airway can be quite challenging. There are multiple techniques described for intubation, all of which require significant amounts of practice for proficiency. Additional techniques used to ventilate exotic companion mammals include nasotracheal intubation in the rabbit, a tight-fitting mask over the nose and mouth in rabbits and rodents, and even tracheostomy. The prognosis for cardiac arrest is particularly poor for the bird because the sternum or keel makes direct compression of the heart impossible. Birds and reptiles also lack a diaphragm, therefore closed-chest compressions cannot utilize the thoracic pump mechanism to increase overall negative intrathoracic pressure. Emergency drug doses are directly extrapolated from dog and cat medicine; however, atropine may not be effective in the rabbit due to the presence of atropinase.