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First aid for dogs: Every second counts

Border Collie puppy with first aid kit

All you need to know about first aid for dogs.

© Absolutimages - Shutterstock

From insect bites to choking, knowing what to do in the case of an emergency can save your pet’s life. As a dog owner, it is important to know how to act and perform first aid on dogs.

By Emilie Heyl

Updated on the 24/08/2021, 09:07

Like children, pets are the main victims of accidents at home, or outside the house. When an accident occurs, your instinct would be to get your furry friend to a vet as soon as possible, even if he looks "fine". But you may need to practice first aid to save your pet's life.

Dogs can choke, eat toxic foods or chemicals, injure themselves on a sharp object, run across the road without looking and get hit by a car. It is important, when you own a pet, to know which actions you’ll have to take in order to save your animal. In an emergency situation, the actions taken must be precise and effective. In order not to panic, you need to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. Here’s a guide to help you understand better what is first aid and what steps to take to save your dog’s life.

What is first aid?

First aid is the initial treatment given in a medical emergency. It has a purpose to preserve life, minimise any risks, reduce pain and relieve discomfort. 

Dogs are very curious creatures and don’t always know the concept of danger and unfortunately, some dangerous situations lead to an emergency. These emergencies may arise at home or outdoors therefore it’s important to always be prepared, act fast and effectively. You could save your pet’s life!

Dog first aid: Common pet emergencies

If your dog's life is threatened or if he shows severe symptoms, immediate action is required. Dog owners should not lose any time with these common pet emergencies, among others:

Allergic reaction: If your dog is having a mild allergic reaction, you can wash the area in cool water. Speak about it with your veterinarian as he/she will be able to prescribe medication. Now, if your dog is having a serious allergic reaction, go to an emergency vet.

Bite wound: First, you should assess your dog, see what their wounds look like (are there many? Are they deep? etc.). Your dog might be in shock and won’t let you approach him. If you are worried about your dog, cover the wounds and go straight to the vet.
If your dog has a small wound and isn’t bleeding, you should still disinfect it just in case it has some bacteria. However, if your dog’s wound is bleeding heavily or has areas of skin missing, you should cover the wound with a clean, dry dressing and go see your vet immediately.
If your dog has been bitten by a snake, wrap an ice pack in a towel, apply on the bite and go see your veterinarian immediately!

Bleeding: It is necessary to make a so-called compression bandage: put a lot of compresses, then tighten with a band. A pressure bandage should be changed every two hours. Write down the time you put the bandage on your dog and then go see your vet.

Breathing problems: If your dog is having difficulty breathing, put him in a cool place. Keep his head between his paws, on his stomach and call the veterinarian. Don’t handle him too much, don’t place him in a warm room and don’t position your animal on its side.

Broken bones: If you suspect or know your dog has a broken bone, avoid touching or moving the area which is in pain. Don’t let your dog walk on its broken leg and carry your pooch using a flat surface such as a board. Then, bring your dog to the vet.

Burns: Burns are extremely painful so you’ll have to be careful when giving first aid to your dog. First thing, you should remove your dog from whatever is burning him, then keep a close eye on your pooch in case other symptoms are showing. Don’t apply any cream or ointments to the burn. Use cold water (never use ice or iced water!) to cool down the burn. Cover it up with cling film (gently and loose) and go see your vet straight away.

Choking: Choking can happen a lot with dogs, so it’s important to always stay calm no matter what. If you can see something stuck in your dog’s mouth, use tweezers to get hold of the object and to remove it. Don’t stick your fingers in your dog’s mouth if he’s conscious as it could make him panic and he could bite you. Now, if your dog is unconscious, then here you can use your hand to remove whatever is blocked in your dog’s throat.
If you can’t remove the object in your dog’s throat, you should place your dog on its side,  place one hand flat on the side of your dog’s rib cage and press it down with your other hand to push the air and the object out. Be careful not to break your dog’s ribs. If the object is still stuck, go see an emergency vet.

Epileptic attack or seizure: Protect your dog from his own movements, put him in a quiet and cool room, try to calm him down by talking to him. One important thing to do is stick his tongue out. Don’t carry him or drag him, be gentle. And last but not least, don’t shake him.

Heatstroke: Heatstroke happens a lot in the summer, to avoid it to happen, make sure your dog is always hydrated, keeps cool and doesn’t stay outside when it’s too hot. If your dog is suffering from heatstroke, move your dog in a cool room, give them cool water (but not freezing cold or ice, this could cause a shock)). You can use a damp towel as well and a fan. Wet their feet, ears and fur. If your dog is struggling to cool down, go to see your vet.

Hypothermia: Contrary to heatstroke, if a dog suffers from hypothermia, it means your dog is extremely cold and can’t warm up. First things first, get your pet out of the cold and place him in a warm room. Be aware of the room temperature as going from one extreme to another can be dangerous. Warm him up slowly by placing thick blankets underneath and over him. Give your dog some lukewarm water and bring him to the vet.

Insect stings: Dogs can be stung by bees, wasps and other stinging insects. Check your dog for any signs of an allergic reaction (swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhoea, collapsing). Remove the sting then bathe the area in water. Wrapping ice in a towel will help to soothe the swollen area. If the sting is in the mouth or throat, you should go to an emergency vet. If your dog has a mild reaction to the sting, call your vet for some advice.

Poisoning: If your dog has been poisoned, first thing you should remove the item or substances that’s poisoning your dog. Don’t wait for the symptoms to appear and go see your vet immediately! Don’t make your pet sick (unless told by your vet). 

Road traffic accidents: If you’ve sadly witnessed your dog being hit by a car, try to stay calm. Make sure your pet and yourself are safe. If not, gently move your pet in a safe place and first check him for any life threatening injuries. If they aren’t any, check all the other injuries. Keep your dog warm and try to reassure him. Go see your vet immediately.

What should a dog first aid kit include?

A dog first aid kit is extremely useful at home and outside - for example when you go on a day trip. A first aid kit can help reduce pain in an emergency and could prevent really serious injuries or in the worst case, a fatal outcome. Dog owners can buy ready-made first aid kits with the basics inside such as bandages, tick tweezers and disinfectant. Sets with extensive accessories are also available.

With the following components, dog owners are well prepared for various scenarios: 

  • Scissors (preferably curved)
  • Sterilised water
  • Pet friendly ointment
  • Blanket
  • Tweezers
  • Clinical thermometer
  • Cooling pad
  • Flashlight
  • Disposable gloves
  • Small plastic bags
  • Bandages
  • Non adhesive absorbent dressings 
  • Surgical sticky tape
  • Box of cotton wool
  • Box of sterile absorbent gauze

Dog first aid: Learn the steps to save your dog

There are a variety of scenarios that require dog first aid. Every single incident - from a paw injury to heat stroke to poisoning - requires different treatment. Here are a four tips dog owners can follow to apply first aid on dogs.

Tip #1: Make sure you protect your dog and yourself

Keep in mind that even though your best friend would never hurt you, a dog in pain and in fear can bite. It is also possible that your dog runs away if he’s injured or was hit by a car for example. Take all the necessary measures to protect your dog but also yourself of any potential danger.

Tip #2:  Keep calm

Yes, we know it is easier said than done. But a panicked person tends to make impulsive decisions and transmits its stress, a feeling your injured dog will sense, and that’s not helpful. Try - even if it is difficult in some situations - use a calm and gentle voice. Do not let yourself be influenced prematurely by advice from third parties - in worst cases, these well-intentioned tips worsen the animal’s health. If you need a brief moment to clear your head, take a deep breath, it can help.

Tip #3: Contact a vet

In an emergency, every second counts. If you have the phone number of the closest veterinarian or an emergency vet prepared on your phone that would be ideal. Call your vet, he/she will be able to guide you in every step of the way. Describe the situation objectively and inform your veterinarian of the time of your arrival. In this way, the vet can prepare everything he/she needs to help your dog.

Tip #4: Bring your dog to the vet

Transporting an injured or sick dog can be tricky. The top priority is not to endanger the dog with abrupt movements or uncomfortable positions.

If your dog is unconscious and still breathing, you should put your pet in the recovery position. This position is also good for an injured dog. However, in this case your dog must always be placed on his uninjured side. In the event of injuries such as broken bones or bleeding, a sturdy base - made of wood, for example - should be used as a preventive measure. Ideally, another person should come along in addition to the driver in the car to ensure the well-being of the animal during the journey.

Training courses to learn emergency procedures

It is always interesting to learn more about first aid to help your dog in case of an emergency. First aid for pets runs both online and with practical courses that covers all the important aspects of dog first aid. You can learn the theoretical bases, but it would be ideal to put into practice what you will have learned thanks to simulation cases on a very realistic mannequin. While all of the theoretical parts can be learned in books or on the internet, the right gestures must be taught by an instructor.