Think of all the activities your dog does every day, all the places he sticks his nose, all the surfaces he runs around on, and all the living and inanimate objects he touches (or licks). When you've added them all up, it's easy to see why dogs can need first aid.
But do you know what to do if those occasions arise? When it comes to medical treatment, seconds and minutes can sometimes make a big difference in a dog's recovery, so take a few minutes now to brush up on your canine first aid.
Here are a few vet-approved tips to help stabilize and care for your pet while you seek veterinary attention.
Know your dog's vital signs
This is a good place to begin because you need to know what's considered "normal" if you're to diagnose something as "abnormal."
Normal temperature: 101°–102.5°F
Normal heart rate: 70–160 beats/min
Normal breathing rate: 10–30 breaths/min
To check vital signs:
- Don't assume your dog won't bite.
- Use rectal, not oral, thermometers. Newer human digital thermometers are best.
- Check his heart rate by placing your hand over his chest, just behind his elbow.
- Measure his breathing rate by observing your dog's sides or by holding your wet finger in front of the nose.
- Measure both rates for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to get the rate per minute.
Here are some common situations/conditions that require first aid, and how to perform the procedures:
Possible causes: Car accident, animal fight, fall, clotting problem, severe wound.
What to do: Bleeding from an artery is an immediately life-threatening situation. Arterial blood is bright red, bleeds in spurts, is difficult to stop, and requires immediate veterinary attention.
For any type of external bleeding, place a clean cloth or sterile gauze over the injured area. Apply direct pressure for at least 5–7 minutes to stop bleeding. Do not apply a tourniquet unless absolutely necessary. Take your dog to a vet immediately.
Possible causes: Poisoning, abdominal injury, motion sickness, disease, overeating, fear, brain injury, parasites.
What to do: Examine vomit for blood or other clues as to cause. Also, bring a sample of the vomit to your veterinarian when you take your dog for an evaluation. If your pet may have eaten something poisonous, bring a sample of the suspected poison (preferably in its original packaging) to the veterinarian. Do not offer any food or water until a veterinarian has been contacted. Abdominal pain, enlarged stomach, and dry heaves are serious signs. Call your veterinarian immediately.
Possible causes: Excessive heat and/or lack of shade, heavy exertion, lack of water (Note: Animals differ in how much heat they can tolerate; even mildly warm, humid temperatures can stress some pets).
What to do: Place your dog in a cool or shaded area. Immediately bathe with tepid, not cold, water. Do not leave your pet unattended while soaking him in the bath. Monitor his rectal temperature. You can dry him when his temperature drops to 103°F. Do not allow your dog to become excessively chilled. Continue checking his temperature and take him to the vet for further treatment. Take him to a vet immediately if his temperature is 104° F or above.
Possible causes: Broken limb or toe, arthritis, injury to footpad, dislocation, sprain, muscle soreness or a bur between his toes.
What to do: If a fracture is suspected, gently stabilize the limb before you transport the dog to the vet. (See "Handling and transporting tips" below.) Cover any wounds with a clean cloth.
Bee or wasp sting
For bee stings, apply a paste of baking soda and water. For wasp stings, apply vinegar or lemon juice. Also, apply a cold pack and follow up with calamine or antihistamine cream. In case of severe swelling or difficulty breathing, immediately take your dog to the vet.
Possible causes: Foreign object—such as a needle, bone, food, or part of a plant—lodged in his throat, windpipe or teeth; choking could also be caused by an allergic reaction.
What to do: Gently pull the dog's tongue forward and inspect his mouth and throat—but be careful! You must make sure your dog doesn't try to bite you. Stop if he is not cooperative. If you see a foreign object, hold the mouth open and attempt to remove it by hand, or with tweezers or small pliers. Take care not to push the object farther down the throat. Again, stop if the dog is not cooperative and immediately take him to a vet. If the dog is not breathing, see "CPR" below.
Possible causes: Drowning, electrocution, trauma, drug ingestion.
What to do: In case of drowning, remove fluid from the dog's lungs by lifting his hindquarters high over his head and squeezing his chest firmly until fluid stops coming out. In case of electrical shock, DO NOT touch pet until it is no longer in contact with the electricity source. If an object is blocking the dog's windpipe, it will need to be gently removed. See "Choking" above. Take the dog to a vet as soon as possible.
If animal is not breathing and has no heartbeat, start CPR.
NOTE: If possible, have someone transport you and your dog to a vet while you perform the CPR procedure described below.
Lay the dog on his side and remove any objects from his windpipe: open his mouth, pull his tongue forward, extend his neck, and sweep his mouth with your finger. Be careful: make sure your dog won't try to bite you.
If the windpipe and mouth are clear, extend the neck, hold his tongue out of his mouth, and close the dog's jaws over his tongue.
Holding his jaws closed, breathe into both nostrils for 5 to 6 breaths. If there is no response, continue artificial breathing.
- Over 60 lbs. = 12 breaths/min
- Over 60 lbs. = 12 breaths/min
- 1–10 lbs. = 30+ breaths/min
If there is no heartbeat, begin heart compressions. Depress chest 1.5 to 3 inches with one hand on either side of the chest, just behind the elbows. Continue artificial breathing.
- Over 60 lbs. = 60 times/min
- 11–60 lbs. = 80–100 times/min
- 5–10 lbs. = 120–140 times/min
If your pet weighs 5 lbs. or less, place hands around rib cage and apply heart massage.
Handling and transporting tips
Don't try to comfort an injured dog by hugging it, and never put your face near its head. If necessary, muzzle the dog with gauze, soft towel strips, or stockings.
Don't attempt to lift or drag a large, injured dog. Instead, improvise a stretcher with a board, throw rug, blanket, child's toboggan, etc.
Before transport, try to stabilize injuries. Rolled magazines or newspapers can serve as splints. Pad the limb and splint generously with rolled cotton and gauze, or improvise with pillows, strips of blanket, towels, etc.
Helpful items to have on hand
- Gauze pads, gauze rolls, rolled cotton, and veterinary self-adhesive elastic wrap
- Calamine lotion and petroleum jelly
- Blunt-end scissors (to cut bandages or cut fur away from a wound)
- Tweezers and pliers
- Antibiotic cream and antiseptic solution
- Extra blankets, towels, and pillows
- Tube socks (for slipping over an injured paw)
- Transport aids, like crates and carryalls. A child's plastic toboggan or flat piece of board can be used to carry a larger dog.
- Cotton swab sticks
A few important things to remember: First aid is often just that, the aid you do first, before taking the injured dog to a veterinarian for more extensive treatment. We also recommend that you print out this information and keep it handy. Just in case.