First Aid for Dogs: A Guide to Basic Supplies and Procedures
No pet parent expects a medical emergency to happen. But if it does, you may find that being prepared can help you navigate the situation more calmly and confidently.
First aid for dogs isn’t a substitute for veterinary care. However, it can help keep a dog as stable and comfortable as possible until they make it to the vet. It might even save a dog’s life.
Here are some important things to know about dog and puppy first aid.
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What to Keep in Your Dog’s First Aid Kit
Here’s a list of commonly recommended items for first aid and emergency situations.
Phone numbers and addresses of local emergency veterinarians and pet poison hotlines (ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435, or the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661).
Instructions with pictures for what to do when a pet is choking, such as the external extraction technique (XXT) for objects stuck in the throat.
Something that can be used to transport your pup to the vet. Depending on their size, this might mean a carrier, a large blanket, etc. Use a leash only if your dog can safely and comfortably walk.
A muzzle for safety. A basket muzzle is best because it allows a dog to pant and breathe through their mouth. In a pinch, a strip of gauze can be tied around the muzzle.
An Elizabethan collar to prevent your pet from licking a wound, removing a bandage, ingesting topical ointments, or ingesting toxic substances stuck that were spilled on their fur.
A flashlight or headlamp.
Latex or nitrile gloves.
A pet thermometer, along with lubricant (KY jelly) for insertion if using a rectal thermometer.
Instant cold packs for bruises and swelling.
Tweezers for removing ticks or splinters.
Saline eye wash.
Styptic/blood clotting powder (especially for torn toenails).
Wound cleaning and bandaging supplies.
Appropriate liquids to flush and disinfect a wound. Chlorhexidine 2% and povidone iodine are good options, although both must be diluted. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol to clean wounds as they can damage healthy tissues and delay healing (and alcohol stings!).
Cotton balls and q-tips.
Sterile gauze pads (including non-stick pads) and gauze roll.
Bandaging tape. Don’t use human bandages or very sticky tape that could rip out your dog’s fur when removed.
Self-adhesive vet wrap.
Clean cloths or towels.
Hydrogen peroxide 3% solution for inducing vomiting (but ONLY if your vet instructs you to do so).
Vet-approved medications. Many medications are toxic for pets, so check with your veterinarian first for safe options and appropriate doses/formulations. One common inclusion is Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) for insect stings and allergic reactions.
The same goes for topical medications like antibiotic ointments. Ask your vet about pet-safe options prior to including them in your first aid kit.
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Basic First Aid for Dogs
While different types of injuries and illnesses require their own specific steps, the following is a good overview of how to approach and assess a dog during a medical emergency.
Step 1: Secure the Dog
Before approaching an injured dog, check for safety concerns like oncoming traffic, downed power lines, etc. Ensure your own safety, because you won’t be able to help your pup if you get injured yourself.
Dogs who are scared or painful might bite as a reflex, even if they’re normally friendly. Move slowly, speak soothingly, and avoid getting bitten when handling an injured pet.
Be especially cautious when helping a dog you don’t know, since their rabies vaccination status is unknown.
Step 2: Assess the Dog’s Condition
While not an exhaustive list, some conditions that warrant an emergency veterinary visit include being hit by a car, difficulty breathing, broken bones, bleeding that is excessive or won’t stop after applying pressure for 5-10 minutes, penetrating wounds into the chest or abdomen, and loss of consciousness.
If a pet has a severe injury or condition, rushing straight to an emergency veterinarian is often better than wasting time trying to further assess the animal yourself.
But in many cases, it’s hard to tell whether a dog requires urgent veterinary care or can be treated at home. Start by looking for any obvious abnormalities or concerning symptoms. You can also check your dog’s vital signs, including their temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and gum color. Keep a chart of what’s normal for your dog’s size or breed, so you can recognize when things are abnormal.
Step 3: Provide Emergency First Aid
If you are comfortable in your assessment and first aid knowledge, take some steps to help the dog. Common examples are provided in the next section.
Prepare to safely transport your dog to the vet. Keep them warm (unless they have heat stroke) with a thick blanket or towel. Place a muzzle (ensure your dog can still breathe well) to prevent dog bites, or wrap your dog in a thick blanket or towel for protection.
Don’t move your dog more than absolutely necessary, especially if they’ve been hit by a car or you suspect a broken bone. Small dogs can be placed in a carrier or sturdy box. For larger dogs, try a makeshift stretcher using a strong board, sled, or even a thick blanket for carrying them.
Step 4: Call the Vet to Let Them Know You’re On Your Way
If possible, it’s usually best to call your vet or an emergency veterinarian’s office BEFORE administering first aid, so they can give specific advice for your pet’s situation.
Informing the vet team that you are coming also helps them prepare—so they can receive and treat your pup immediately.
First Aid Procedures for Common Dog Emergencies
Remember that veterinary care is still needed. Home care is rarely a substitute for professional assessment and medical treatment.
Each situation is unique. Use these as a general guideline for dog or puppy first aid.
External Bleeding and Open Wounds
Severe blood loss can be fatal. And even minor wounds are at risk of infection.
Apply pressure with a clean cloth or gauze pad. If bleeding is copious or won’t stop after 5-10 minutes of consistent pressure, seek immediate veterinary care. Cover and protect the wound (and continue to apply pressure) on the way to the veterinary hospital with bandaging materials or a clean cloth.
If bleeding has stopped and home care is appropriate for the size and severity of the injury, flush or clean the wound using supplies from your pet first aid kit. Gently dry the area, then apply gauze or bandaging material. Ensure wraps or bandages on the limbs aren’t so tight as to cut off circulation. Cleaning and wrapping may also be appropriate when veterinary care must be delayed (for example, if the injury occurred during a long trail hike).
Internal bleeding can be deadly but also difficult to recognize. Signs might include abdominal swelling, coughing up or vomiting blood, pale gums, weakness, or a weak and fast pulse. However, these symptoms could also indicate other health problems, many of which are equally serious.
If you have any suspicion of internal bleeding, bring your pup to a vet right away. Try to keep them calm and quiet on the way.
Serious and fatal injuries are common when a pet is hit by a car. Even if you don’t see any obvious wounds, internal bleeding or other internal injuries may be present. Seek immediate veterinary care.
Due to the risk of spinal injury, broken ribs, and broken bones, avoid moving your dog more than absolutely necessary. Find something sturdy on which to transport them.
Try to move any furniture or other objects your dog could collide with, and place a barrier to prevent falling down the stairs. Pets won’t swallow their tongue. Avoid placing your fingers in or near your dog’s mouth—accidental bites are common.
Call your vet or an emergency vet for advice and to see if urgent care is needed. Most seizures stop on their own (while rare, one that doesn’t stop requires emergency care).
Fractures and Broken Bones
Broken bones are extremely painful. Avoid handling your dog more than necessary, transport them securely, and remember a painful pup might bite.
Placing a splint is not advised in most cases. Splints can do more harm than good if not placed correctly, causing pain and creating additional complications.
For heat/thermal burns, run cold water over the area for a few minutes, or use a cold compress. For chemical burns, flush the area with running water for several minutes.
Seek veterinary care. Burns are typically treated similarly to open wounds and are at risk of infection and pain.
In some cases, inducing vomiting is recommended. In other cases—such as with sharp or caustic substances—vomiting could make things worse. So, don’t initiate vomiting unless your vet recommends it.
Contact your veterinarian or a pet poison helpline right away. If possible, find the box or packaging for what your dog ingested, or a piece of the plant they ate, etc. This information will save time and allow more accurate treatment recommendations by helping a veterinarian identify the toxic substance.
If your dog can still breathe, keep them as calm as possible and seek emergency vet care. If you can easily see and remove the object at the top of the throat, go ahead and do so. But avoid this if the risks of pushing the object further down the throat, or being bitten by your pet, are too great.
For dogs who can’t breathe at all or collapse, use the external extraction technique (XXT) or a modified Heimlich maneuver. Follow up with a veterinarian right away.
Severe allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock can be fatal. A few possible causes include vaccine reactions, insect bites or bee stings, or venomous snake bites.
Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary care. Clinical signs might include swelling of the face or muzzle, hives, sudden vomiting or diarrhea, difficulty breathing, or collapse. If you have a dose of Benadryl your vet has approved and you can safely administer it, this may help slow down the symptoms on your way to the vet.
Vomiting and/or Diarrhea
While a little upset stomach is usually not a cause for emergency care, severe vomiting and diarrhea can cause significant dehydration that can lead to death. Sometimes, significant blood loss also occurs.
If there’s any doubt, call a veterinarian’s office to see if they recommend coming in. Keep plenty of clean drinking water available.
Symptoms might include lethargy/slowing down, excessive panting, difficulty breathing, restlessness, drooling, or collapse.
Move your dog to a cooler spot (ideally air conditioning) immediately. Rinse them with cool (not cold) water. Use a fan for ventilation if possible. Take your dog to the vet right away.
SEE ALSO: Aural Hematomas in Dogs
When and How to Perform Dog CPR
Much like human medical care, CPR in dogs begins with the ABCs.
Airway: Check that the airway is open. Use a tongue depressor rather than your fingers in your dog’s mouth, and have good lighting. Try to remove any obstructions like vomit or foreign objects.
Breathing: If your dog isn’t breathing, administer rescue breaths. Place their head and neck in a straight line. Place your hand over your dog’s muzzle. While holding their mouth shut, blow into the nostrils a few times. Watch for the chest to expand with each breath.
Watch for a response. If your pet does not start breathing on their own, administer up to 20 breaths per minute.
Cardiac function: Feel the chest just behind your pup’s elbow for a heartbeat. You can also learn to feel for a pulse on your dog’s inner thigh near the groin. If no heartbeat or pulse are detected and your pet isn’t breathing, you may begin chest compressions.
Your dog should be lying on their right side. Press down on the widest, middle part of the rib cage at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute, while pausing to administer a rescue breath approximately every 30 compressions.
For small dogs, perform compressions using your thumb on one side of the chest and your fingers on the other. For medium or larger dogs, press on just the side of the chest that is facing up. Try to compress the chest wall 30-50%, allowing it to fully expand again between each compression.
Unfortunately, most dogs who require CPR don’t survive, because of the extent of their underlying illness or injuries.
However, in a pup who will otherwise pass away without CPR, there is no harm in trying. It might keep a pup alive long enough to get to the veterinary hospital for life-saving medical treatments.
SEE ALSO: Dog Sedatives: When and How to Use Them
Identifying Shock in Dogs
What is Shock?
Shock means a dog’s blood flow to crucial organs is limited. It can be fatal very quickly, or cause permanent damage to body tissues and organs even if a pup survives. Examples of causes include severe blood loss, heart or lung disease, traumatic injuries, heatstroke, anaphylaxis, etc.
Signs of Shock
Symptoms may include rapid weak pulses, shallow or distressed breathing, pale gums, listlessness, collapse, or unconsciousness. Dogs might appear distressed or dazed.
First Aid for Shock
Immediate veterinary care is crucial! In the meantime, try to keep your dog warm (unless heatstroke is the cause) and calm. If breathing or heartbeats have ceased, CPR may be performed.
While many of the injuries discussed here are very serious and can be fatal, knowledge (of what to look for and how to administer first aid) is power. Prompt care can help many beloved pets recover and continue living their best life with their favorite human.
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