Learn dog first aid
By Bev Cobley for BDWS
Accidents happen and illness can occur anytime, usually in the most inappropriate place or when the cause is no longer apparent. I have lost count of the number of times over the years I have had to perform first aid on a dog, not always mine and on more occasions than one I’ve had to get first aid myself afterwards! It is important to remember, not always easy in a panicky situation, that dogs cannot tell us where the pain is, why it is there or how acute it is. Their only defence is to bite, howl or retreat, especially if trying to help causes more pain and distress. Many first aid procedures are similar to that practised on humans so a good first aid box, with some adjustment for our own dogs, practice and an ability to stay calm have always helped. The objective of any first aid is to preserve life by preventing further injury, relieve pain and recognise level of discomfort, to reduce the risk of infection, to promote recovery and to transport to a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible if required.
A high or altered breathing rate is a good indicator that something is amiss. Poisons, fevers, seizures, stress and pain can all increase or decrease the normal rate, which should be between 10 and 15 per minute, depending on the condition of the dog. To check the inhalation rate, place hands on ribcage and count for 20 seconds then multiply by 3 to get a rate per minute. The rate should be constant and even with no holding of breath or episodes of panting. If it is not even, then there are problems elsewhere and further checks are required.
By knowing what the dogs pulse rate at rest is then any abnormality is noticeable. The average pulse rate is 60 to 100 heartbeats per minute, depending on the condition of the dog. The easiest place to check the pulse is under the armpit or at the bottom of the ear canal. Count for 20 seconds and multiply by 3 to get the rate per minute. A rate that is not fluent and even signifies a blood pressure problem and will need checking every 3 minutes whilst carrying out any other procedure or during transport to a veterinary surgeon; who will require the information before treatment can commence.
Low blood pressure can be monitored by testing the response of the capillary refill reflex; this is done by gently pressing the gums, which will pale, and seeing how quickly they return to a healthy pink when removing pressure.
Temperature fluctuation can be a result of the dog going into or being in shock, usually a low reading, fever, influenza or other infectious disease, acute pain or an increase in toxicity levels, usually a high reading. The temperature is taken by inserting a sterilized, greased rectal thermometer into the anus for 2 minutes. A normal temperature is between 100.5°C to 102.5°C. Danger level is anything below 98°, when external warmth should be applied or 103.5° when cooling down is required, by fanning, bathing the paws with cool water or applying ice wrapped in a bag or towel. Water or ice should not be given unless dehydration is suspected, as the dog may have to undergo anaesthesia.
Cuts and Wounds
These usually occur on the feet from running over broken glass or nails, on the head by hitting on a branch or fence bottom or are the result of a fight. Clean the wound with fresh water or a diluted disinfectant such as T.C.P. In addition, apply an antiseptic ointment. Cuts to the pads often bleed profusely, if this is the case apply a pressure bandage to the whole foot, cling film is good for this, ensuring that the blood supply is not cut off. As these wound are usually contaminated check regularly for infection or visit the veterinary surgeon who may prescribe antibiotics. If the bleeding has not stopped in 4 hours then stitches may be required. In extreme emergency, when away from the first aid box, I have used moss and dock leaves to stem the bleeding. A boost to the immune system will help the wound to heal rapidly: I use Selenium and Vitamin E. As the cut heals, I bathe it with extract of Fennel, which relieves irritation, and helps stop the dog chewing at it.
Sting and Insect Bites
Remove sting and if possible determine what type it is. Bee stings and ant bites are acidic and should be bathed with bicarbonate of soda, wasps and jellyfish stings are alkali and should be bathed with vinegar. The most common place is in or on the mouth and the first signs are howls followed by frantic rubbing and rapid swelling of the site. If the swelling is severe and around the nose, muzzle, tongue or throat it can cause breathing difficulties and airways will need to be kept as open as possible until a veterinary surgeon can be seen. If there is no obstruction to the breathing, keep the dog calm, bathe with the above if the type of sting is known, or ice cold water if not. ‘Piriton’ tablets of 1x 4mg for a small dog, 3 x 4 mg medium dog, 5 x 4mg large dog, will help to reduce the swelling; by assisting in fighting the allergic reaction, and will also help to keep the dog calm.
A severe none weight bearing lameness is usually a fracture. If it is less severe, check pads for embedded objects such as tack, nails, thorns, stones, ice, grit, and cut or damaged nails. If the dog is licking or chewing at the foot, it is a good indication that that is the site of the problem and treat as for cuts and wounds. If the problem has been a stone, ice or grit in between the pads they may have been splayed and localised bruising will be apparent. I apply witch-hazel gel and rest the dog for 24 hours. If the dog is not chewing at the foot then the problem is higher up the leg or thigh, usually a strained muscle or ligament that will heal with rest. St. Johns Wort is a good natural painkiller and garlic or liquorish are good anti-inflammatories.
Fractured or Torn Claws
These are very sore and can become infected. If possible, trim the claw of broken or split nail and remove jagged edges. Treat as for wounds, especially if bleeding profusely, if the claw is torn at the base or out of the pad then it will require surgical removal, tape into place using the next claw as support, bandage the whole foot and take the dog to the veterinary surgeon. Dewclaws are most susceptible to being torn, in which case tape down against the leg, bandage and take the dog to the veterinary surgeon. The claw should not be removed without professional help as the bleeding can be very severe and the risk of serious infection is high.
Fits and Seizures
An epileptic seizure is a sign of a malfunction in the brain. It is caused by sudden, uncontrolled activity of neurons and can be triggered by various influences. Different types of seizures represent different degrees of brain activity; commonly classified as either generalized or partial seizures.
Any dog suffering a fit or seizure should be checked out by a veterinary surgeon to determine cause.
The most important thing to remember is that if a dog is having a fit then no restraint should be made. Move any obstacles, darken the room and remain quiet in order not to stimulate the attack.
If the dog has not regained consciousness or has a series of fits over a short time then an emergency visit to the veterinary surgeon is necessary.
If the dog suddenly develops a sore ear; the usual symptoms are shaking the head or pawing and rubbing the ear, then the most likely cause is a seed or insect that has entered the ear. Remove the foreign object carefully, check for stings and bites and if apparent treat as above. If the problem develops over a period of time then there may be a build up of ear wax, which gentle cleansing with a commercial ear cleaner, vals potion or Almond Oil and vitamin E will solve, or an ear infection such as ear mites which may require more specialised treatment. If the ear has been torn, then clean with disinfectant, apply antibiotic, turn inside out and place over the head and bandage by wrapping around jaw and across the top of the head.
If not a general condition such as conjunctivitis, entropion etc. then a topical injury, grass seed, thorns or a toxin may be present. These may scratch the eye causing the cornea to ulcerate so the most important thing is to stop the dog from rubbing the eye. Flush the eye out with a solution of ‘Optrex’ or lukewarm water. If the problem persists or there is bleeding then take to a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible. If the offending object is removed without damage then bathing with extract of cucumber or tea will help irritation.
Vomiting and Diarrhoea
This is usually a sign that the dog’s natural mechanisms have become activated in order to expel something disagreeable from the gut. Starve the dog for 12 hours; ensure there is plenty of clean water or ‘Dioralyte’ to drink. If the problem persists for more than 3 days or there is lethargy, cramping, blood in the stools or the dog is not drinking then a check up at the veterinary surgery is required.
Heatstroke, Sunburn, Scalds and Burns
Longhaired dogs or dogs with restricted breathing passages such as Boxers can easily over heat on hot days when running around or it can happen when any dog is left in a car or an enclosed kennel.
The early symptoms are excessive panting and breathing difficulties, which can progress to collapse and/or seizure. The dog should be removed from the sun or calmed down, wrapped in cold towels or bathed in cool water, fanned and given plenty of clean water to drink. Exposed areas such as the nose, ear tips or where the fur is thin can have an application of a high factor, anti allergic sun cream or sun block to prevent sunburn. If the area is burnt, ensure the dog has plenty to drink, put an ice pack to the burnt area and apply a soothing lotion such as calamine. If blistering occurs, then lightly bandage and check for infection regularly.
Dogs will eat anything at least once. If the taking in of a toxic substance is suspected then the dog needs to vomit very quickly: unless it is a liquid such as bleach, which will require a veterinary surgeon, as bringing it back up will cause more damage. Most poisons will take 2 hours to have an effect but the less that gets into the system the better. My father always used suspended charcoal but i prefer baking soda placed on the back of the tongue until swallowed or retching commences – mustard powder is preferred by many or mustard paste – right at the back of the gullet. Salt water can be used but is not as quick and 2 or 3 cupfuls may be required. If no side effects are apparent after 2 hours, make sure the dog has plenty to drink and the natural defence mechanism will do the rest. Do not feed for 12 hours and then add immune boosters to the diet in the form of natural enzymes, garlic, Selenium and Vitamin E.
Fractures, Collapse, Trauma Care and Transport
Severe non-weight bearing lameness is usually a fractured limb. This is extremely painful so a painkiller, if available, is required. I use St Johns Wort. The affected limb should be touched as little as possible and first aid treatment needs to be done as calmly and as quickly as possible to limit the distress.
Fractures of the bones below the elbow in the front legs, or knee in the back legs need to be splinted immediately at the accident site. This ensures that the joints above and below the brake is immobilised until the veterinary surgeon can set the fracture properly. The broken ends should be brought together and fixed so that the joint remains formed. If the fracture is in the foreleg then the best splint is a rolled up newspaper formed into a suitable shape and placed around the fracture site, a stick, light strips of metal or cardboard can also be used. Tape the splint in place above and below the fracture with bandage or plaster ensuring the splint is positioned one joint below and above the injury. If the fracture is in a rear limb and below the knee splint together using a material that can form the shape of the natural joint (I once used a car aerial padded with seat foam) and immobilise against the upper limb, again ensuring the splint is positioned below and above the injury. Fractures of the upper rear leg are more difficult and require expertise, it is better to immobilise and transport the dog for professional treatment. If there is a spinal injury or the dog has collapsed for other reasons then movement should be avoided if possible. Lay the dog on a firm flat surface, such as a wooden board or collapsed cardboard box, as gently as possible, grabbing the skin at the back of the neck and the bottom of the back, slide the dog on to the surface keeping the back and neck straight, then tie firmly into place. If possible, carry carefully to transport, place board flat and go to the veterinary surgery. Be aware that the dog may vomit or defecate, even if unconscious, so another person requires being present. If the dog is in no or little pain, but cannot move limbs or responds to toes being pinched, then it is likely that the spine is broken and the surgeon should be called to the site. Keep the dog warm and calm until he can be sedated.
It is not pleasant being with an injured dog; I had my first experience when very young; a traffic accident that took 4 hours of waiting for a vet to attend. I personally think that the best help the dog can get is if the carer acts calm and reassuring, regardless of what is going on inside. I understand it takes practice and experience; my father taught us a meditation technique that involves saying a mantra repeatedly whilst giving first aid, it has always worked for dog and me when dealing with pain and the confusion that ensues. I once stopped at a road accident where a one-year-old Labrador puppy had been badly injured; the dog would not let me treat him until his owner had stopped screaming. Even though he had two fractured back legs, broken teeth and blood pouring from his ear and stomach, he was more concerned at his owner’s distress. It took the vet. 45 minutes to arrive, by which time I had stemmed the bleeding and put a splint on one leg, I had my dogs in the car and the vet did a blood transfusion there and then at the side of the road, happily, I had a Christmas card every year until he passed away at the good age of 14.
First aid checklist
Alcohol wipes, Almond oil, Antiseptic, Arnica, Baby Kaolin, Blood Clot Powder, Calamine, Cold Pack, Cotton Balls, Clove Oil, Current food Supplements, Gauze Pads, Gloves, Golden Eye Ointment, Hot Pack, Knife, Nail Clippers, Needle and Stitching, Piriton (Falkor’s Pen + Tabs.), Plastic Bags, Q Tips, Saline Solution & Eye Bath, Salt, Scissors (2), Socks, Splints, St. Johns Wortm, Sulphide Ointment, Tape, Thermometer, Tweezers, Vaseline, Vet Wrap, Water Steriliser Tabs, Wipes, Witch-Hazel
This first aid guide for dog walkers was written by Bev Cobley for BDWS. Lots of great tips and advice for dog walkers wanting to learn more about dog walking and being a responsible dog walker. First aid courses can also be found at the PDSA.
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