It usually happens without any warning. A misplaced step on some broken glass, a wasp sting or a collision with a car, and suddenly your dog is yapping and bleeding, leaving its shocked owner wondering helplessly how to help man’s best friend. Here you can find out the best ways to prepare for such an incident, with first-aid measures you should learn and the recommended contents of a canine first aid kit.
Dog First Aid
© Jörg Hüttenhölscher / stock.adobe.com
It may be several minutes before a vet arrives on the scene. However, it is important to offer help quickly, particularly in the case of accidents, with first aid often making a decisive contribution to the outcome of cuts, broken bones, poisoning or overheating. This is true for humans as well as animals, but how should you care for an injured animal? Which first aid measures are there for dogs, and which accessories should every dog owner have to hand? To help you be better prepared in the case of emergency, we have compiled a list of the ten most common injuries suffered by dogs and some tips on how to provide optimum support.
Table of contents
The three most important rules to remember
As a dog owner, you are responsible for the welfare of your dog. This is generally easily done – providing the best food, offering regular grooming, and taking your dog to the vet whenever necessary. However, a sudden accident can leave even the most experienced owner unprepared. Where is the vet’s emergency number? How do I put on a bandage? In the sheer panic of the moment, we often cannot figure out what to do first.
- Keep calm!
The first rule in any emergency is to keep calm. This sounds simple, but only then will you be able to make the best decisions for your dog’s wellbeing. If you panic, your dog will also pick up on your feelings, which would only make the situation worse for your pet.
- Have the vet’s phone number ready to hand
In order to quickly request help, you should have your vet’s phone number to hand, as well as the emergency out-of-hours number for your local area. Save the number in your mobile phone, put a card in the car first aid kit or keep a note pinned up on your notice board at home. The main thing is that you can quickly and easily access this number in an emergency. Explain to the vet in as much detail as possible what has happened to your dog, so that the right preparations can be made before they set off.
- Create a muzzle with your lead
Although every second counts, you should never rush in to a wounded dog. Even the most relaxed, friendly of canines can react in an unexpected way when wounded or shocked, and may not want to be helped at first. It may try to defend itself or bite uncontrollably out of shock or pain. Always exercise caution – approach slowly and calmly, attach the lead to somewhere secure, and create a mouth loop with the lead or a bandage to help ensure your dog does not attempt to escape or hurt you while you are examining it.
Preparing for an emergency
The better informed you are, the faster and more effectively you will be able to help your dog. Although reading about potential accidents and behavioural measures is a great first step, this will not be enough to help you master the correct techniques to use in an emergency. For optimum preparedness, we recommend the following measures:
What belongs in a First Aid Kit?
Even the best knowledge will be useless without essential first aid items. A well-stocked first aid kit, with an additional one for on-the-go, is one of the most important things to carry with you when you travel. The following materials should be included:
Your at-home first aid kit:
- Gauze bandages (6 and 10cm)
- Elastic bandages (6 and 10cm)
- Self-adhesive bandages
- Cotton wool
- Sterile compresses
- Bandage scissors
- Blunt small scissors (for the removal of fur from wounds etc)
- Disinfectant spray or ointment
- Ointment against insect bites
- Sterile saline solution (individual vials)
- Charcoal tablets
- Vaseline (for greasing the fever thermometer, rubbing into pads etc)
- Tape/plaster rolls
- Tick remover
- Hot/cold pack
- Torch (not too bright)
- Survival blanket
- Disposable gloves
- Disposable syringes
- Disposable razors
- Tongue depressors/wooden stick
On-the-go first aid kit
On-the-go first aid kit:
- Bandage material (bandage, elastic bandages, cotton wool and sterile compresses)
- Disinfectant spray
Of course, even with a well-stocked first aid kit, there is no guarantee you will have it to hand in every emergency, for example on a short walk with your dog. In this case, simple everyday objects can be a suitable alternative, such as using a t-shirt for blotting or tying, tap water for rinsing wounds (from the nearest neighbour or a water bottle) or a thick newspaper for creating a leg splint. The better you know what to do, the more creative you will be able to be with the items at your disposal.
The 10 most common canine emergencies and the associated first aid measures
- Injuries of any kind (paw injury, bite wound etc)
Superficial skin injuries, which almost every dog owner will have come across, usually heal themselves. However, if the wound is very dirty, deep or bleeding heavily, quick help is necessary. The bleeding needs to be stopped immediately and the wound area must be protected against infection.
- Stop the bleeding: In the case of severely bleeding injuries, your first port of call is to stop blood escaping from the wound. In an acute emergency, you can try to stop the bleeding by pressing on the artery with your thumb or finger. Use a clean cloth, or a piece of your clothing if necessary, and apply pressure to the bleeding wound, holding up injured limbs if possible. A pressure bandage with non-absorbent compresses helps to control the bleeding until your dog can be taken to the veterinarian.
- Clean the wound: If the wound is extremely dirty, you should carefully remove any superficial dirt or debris. To do this, you can rinse the wound with tap water (preferably lukewarm) and dab it with a clean cloth – never rub it! If you have a disinfectant solution to hand, use this to treat the wound and then gently pat it dry.
- Apply a bandage: A bandage can be used to stop blood, protect the wound and immobilise an injured limb. First place a sterile compress on the wound surface. If the paws are injured, for example by a piece of broken glass, pad the spaces between paw pads with cotton wool. Depending on the size of the limb, wrap a suitable dressing around the wound and fix it with adhesive tape or a plaster. If you have a self-adhesive bandage to hand, you can also use these to fix the bandage underneath. It is important that the bandage applies pressure but does not constrict your dog’s circulation – your finger should still be able to fit underneath the end of the bandage.
In general, any injuries should be eventually examined by a vet. There are accidents that are hardly visible on the outside but may lead to internal injuries that need further treatment.
- Broken bones
If your dog has had an accident, ahs been hit or has fallen, and then begins to move awkwardly, it may have broken or fractured a bone. It requires treatment as soon as possible by a vet, as wrong movements or too much stress can lead to serious complications in healing. If you suspect a bone fracture, try to keep your dog still and calm.
- Splint the bone fracture: To stabilise the affected limb, you may need to temporarily splint the fracture until you can see a vet. To do this, cushion the area around the break and wrap around this cushioning with a bandage. You can use a wooden stick or sturdy magazine or newspaper as a splint to keep it in place, then fix it in place with another bandage.
- Open bone fracture: You should not place a splint on an open fracture, where the bone has passed through the skin. In this case, carefully cover the wound and, if necessary, try to stop the bleeding. Keep your dog calm and ensure that you are seen by a vet as soon as possible.
- Insect bites (e.g. wasp stings)
When exploring the garden or a field, your dog can quickly become the victim of an insect bite. A wasp may feel threatened and sting – even if you have not seen it happen, if your dog begins to yawn and run around restlessly, you can quickly surmise that something unpleasant has happened. Examine your dog for a possible insect bite, especially paws, nose and extremities. After a wasp sting, the affected area swells rapidly and is clearly red. The best way to provide relief for your dog is to cool the area of the sting with a cool, wet towel, a cooling element from your freezer, cold water from a garden hose or a cooling gel from a pharmacy. After about 10 minutes, the swelling should begin to subside, along with the pain.
- When to visit the vet: As a rule, redness, swelling and pain should disappear fairly rapidly after an insect bite. However, if you notice significant changes in your dog, such as pustules on the body, swollen eyelids or lips, heavy salivation, significantly reduced energy or strenuous breathing, then you should consult your veterinarian immediately. This is urgent, as an allergic reaction to wasp venom can have life-threatening consequences for your dog.
- Tick bite
Dogs are popular prey for ticks, so finding a tick bite after a walk in the great outdoors is not uncommon. The earlier the tick is discovered and removed, the less problematic a tick attack should prove to be. However, if a tick bite goes undetected or the dog scrapes or bites the tick while it is sucking, it can cause severe inflammation. It is particularly dangerous if the tick transmits a life-threatening disease such as Lyme disease or dog malaria.
- Preventative measures: If you live in high-risk areas, vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease or Babesiosis (dog malaria) may be recommended. Ask your veterinarian for advice and weigh up the benefits and side effects of the vaccine. Special sprays or tinctures as well as anti-tick collars can also help reduce the risk of bites.
- Checking your dog for ticks: After a walk in the wild, particularly near forests or meadows, you should thoroughly check your dog for ticks. If you’re out and about all day, it can be a good idea to perform a check every hour, as ticks do not bite their victims immediately but move around to find an appropriate location. They are still easy to spot on the surface of your dog’s coat initially and can be removed with a cloth. Ticks that have already bitten are especially common on the head, ears, neck, between the toes, on the stomach and on the inside of the thighs.
- Removing the tick: If you have discovered a tick on your dog, you should remove it as soon as possible. Never try to pull the tick out with your fingers! The tick needs to be completed levered out of the skin. This is best done with a tick remover or tweezers, by grasping the tick as close as possible to the skin and pulling it out completely, without turning or squeezing the tick.
- Recognise the symptoms of infection: If a round redness appears around the tick bite, this may be a sign of infection, for example with dangerous Borrelia pathogens. Fever, lethargy, refusal of food and swelling of the lymph nodes can all be symptoms of Lyme disease, which can occur weeks or months after the bite itself. Contact your vet immediately if you have observed any of the above symptoms in your dog.
- Heat- or sunstroke
In the blazing sun, a parked car can quickly heat up, and the consequences for a dog waiting for ‘just a minute’ while its owner nips into the shop can be devastating. Even a few minutes in an overheated car can mean death for your dog. Never leave your dog alone in the car, even if you park in the shade or leave a window open!
- Difference between heat stroke and sunstroke: With heat stroke, your dog’s entire body is heated above its ambient temperate, whilst sunstroke is caused by direct sunlight hitting your dog’s head. Overheating of the head and neck areas can lead to a disruption of the blood supply to the brain (swelling and fluid retention), even leading to a cerebral haemorrhage with fatal consequences. With sunstroke, the outside temperature can appear to be quite pleasant, but the direct force of the sun can be dangerous, even if your dog is not outside. Even a ride in an air-conditioned car can be life-threatening if your dog’s head is in direct sunlight.
- Symptoms of overheating: Unlike humans, dogs cannot sweat and can only cool off by panting. Increased panting, shallow breathing or staggering gait are alarming indications of possible sunstroke or heat stroke. If your dog has an accelerated pulse, is struggling with balance or is having convulsions, you need to act quickly. Do not be fooled by your dog’s perceived body temperature, as it is often still within the normal range with sunstroke, with only the brain overheating.
- First aid measures: Both sunstroke and heat stroke can cause your canine companion a painful death. At the first suspicions of either, you should have your dog examined by your vet. Raise the alarm as soon as possible and immediately initiate the following first aid measures:
- Bring your dog to a cool, shady and well-ventilated area, using a fan if necessary.
- Offer your dog plenty of drinking water.
- Cool down paws and coat with wet towels, replacing as and when needed. Important: never start cooling near the heart or pour a bucket of cold water over your dog – this can lead to fatal shock.
If your dog suddenly has a seizure, this can be a sign of a serious illness and you should always consult a veterinarian to find out the exact cause. Unfortunately, during an epileptic seizure you can do very little to help your dog. You merely have to wait for the seizure to stop, which will generally happen after a few minutes, then take your dog to the vet. However, you can try to keep your seizing dog as safe as possible to prevent it hitting or hurting itself on table, cabinets or sharp edges. As ever, be extremely careful; a seizing dog may not react as it normally would, and may even bite.
- Poisoning or ingesting foreign objects
Ingesting a sharp object or something toxic is a nightmare for dog owners – it is not the sole plight of parents of young children! Both at home and out and about, your dog can come across a wide range of poisoning risks, including drugs, cleaning agents, cigarettes, poisonous plants and human foods such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, garlic and onions. You should keep all dangerous objects and medicines well out of reach of your dog, and avoid leaving pills or small sharp items lying around. If, despite all of your precautions, your dog manages to swallow a foreign body or a toxic substance, you must inform a vet as soon as possible. The faster you respond, the greater the chance that your dog will recover fully from the episode.
- Symptoms of poisoning: Your dog can easily swallow something dangerous when unobserved. If your dog presents with vomiting, diarrhoea, excessive salivation, apathy, restlessness, difficulty breathing or seizures, it could be a sign of potential poisoning.
- Mistakes in first aid: Unlike with first aid for wounds or broken bones, you should not put your dog in a mouth loop if you suspect it has been poisoned, as there is a danger of suffocation if your dog suddenly vomits. You should never try to induce vomiting yourself – leave it to the vet, who can induce controlled vomiting or expertly remove a swallowed foreign body.
- First aid measures: If your dog is already unconscious, place it in a stable side position and gently pull its tongue out of its open mouth, so that vomit can more easily leave the body. Visit the vet as soon as possible or call for emergency assistance. For poisoning, you can also give your dog charcoal tablets as a first aid measure. This should help to bind toxic substances in the body and prevent the poison from entering the bloodstream. It may also be useful to take a sample of the swallowed toxin or some of your dog’s vomit in with you to the vet.
Even dogs have nosebleeds – usually, just as with humans, they are perfectly harmless. However, it could be a sign of something more serious if your dog is having frequent, strong or prolonged nosebleeds. In this case, you should visit the vet to clarify the exact cause and seek treatment where possible.
- Emergency measure: If your dog is very restless, calm it down and avoid any form of excitement. This could further increase your dog’s blood pressure and, in the worse case, increase the bleeding. Wash your dog’s nose with clean water and gently dry it with a cloth. If the bleeding is due to an external injury, you should try to stop the bleeding. If possible, keep a cloth or compress on the wound and cool your dog’s nose with a cold damp cloth, ice cubes in a towel, or a cooling pack from a freezer.
- Twisted stomach
Hardly any other emergency is as menacing as the dreaded twisted stomach. A dog that has been perfectly healthy up until now can suddenly and unexpectedly show signs of a twisted stomach if it has eaten and then gone on a wild rampage! Particularly at risk are breeds with a larger rib cage, including Great Danes, German Shepherd Dogs, Boxers, Chow Chows, Dobermans or Molossers. As your dog ages, the risk of twisted stomach also increases.
- Symptoms of twisted stomach:
- Greatly inflated abdomen
- Agitation (dog running back and forth, switching between lying, stand and walking, unsure where to go)
- Curved back
- Strong salivation
- Dog tries to vomit but produces nothing
- Cardiovascular failure
- Immediately visit the vet: If you observe any of the above symptoms in your dog, you must immediately take it to the vet. The faster your pet can be treated, the greater its chances of survival. Unfortunately, there are no first aid measures you can perform at home if your dog’s stomach is twisted.
- Prevention: The following two rules can help reduce the risk of dangerous twisted stomach:
- Adjust your dog’s serving size to meet its needs and no more. If your dog needs a large amount of food, try dividing it between two or three smaller meals.
- Allow your dog to rest after eating and avoid any wild activity within the first hour after food.
- Respiratory- and cardiac arrest
Fortunately, accidents involving respiratory or circulatory arrest are rare, but when they happen there is acute danger to your dog’s life. It is, therefore, all the more important to be prepared for these emergencies, in order to be able to initiate rapid relief measures when needed.
- Causes: The causes of respiratory distress or sudden cardiac arrest are many and varied. For example, an allergic reaction to an insect bite, toxic gas and accidents with the skull, thorax or brain can all lead to acute respiratory distress or arrest. In a cardiac arrest, the causes range from electrical accidents, twisted stomach or shock to acute hypoxia.
- Check your dog’s healthy rates: If your dog suddenly shows signs of respiratory distress or circulatory disorders, you should first check its breathing, heart rate and pulse. It is, therefore, important to know the usual values of these for your individual dog, so that you can judge if something is wrong. You should take note of pulse, respiration rate and mucous membrane so that you can compare in an emergency.
- Pulse: the normal pulse of your dog should be strong and clearly felt, on the inside of the thigh. On average, the normal pulse rate is 80 to 120 beats per minute. However, depending on age, breed, size or activity levels, your dog’s heart rate may fluctuate significantly. Check the pulse at both resting and after exertion so that you can be prepared for an emergency.
- Breathing: similarly, your dog’s respiratory rate can vary considerably. Depending on the size of the dog, 10 to 40 breaths per minute are normal. To assess, observe your dog’s ribcage, ribs and abdominal wall, and watch for atypical breathing sounds of coughing. Incidentally, panting is not part of breathing and should not be counted in the respiratory rate.
- Mucous: a clear sign of respiratory or circulatory problems is a change in mucosal colour, so you will need to know the usual colour. As a rule, it is pale pink, moist, smooth on shiny on non-pigmented areas (gums). A bluish or purple colour indicates lack of oxygen, circulatory problems or heart disease. In case of blood loss or shock, the mucous membranes are pale white. In infectious diseases, heat stroke or other illnesses, look out for red to dark red colouring.
- Symptoms of acute respiratory of circulatory disorders:
- Strong chest and abdominal movements
- Unusual breathing sounds
- Exhausted breathing with open mouth
- Breathing and pulse rate disturbed (strong deviation from standard values)
- Change in mucosal colour
- Unconsciousness (no ear, eye or tail reaction; no pupil or eyelid reflex)
- Missing pulse
- First Aid measures for respiratory disorders or arrest: If you can only see or feel weak or no breathing, call your veterinarian immediately. The faster your dog receives medical attention, the greater the chance of its survival.
Lay your dog on its right-hand side and stretch the head back slightly, so that the nose and back are in line. Gently pull out the tongue and check the mouth and throat to see if the airways are clear, removing any vomit if necessary. Pulling out the tongue and applying short, strong pressure to the chest may be enough to trigger a respiratory response.
If this reflex does not set in and your dog does not breathe independently despite having clear airways, you must give your dog “mouth to mouth”: slide the dog’s tongue into its mouth and close the snout. If possible, place a cloth over the nose. Then blow into the dog’s nose 5 to 10 times, ensuring the chest lifts each time, and wait for spontaneous breathing to resume. If not, repeat the procedure and increase your ventilation to approximately 20 breaths per minute. Do not stop breathing at intervals until your dog is breathing independently, when a veterinarian can take over, or after 10 minutes of non-spontaneous breathing.
- First Aid measures in case of cardiac arrest: If your dog is not breathing and does not have a heartbeat, it must be resuscitated. As with humans, resuscitation involves alternating between ventilation and cardiac massage.
Place your dog on its right-hand side, slightly extend the front left leg and compress the rib cage 10 times, just behind the left elbow, using a flat hand. The amount of pressure you apply should correspond to the size and stature of the dog. Then breathe for your dog through its nose twice, and wait for heart and respiration to start again. If this does not happen, continue with basic life support for fifteen heart massages and two respirations.
Stop resuscitation as soon as you feel a pulse, or when the vet can take over. If no veterinarian is present after about 15 minutes and your resuscitation could not active either breathing or heart rate, then you can no longer prevent the death of your dog.
Conclusion: First Aid saves canine lives
First Aid can be decisive in whether or not your dog survives, particularly in cases of acute danger to life caused by respiratory or cardiac arrest. Even with minor injuries, fractures, tick bites or overheating, the initial care your dog receives can have a huge impact on how well it heals. Of course, there are occasions when first aid can no longer help and your dog will not survive. You should not blame yourself if this occurs, as you were as prepared as you could be.
Knowing the necessary first aid measures and practising decisive, practical steps can not only help support your dog as best as possible, but can also alleviate any guilt you may be feeling following an unwanted outcome, as you will have done everything in your power to help your dog. Attending a first aid course and practising the measure described here on a healthy dog, including dressings, reducing fever and placing in the recovery position, are highly recommended to any dog owner.
We wish you and your dog all the best!