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The basics of first aid for dogs is the same as that for humans. A few points to remember are:

  • Clear the area of any hazards that may affect you or the dog
  • assess the animal and deal with the most serious injuries first
  • if the mechanism of injury was something traumatic (ie. hit by car), try to administer first aid on the dog in the
  • position he was found – this is in case there is a head or spinal injury
  • if the injury is serious have someone call the emergency hospital to prepare them for your arrival
  • maintain a fully stocked first aid kit in your vehicle along with a board or blanket to be used as a stretcher

Assessment In A Trauma Situation

You will usually be with your dog when he is injured and therefore will know how it happened. However, in certain situations the dog may be out of sight at the time of injury which is when examining the animal is particularly important. If he is painful, care should be taken when assessing him to avoid being bitten (carrying a muzzle in your first aid kit would be a good idea).

The guidelines for your assessment are:

  • Conscious and Responsive.
  • Breathing.
  • Ambulatory.
  • Evidence of external bleeding.
  • Deformities (or evidence of broken limbs).
  • Signs of shock.
  • Signs of internal injury.

Conscious and Responsive:

Not difficult to assess -> if the dog is awake, he is conscious. Speak to him as you would normally and give an easily executed command. If he responds appropriately then his mental status is fine (this should be monitored for any change… ie. loss of consciousness, disorientation etc.). If you think there is a broken limb or spinal trauma then do not command him to move, simply check to see if he is responding to your voice.


If your dog is unconscious then it is important to check to make sure that he is breathing. Look for chest movements. Listen for breath sounds or panting. Feel for a breath by placing your hand close to the nostrils… if it is cold you will be able to see it. If the breathing is shallow then you can check by pulling a few hairs from his coat and holding them in front of his nose. The breaths will move the hairs when he breaths out.


If you dog is able to walk he is ambulatory. Assess his gait for any abnormalities. Limping indicates pain in the affected limb. If he is holding a limb off of the ground, this is a non weight-bearing lameness and is suggestive of a broken bone or severe sprain. Watch to make sure that he is walking in a coordinated fashion. Staggering could indicate a head or back injury. An uncoordinated gait could also suggest intoxication.

Evidence of External Bleeding

External bleeding refers to hemorrhage from the outer surface of the body. Just seeing blood does not mean that it is external. For example, bruising of the lungs (pulmonary contusions) may result in blood coming from the mouth which is an external surface, yet this blood represents internal injury. Do a cursory exam with your eyes and hands to check for blood. If you find an injury that is bleeding apply appropriate first aid (see wound care and bandaging). There are two types of bleeding: arterial (from an artery) and venous (from a vein). Arterial blood is bright red in colour and comes in spurts (associated with the pulse). Venous blood is dark red in colour and tends to ooze or seep.

Deformities (evidence a of broken bone)

While performing your exam for bleeding you can also check for deformities. Sometimes these are obvious and visible. If you feel an abnormal bump, particularly along the limbs, rib cage or back, it could represent a fracture or dislocation. Limb deformities can sometimes be stabilized at the scene (see fracture stabilization). If there is any question about deformities along the back or near the spine, it should be considered a possible spinal injury. Keep the dog as still as possible and proceed to the emergency hospital immediately. A backboard or stretcher of some sort would be preferable when transporting.

Signs of Shock and Internal Injury

Shock and internal bleeding can look very much alike as severe internal bleeding is a cause of shock. Shock is a physiological state usually in response to massive injury, pain or infection. Shock is life-threatening.

Signs of shock that you can look for are:

  • Pale gums (colour should be pink)
  • Prolonged capillary refill time (CRT) (how fast the gums become pink again when you blanch them)
  • Rapid heart rate (greater than 150)
  • Decreased level of consciousness (drowsiness etc.)

Practical Skills

  • Cursory exam
  • Vital Parameters
  • CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)
  • Wound care and bandaging
  • Fracture care and splinting
  • Injections

Cursory exam: the guidelines of a cursory exam have been outlined in the introduction.

Vital Parameters: heart rate/pulse; colour of the gums; capillary refill time (CRT); respiratory rate; temperature (you will not need to measure this :).

heart rate -> normal heart rate for a medium sized dog at rest is 80-120 beats per minute
colour of the gums should be pink -> red, white or gray is abnormal
capillary refill time -> is measured by pressing firmly on a pink part of the gums above the teeth and measuring how long it takes for the colour to return – normally the CRT of a dog is 1-2 seconds (always < 3 seconds) respiratory rate -> at rest the rate would be 10-30 breaths per minute

CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation): CPR is utilized in two types of situations. In either case the dog has been evaluated and found to be unconscious. The first situation involves a dog that is not breathing but still has a pulse. In this case rescue breathing will be the first aid applied. The second situation involves a dog that is not breathing and has no evidence of a pulse. In this case full CPR will be employed.

Rescue breathing is also known as “mouth to nose”.
Dog snouts need to be secured in a closed position prior to initiating artificial respiration. You do this by making sure the tongue is pulled forward and the mouth cleared of any material, then cupping both hands around the muzzle to hold it shut you place your mouth over the nostrils and blow until you see the chest expand. Do not do this too quickly as you can risk injury the lung if you blow too hard. Give 3-5 full breaths then check for a pulse and see if the dog has starting breathing on its own – if not then continue rescue breathing 12-20 x per minute. (You will need to press on the belly every few minutes to expel the air that has been forced into the stomach.) If spontaneous respiration does not return within 5 minutes continue rescue breathing and transport the dog to a veterinary facility. Make sure to check for a pulse after ever cycle of breaths.

CPR is the first aid applied when the dog is unconscious, not breathing and has no pulse. The first thing to do in this situation is begin rescue breathing as outlined above. After the initial 3-5 breaths check for a pulse – if no pulse begin chest compressions. Large breed dogs should be laying with their right side down… if they are not, CPR can still be applied when they are left side down.

Bend the front leg at a ninety degree angle and pull it back so the elbow is overlying the chest -> this is where the heart is
Place one hand over the heart and cover with the other hand – or simply place one hand over the heart and the other one beside it
Depress the rib cage 2-4 inches
Repeat 80-100 x per minute (this is faster than with human compressions)
If 2 people are involved with the CPR then rescue breaths should be given every 2-3 compressions
If you are alone then remember 2 to 12 -> give 2 rescue breaths after every 12 compressions
Continue CPR until: you are exhausted and cannot continue; you arrive at a veterinary hospital; the dog is obviously breathing on his own… and then bring him to the clinic
Note: you may be successful at obtaining a pulse in the field – in this case continue rescue breathing while checking constantly for a pulse

Wound Care and Bandaging: The 3 main types of wounds you will probably encounter are lacerations, crushing injuries and degloving injuries (otherwise known as “road rash”). Lacerations are cuts caused by sharp objects or heavy blunt force. Degloving injuries are as a result of the skin and underlying layers being pulled away from the muscle and bone underneath. Crushing injuries most often occur as a result of bites from other dogs.

Lacerations tend to be relatively clean wounds but like to bleed. When applying first aid to a peripheral laceration it is important to ensure that the bandage is snug enough to slow or stop the bleeding while still allowing blood to circulate to the rest of the limb. Lacerations to the torso or face are more difficult to bandage and may required manual pressure until professional care can be obtained.

Degloving wounds tend to be dirty and dry and therefore require more preliminary care to ensure tissue viability. The bandaging applied to these wounds is not aimed at stemming blood flow but preserving healthy tissue. In this case moist gauze is applied over the wound and under an absorbent dressing.

Crushing injuries usually result from dog bites. The puncture hole you see from a dog bite represents about 1/10th of the total injury. Dog jaws apply crushing force that destroys much of the underling tissue and is considered a serious injury. First aid for these injuries is to proceed to a veterinary hospital immediately (do not wait for the injury to worsen).

Fracture care and Splinting: Limb fractures are the only fractures that can be addressed in the field and even then can present a challenge. A lot of fractures required surgical repair but in the meantime stabilization can provided pain relief and prevent further injury to the ends of the bones and the soft tissue surrounding them. The demonstration will concentrate on basic stabilization until you can get to a veterinary facility.

(Prepared originally for the Halifax Police Department, K9 Unit and modified for this website. Dr. Kathy Lamey)

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