Most of us would go to the ends of the earth to help our dog but if you run in to an emergency on the trail would you know what to do? Summer is almost here and more people and pups are hitting the trail so we figured now is a good time to brush up on your first aid knowledge.
First Aid Kits
While everyone’s first aid kit will be a little bit different, but there a few basic things that we should have.
- Pet ID card – The idea of carrying your pets’ information is often overlooked. You know what Fido is allergic to and you’ve got your vet on speed dial but what if something happens to you? So what should you include? The basics come to mind – your pups name, age, and your primary vets contact information but in case they can’t get in touch with your vet it would also be wise to list most recent vaccine dates, allergies, what medications they’re on and any existing medical conditions. If you’re traveling far from home it’s also worthwhile noting the information of a local emergency vet in case whoever finds your pup is not familiar with local resources.
- Vet wrap – If you haven’t heard of vet wrap you’re welcome – we have just introduced you to the most functional item in your kit. What is it? It’s a self-adherent veterinary medical fabric. There are a million uses for it but some of the most common would be wound care, to tape a sprained wrist or ankle, to secure a splint or an eye patch, or to create a tourniquet. If you aren’t familiar with it we suggest you test it before you take it out with you. It’s very easy to apply it too tightly and risk cutting off circulation.
- Gauze pads – We think this goes without saying, but you don’t need to go overboard on all of the different sizes and styles. Just bring a few of the big ones and you can cut them to the size you need.
- Medical tape – There are often discussions on the usefulness of medical tape if you’re bringing vet wrap but there are some places that vet wrap just won’t come in handy. Medical tape is often small and light adding minimal weight and taking up minimal space in your pack.
- Saline solution – Sometimes a wound needs a little bit more than just a wipe to clean it out and this is where saline solution comes in handy. Saline solution can be used to rinse their eyes should anything get in there. If your saline solution doesn’t come in a bottle that allows you to pour in a steady stream make sure you bring along an eyedropper or a syringe!
- Styptic pencil – If you trim your pups nails you probably already have one of these at home but have you ever thought of bring it on the trail with you? Remember that while these can stop bleeding there will be a little sting to your pup so make sure you’re holding them firmly while applying.
- Emergency blanket – Most people think of an emergency blanket as a way to stay warm in the event that you get lost but did you know you can also use it to create a shady spot? In a pinch you can also use it to fashion a sling or a tourniquet – another great multi-functional item to have in your kit!
- Antiseptic wipes – Sometimes you have no idea what got your pup so it’s important to clean the wound. Our vet tech friends say that if you choose only one go with Povidone because it can be used around eyes.
- Tweezers and tick spoon – Tweezers are handy for removing splinters, shards etc. but if you travel in an area with ticks it’s important to carry a tick spoon along with your tweezers. Tick spoons are AMAZING and cheap and are the best way to remove a tick. If you’re not experienced and you’re trying to use tweezers you run a high chance of squishing the tick to bits (which can push any potential diseases into your dog) or not getting the head of the tick (which can lead to a lot of discomfort and minor absences).
- Instant cold packs – If you’re not familiar with instant cold packs they are most often made with ammonium nitrate, calcium ammonium nitrate or urea. When activated the pack instantly becomes cold (hence the name) and can be used to slow down blood flow to an injury which ultimately reduces pain and swelling.
- Disposable gloves – Because sometimes first aid gets messy and it’s better to protect both you and your pup.
Remember, this list is not exhaustive, you will need to add to it based on your own pups needs or the season you’re hiking in. As an example, many first aid kits come with sting relief pads that are very useful during bug season. You’ll also need to consider how you carry it – one of our Trail Testers uses a small plastic sandwich box in case they need to soak anything. We use a dry bag to keep things dry and so that we can use it to soak as well.
When we built the list above we’ve also assumed that you carry basic survival gear (e.g. multi tool, paracord) and have not included these items on our list. There are also regional considerations, for example, do you hike in an area that has snakes? Do the trails you frequent have poison ivy? All of these would add different things to your kit.
If you’re not comfortable building your own first aid kit from scratch there are a number of different first aid kits on the market designed specifically for pets. Check out our reviews of the Alcott Explorer First Aid Kit and the Kurgo Pet First Aid Kit.
Basic Dog First Aid
Now that we’ve talked about what you should have with you, we’ll run through some basic first aid procedures that you should know in case of emergency. Before attempting first aid it is important to remember that sometimes if done incorrectly you can do more harm than good. If you need to attempt something that you are not familiar with or comfortable with sometimes your best option is to book it for the trailhead and seek professional help.
Depending on the severity of the incident you may need to create a makeshift muzzle for your pet. If you opt to create a make shift muzzle please be careful and monitor your pup. You want to ensure that you are not restricting their ability to breathe or pant. Additionally, if they are sick and are at risk of throwing up a makeshift muzzle may complicate this further.
Below we’ll go through what some of the most common injuries on the trail are and what you can do to help. Remember to always seek medical help for severe injuries and even for some minor ones it’s worthwhile to do a follow up visit to your vet.
- Bites and stings – Bites and stings can come from wild animals or sometimes other pups you meet on the trail. If you carry a sting relief pad in your first aid kit give your pup a wipe to provide some instant relief but follow up with your vet to make sure that the sting wasn’t serious. Your treatment for bites will depend on the severity of the bite and what it was received from. If it was a snake bite try to identify the snake (if it’s safe take a picture) and rush your pup to the vet. If it was a bite from another pup it’s important to cleanse the bite as soon as you can – this is where your saline solution can come in handy. Make sure to get the other owners contact information so you can follow up and get proof that their pup is up to date on their vaccinations.
- Cuts and lacerations – It can sometimes be hard to notice a cut immediately on some of our floofier friends or ones with darker fur so if your pup is favoring an area or licking at an area it’s worth checking it out. Once you notice the cut your course of action will depend on how severe it is. If it’s a minor cut you can cleanse the wound and wrap it up. If the bleeding hasn’t stopped apply direct pressure with a clean item for 3 minutes and then check again to see if the bleeding has stopped. If your pup has been punctured by a large item that is still embedded in the wound DO NOT remove it – you can do more harm than good by pulling a foreign body out of your pup. If you need to, and it is safe, you can cut it down so that you can more easily transport them to your vet. If it is safe, you an apply a doughnut bandage to make the transport of your pup easier and to prevent the foreign body from further injuring your pup.
- Sprains and strains – Have you ever sprained or strained while on the trail? Chances are if it’s happened to your pup too! If you notice that your pup has sprained or strained something stabilize it to prevent further injury. You can use your vet wrap to bandage your pup or to make a temporary splint.
- Choking – We’ve all got that one dog friend who likes to eat EVERYTHING they find (seriously, how are rocks seen as something tasty?) but would you know what to do if your pup started choking on some of the random goodness they found? While you may be freaking out it’s important to try and help your pet remain calm. Take a look in their mouth – can you reach the object safely? If you can see it remove it with your hand or your tweezers gently to not cause any further trauma. If you can’t see the item or your pup passes out place your hands on the side of your pups rib cage and apply firm quick pressure to quickly expel the air from their lungs and dislodge the item.
- Heatstroke – You may be surprised to learn that dogs get heatstroke too. If your dog is panting or drooling excessively and has reddened gums and moist tissues of the body he or she may be experiencing heat stroke. The first thing you need to do is get them out of the sun and into a shaded area. If you don’t have a good shaded spot around this is where your emergency blanket can come in handy. If you have a water source nearby (e.g. river, lake) run cool (not cold) water over your pups body or immerse them in cool water. If you’ve only got the water you brought you can wet down some towels or clothing with cool water and place them on your pup. Pay attention to the length of time that the towels or clothing are on your as they will warm with the heat that your pup is giving off.
- Frostbite – If you need to be out in weather that could lead to frostbite please take the necessary precautions and protect your pups too. The most common spots for frostbite on pups is the tips of the ears, the tips of the tails, the scrotum and their paws. If you notice that your pup is shivering or shaking, has tissue discolouration, is in pain when you touch them, has swelling or blisters or brittle areas your pup may have frostbite. Your best solution is to get them out of the cold and in to a warm dry area. If you don’t have pet gear you can modify human gear to fit your pup to keep things from getting worse. Got an extra glove? That can be turned into boots with the help of some vet wrap. If you are strong enough you may want to consider carrying your pup in your arms or your backpack on your way to the trailhead. Remember to warm them up gradually to and try to avoid warming while still exposed to the cold. You should also avoid rubbing the affected area to prevent further damage. All cases of frostbite should result in a trip to the vet – just because it looks okay doesn’t mean it is!
- Breathing issues – If your pup stops breathing first check to see if they have anything lodged in their throat blocking their airways. If you’ve dislodged an item and they’re still not breathing or there is nothing stuck in there you can administer artificial respiration. Lay your dog on their right side, pull their tongue to the front of the mouth and put your mouth near the nose and blow until you can see the chest expand. If you have a larger pup ensure that their mouth stays closed by sealing it off with your hand around their muzzle. Repeat every 4 to 5 seconds until your pup starts breathing on their own again. Make sure that you are checking for a pulse once per minute.
Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of following up with your vet for any of the more serious injuries. We hope that none of you ever need the information we’ve provided but in the event that you do remember to try and stay calm to help keep your pup calm. A calm pup is much easier to assist than a frantic one.
Interested in taking a course or want more information than we’ve provided? Here are a few resources below on pet first aid:
St John Ambulance Pet First Aid (courses offered in Canada)
Dogsafe Canine First Aid (online learning, course instructors and online resources)
Red Cross Pet Safety (preparedness and online resources)
American Veterinary Medical Association (online resources)
PetMD Common Dog Emergencies (online resources)
Originally posted: Spring 2017
Last updated: Spring 2018
**Disclaimer – this is provided for information/education purposes. We are not professionals – if you are unsure about what you’ve read or how it might work for your pup please consult your vet! If your pup gets hurt on the trail and you aren’t sure if the steps you’ve taken are all of the steps that you need to take please consult your vet. When in doubt consult a professional!