Emergencies come in all forms: automobile accidents, bite wounds, burns, heatstroke, poisoning, seizures, and more. With the rise in warm weather, travel and outdoor excursions such as hiking and camping, we see an increase in pet injuries. From heat stroke and bleeding wounds to breathing loss or seizure, proper treatment from the onset is essential. Knowing a little first aid can go a long way in preserving life, reducing pain and discomfort and minimizing permanent disability or disfigurement.

First Steps in Any Emergency

  1. Keep calm and assess the scene for any additional threats to you or your pet. This is important for everyone’s safety.
  2. Keep your dog warm (except in the case of heat stroke), as quiet as possible, and keep movement to a minimum, especially if there is possible trauma, broken limbs, or any neurological symptoms.
  3. Contact your veterinary hospital, inform them of the situation and get specific first aid advice.
  4. To safely move or transport an injured dog, get somebody to help you. For a small dog, put him into his carrier. Remove the top for easy and safe access to the carrier; DO NOT push an injured dog through the small door or opening. Alternatively, use a suitable container such as a strong cardboard box. For a larger dog, create a makeshift stretcher out of a rigid material such as an appropriate sized, sturdy piece of wood. Carefully maneuver your dog onto a blanket or coat so that he can be gently moved to the carrier, box, or stretcher.
  5. Get to a veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

Restraining or Calming an Injured Dog

The majority of injured animals will be panicked and/or disoriented. The stress of an emergency can cause an otherwise friendly animal to act aggressively. Although most panicky dogs will respond to a calm, soothing voice, use caution when approaching or touching any injured animal. It is important to ensure the safety of all rescue personnel that are attempting to assist with an injured animal. Some of the types of restraint that can ensure the safety of both dog and humans include:

  •  Muzzling. You can create a muzzle out of a leash, belt, sock, rope, or strap. Loop the cord around the dog’s muzzle and tighten it to prevent the animal from biting. Dogs have only one muscle to open their jaw so once the jaw is closed, it is relatively easy to hold it safely shut. Animals can breathe through their nostrils unless the nose is injured or obstructed.
  • Wrapping. You can wrap the body of an unmanageable pet in a blanket or towel. Be sure to keep the head exposed and do not constrict the trachea.
  • Immobilizing: If you are suspicious of spinal injury, lay the animal on a board and secure it on the board with straps or cords. Pay special attention to immobilizing the head and neck.

Recognizing and Treating Shock

Shock is a complex systemic or whole-body reaction to a number of emergency situations. These include severe trauma, hemorrhage or sudden loss of blood, heart failure, and other causes of decreased circulation, i.e., sudden, severe allergic reaction or heat stroke. A life-threatening fall in blood pressure is a dangerous part of shock. If not treated quickly and effectively, systemic shock may cause irreversible injury to body cells, and it can be fatal.

Clinical signs of systemic shock include rapid breathing and elevated heart rate with pale mucous membranes: gums, lips, or under the eyelids. The feet or ears may feel cold, and your dog may vomit and shiver. As shock progresses, most pets become quiet and unresponsive. Keep the dog as quiet as possible and try to conserve heat by covering it with blankets, towels, or even newspapers. Then, follow the ABC’s of first aid: Airway, Breathing & Cardiac function.

  • Airway. Anything that obstructs the airway prevents oxygen from entering the lungs. Do your best to clear the mouth and throat of any obstruction such as vomit, saliva, or foreign bodies such as grass, sticks, or balls. Be careful; your dog may bite you in panic.
  • Breathing. If the dog is unconscious and does not appear to be breathing, try gently pumping the chest with the palm of your hand, at the same time feeling just behind the elbow to detect a heartbeat or pulse. If this is unsuccessful, give the dog rescue breathing (see below). Be careful; injured pets may bite you out of fear. If you are unsure about the health or vaccination status of the injured pet, avoid contact with bodily fluids and blood.
  • Cardiac function. If you are unable to detect a heartbeat or pulse, or if it appears weak and slow, try pressing on the chest with your palm and elevate the lower half of the body to promote blood flow to the brain. Follow the steps below, under CPR.

Performing Rescue Breathing

When you encounter an unresponsive dog, the first step is to ensure that there is an open airway.

  1. Carefully pull the tongue out of the mouth.
  2. Extend the head and neck so that they are in a straight line. DO NOT overextend the neck in animals that have obvious head and neck trauma.
  3. Carefully clear the mouth of any debris that may be obstructing breathing.
  4. Place your hand over the animal’s muzzle while holding the mouth shut and extending the neck. For small dogs, you can sometimes improvise with a Styrofoam cup or other similar item by placing the opening over the dog’s face and poking a large hole in the bottom for you to breathe through. Ensure a relatively tight seal around the muzzle.
  5. Blowing into the nostrils, give 2-3 breaths and watch for a rise in the chest. If you do not see a rise in the chest, reposition the neck or search for airway obstruction.
  6. If you believe there is an airway obstruction that you cannot see, turn the dog upside down, with the back against your chest. Give 5 sharp thrusts to the abdomen to try and expel any object. This maneuver can be difficult to do in large dogs and you will need assistance.
  7. For rescue breathing, provide 20 breaths per minute.
  8. If the dog fails to breathe on his own, you may attempt an acupressure maneuver. Press firmly with your fingernail or other hard object in the space just beneath the nose on the upper lip (nasal philtrum). Maintain the pressure for 10-30 seconds.

CPR for Dogs

After you have established an airway and begun rescue breathing, if there are still no obvious signs of life you should attempt chest compressions.

  1. Make sure there is no major bleeding. If there is bleeding, have an assistant manage the bleeding (see below) while you perform CPR.
  2. If possible, lay the dog on his right side.
  3. Feel for a heartbeat or femoral pulse. The femoral pulse is located inside the leg in the groin region. Dogs do not have a readily palpable carotid (neck) pulse.
  4. Bend the left forearm and note the location where the elbow touches the chest. This is close to the middle of the rib cage.
  5. Placing one hand on each side of the chest in the middle of the rib cage, vigorously compress the chest 100-120 times per minute. For small dogs (under 10 pounds), use one hand to compress the chest from both sides by putting your fingers on one side and your thumb on the other side of the chest. The rate should be about 30 compressions for every 2 breaths.  
  6. Try to compress the chest wall at least 30-50%. This is about 1″ (2 cm) in small dogs and 2-3″ (5-8 cm) in larger dogs.

For online courses in canine CPR, click here.

First Aid for More Common Emergencies

  • Blood loss. Once you have followed A, B, C above, if the bleeding is severe, try to stop it. If bleeding is from a cut pad or paw, apply a dressing using a piece of absorbent bandage or clothing. If the bleeding persists and is soaking through the bandage, do not waste any more time, and get to your veterinarian, since this is a medical emergency. Most bleeding wounds will require medical or surgical treatment. If the wounds are treated within four hours, they can often be sutured. Deep cuts treated after four hours have increased risk of infection and complication and require more extensive surgery.
  • Burns and scalds. Cool the burned area with cold water as quickly as possible. Cover the burned area with damp towels. If the injury is due to a caustic substance, rinse with cold water for 15 minutes and contact your veterinarian for further advice. Animals that have been exposed to heat or smoke from a fire should be offered water as soon as the situation is stable.
  • Eye injuries. Injuries to the eye are always very painful and can threaten the eyesight. If a foreign body (grass awn, stick, hair, etc.) can be seen, it may be possible to remove it by gently rinsing the eye with eyewash or contact lens saline solution (be sure to check that there are no other ingredients and it is ONLY saline solution). Do not allow the dog to rub the eye, either with its paws or against the furniture or carpet. Seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
  • Seizures. Seizures can be due to many causes. These include eclampsia (milk fever in a nursing mother), toxicities, and epilepsy. If due to eclampsia, remove the puppies from the mother immediately. All dogs that are seizuring or have had a recent seizure should be kept in a dark, quiet, confined area until medical help can be sought. DO NOT reach into your dog’s mouth; they will not swallow their tongue, but you will get bit. Contact your veterinarian immediately.
  • Heat stroke. This most commonly occurs in hot weather when dogs are left in cars without adequate ventilation. Body temperature rises dramatically. Initial clinical signs include excessive panting and obvious distress but can quickly progress to coma and death. Reduce the pet’s body temperature as quickly as possible using cool water and keep the dog wet during transport to the veterinarian. Keep the car windows open, as evaporation will help reduce body temperature. Avoid using ice or ice water because this may drop the temperature too quickly and cause additional complications.

Above all else, after being involved in any accident or emergency, it is important that you take your dog for a veterinary examination as soon as possible, even if he appears to have recovered fully. There can be unseen, underlying problems that go unrecognized by a well-meaning but medically untrained pet owner. No one wants to risk seeing these problems go untreated or lead to life-threatening situations.