Every dog owner will at some time or another come across a situation where it will be beneficial to know how to perform first aid on their dog. Often this requires only common sense, but sometimes it is important to know just that little bit more for the highest chance of recovery or even survival! Below I have outlined some important information to help you make the best choice when first aid becomes necessary. Remember, it is always a good idea to seek veterinary advice as soon as possible!
Aims of first aid
To preserve life
To prevent suffering
To prevent the situation from deteriorating.
The four rules of first aid
Do not panic!
Maintain the airway: mainly through stretching out the neck carefully and removing anything from the mouth if possible.
Control bleeding: see below under 'haemorrhage'
Contact the vet
Handling injured animals
Be gentle but decisive, reassure the dog. Try and put a lead on the dog, possibly using the noose technique (photo 1), but be careful! The dog may bite, especially if he is frightened or in pain. You may need to muzzle the dog, perhaps with a tape muzzle, unless there is an injury to the nose, skull or muzzle. (photos 2-6)
Brief examination and first treatment
Check the airway: listen for breathing sounds, watch the chest moving up and down
Check for bleeding and control (see later)
Check for fractures and immobilise (see later)
Dress wounds cleanly
Transport to the vet's surgery
If the dog can walk, let him! If not, carry him carefully: in small dogs, use a basket or other carrier (make sure the patient can be watched though and that there is sufficient ventilation), in bigger dogs use a stretcher or blanket. (photo 7) A stretcher can made of a plank of wood for instance. The latter is especially important if there is any suspicion of spinal injury or the dog is collapsed or severely injured. Be as quick as you can but do not take any unnecessary risks.
Most poisonings are the result of accidents, overdose, unusual reactions, carelessness or ignorance, but some are malicious! There are several categories of poisons:
1. Medicines, e.g. sedatives, painkillers, heart tablets etc.
2. Pesticides, e.g. weed killer, slug pellets, snail bait, certain flea treatments (e.g. those containing organophosphates) etc.
3. Household chemicals, e.g. rat / mouse poison, antifreeze etc.
4. Plants, not often seen, e.g. deadly nightshade, kale, rape, white bryony, cherry laurel, ergot, hemlock, dumb cane, foxglove, egg plant, horsetails, St John's wort, rhododendron, laburnum, linseed, dog's mercury, oak, philodendron, bracken fern, ragwort, rhubarb, spurge laurel, sugar beet, black bryony, yew, tomato, tobacco, winter cherry, woody nightshade and possibly others.
5. Insect stings, e.g. wasps, bees etc.
6. Snake bites, e.g. adders.
Prevention of further absorption of the poison can be achieved in several ways:
1. Removing the source, e.g. by washing the dog's coat if the poison is on the animal, putting on an Elizabethan collar (photo 8) or a bandage or a T-shirt.
2. Induce vomiting, e.g. by using washing soda or ordinary kitchen salt directly in the mouth or on the back of the tongue. BUT: do NOT use this method if the poison could have been something corrosive or a sedative, when the dog is fitting or when it was more than four hours ago thatn the dog was poisoned!!!
3. Gastric lavage: this can only be done by your vet. It means washing out of the stomach through a stomach tube.
4. Prevention of absorption through the stomach or intestinal wall, e.g. through the use of activated charcoal or by giving a laxative.
In many cases it is unknown what poison has been taken and therefore the dog will often be treated symptomatically, which means the vet will look at what symptoms your dog displays and treat it accordingly.
Dogs can bleed from arteries (bright red and pumping), from veins (darker red, not pumping), from capillaries (oozing) and from a mixture of these. Bleeding can be external (from wounds, nose, bowel, mouth etc.) or internal (muscles, chest, abdomen etc.). Treatment can be by four different methods:
1. Direct pressure: put your finger or hand directly on the bleeding wound
2. Pad and pressure bandage: use anything clean you can find, such as a towel, a piece of clothing etc.
3. Pressure on 'pressure points': this is where the artery, supplying the body part it is bleeding from, runs. Not many people will know where to apply pressure though.
4. Using a tourniquet: this is something to put pressure on the artery above the point of bleeding. Different things can be used, such as elastic bands, belts, scarves etc. Never leave a tourniquet on for more than 30 minutes!!! (photo 9)
Burns / scalds
Burns are the result of dry heat, extreme cold, corrosive materials or electricity. Scalds are the result of moist heat, e.g. steam. The best treatment for both is cooling with water, keeping the dog warm (e.g. with blankets / towels), dressing the wounds (sterile pads or cling film), and preventing too much movement in the area of the wound (sometimes splinting is necessary for this). Complications of burns can be shock, infection or difficulty breathing (smoke!). Do NOT use creams, powders and lotions to put on burns!
Fractures (photo 10) can be open (broken skin) or closed (skin intact). Signs can include pain, swelling, loss of function (lame, leg held up), deformity or 'crepitus' (grating feeling / sound). Treatment is based on controlling bleeding if open and minimising movement of the part of the body involved. Handle as little as possible and provide support. This can be achieved by using a bandage or a splint. Splints can be made from wood, metal, plastic, rolled up newspaper or anything else which is stiff). (photo 11)
This can be due to trauma, foreign bodies (e.g. grass, wood, metal etc), blood clotting problems or a tumour. Initial treatment will be with a cold compress on the nose and muzzle, dog permitting. It will often look a lot worse than it actually is!
Fractures of teeth are not uncommon. If they are fresh, see the vet the same day if possible! If they happened some time ago, it is no longer an emergency. Loose teeth are normally the result of chronic periodontal disease and therefore not an emergency. Foreign bodies can be lodged in between the top molar teeth on the roof of the mouth, e.g. a stick or bone. If they can not be removed by gentle traction the vet may have to sedate the dog for successful removal. (photo 12)
Tongue / lips
Foreign bodies will lead to salivation and extensive licking and sometimes bleeding and gagging. Try to remove the foreign body gently, but only if this can be done safely! Fish hooks should be left in place for the vet to remove. Ulcers are sometimes seen in the mouth as a result of the ingestion or licking of corrosive materials. Wounds are often the result of 'stick injuries' where the dog has launched itself onto a stick, thrown by the owner. They can bleed heavily but often stop bleeding quite soon. These stick injuries can cause extremely serious complications and should be avoided at all cost!
Ball in throat
This can lead to suffocation. Try to remove the ball with your fingers initially, but beware for bites! Pressure from behind the ball sometimes helps. If all else fails, a corkscrew can be carefully inserted into the ball to pull it out.
If you suspect that your dog may suffer from bloat (photo 13), the best advice is to go and see the vet immediately! Symptoms may include a swollen abdomen, trying to vomit, collapse, pale mucous membranes, abdominal discomfort.
Swallowed foreign body
These include stones, coins, balls (photo 14), toys etc. If they are small they will usually pass eventually. If they are larger it is best to ask your vet for advice. Some foreign bodies can be seen on X-rays, but not all! Do not try and make your dog vomit without speaking to your vet.
Swollen eyelids are often the result of allergic reactions (e.g. insect bites) or foreign bodies (e.g. grass seeds, splinters etc.). Prevent rubbing by putting on an Elizabethan collar. Rinse the eye with copious amounts of saline solution (best is the ophthalmic solution used for contact lenses, otherwise make your own by dissolving a teaspoon of household salt in a pint of clean water) or alternatively water. (photo 15) Corneal injuries are often the result of scratches, bites and foreign bodies (e.g. thorns). Flushing the eye is best (see above). Also prevent rubbing (see above). Eye prolapse: This is a very serious condition, mostly the result of blunt trauma such as a road traffic accident. It happens mainly in short nosed breeds, such as Pugs etc. The most important thing to do is to keep the eyeball moist, e.g. with saline solution, oil, butter or similar, and to seek veterinary attention urgently! Prevent rubbing (see above).
Bleeding: this is often the result of cuts, bites, scratches etc. They often look worse than they are, especially as the dog will shake its head and spread the blood around. Try and stop the bleeding (see above) and put a bandage on if possible. (photo 16) Prevent rubbing of the ear. A good way to prevent the ear flap being flapped around is by putting a cut up pair of tights on the dog's head. Aural haematomas are swellings of the ear flap, these are not an emergency. Foreign bodies are often seen in the ear, mostly grass seeds (awns) in the summer months. These are intensely painful and need to be removed, often under general anaesthetic, by your vet.
'Stroke' / Vestibular syndrome
This condition is caused by damage to the balance organ in the inner ear. It affects mainly older dogs, who will show a head tilt, loss of balance and sometimes circling. In some cases the eyes flick up and down or from side to side, this is called nystagmus. It is often, wrongly, called a stroke. It can be caused by infections, trauma, tumours or unknown causes. First aid consists of protecting the dog from harming itself and reducing the anxiety by putting the dog in a quiet and preferably darkened room.
Epilepsy / Fitting
If a dog has an epileptic fit or similar, the best thing to do is to put the dog in a quiet and darkened room and prevent it from harming itself. Clear the mouth if necessary, but beware of biting! If the dog stays in a fit for more than five minutes (this is a very long time!) ring the vet. Most dogs will come out of a fit within a few minutes. Stay calm!
Heat stroke / hyperthermia
This is an abnormally high body temperature and is more common in short nosed dogs and long haired dogs, but can happen in all breeds. It is of course most common in the summer months. Dogs will pant heavily and can show drooling, restlessness, unsteadiness, collapse and even coma and death! First aid treatment is geared towards cooling down the dog. Do this with water (preferably running water) or wet blankets. Your vet may use a cold intravenous drip to further cool down the patient. Clear the mouth if necessary. Do not immerse the patient in cold water as this can cause shock!
This is an abnormally low body temperature and the opposite of hyperthermia. It happens mainly to young or very small dogs. First aid treatment is geared towards slowly warming up the dog. To this purpose you can use massage, cover the dog up, or use a hot water bottle, a heat lamp or a warmed up drip (at the vets).
Nails / dew claws
Nails can break off and cause pain and bleeding. The bleeding will usually stop within minutes. If this does not happen, you can try and stop the bleeding by holding cold wet cotton wool against the nail(bed). It is not really an emergency.
If you ever get into a situation where you think your dog needs help urgently, stay calm, be sensible and ring your vet for advice whenever possible.
About the author
Peter van Dongen qualified as a vet at the Utrecht Veterinary school, The Netherlands, in March 1990. He worked in a mixed practice in Louth, Lincolnshire, UK, for 3 years, before moving to Borough Green, Kent, UK. At the same time he limited himself to small animals only. Since December 1996 he has run a branch practice in Allington, Maidstone, UK.
In May 1995 Peter started agility (after years of just thinking about it!) with his Jack Russel Cross 'Basil' (a bitch!), then 5 years old. Since then they have qualified for many finals, including 'Crufts' and 'Olympia'. Basil, Peter's first and still only agility dog, is now an 'advanced' dog (highest level in the UK) and still going strong at the age of nearly 12 years! Basil has won the coveted Crufts 2001 title in the individual mini agility.
Peter passed the British Agility Club Instructors' exam in October 1999 and has since done the British Agility Club Judging Workshop. Since 1998 Peter has written many veterinary articles for The Agility Voice, The Agility Eye, the agilitynet web site, Clean Run magazine and various other publications. In 2001 he published his own veterinary care book 'Vets and Pets'.
Peter and his wife Carry still live in Borough Green with their two dogs and two cats.
Photos by Peter Van Dongen