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Basic Flat-Coat First Aid

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by Beckie Williams, DVM

This article or any part of it may not be reproduced without written consent of the author.

Basic animal first aid would be a never ending novel if one was so naive to think that everything could ever be covered. Dogs are like kids in the sense that they can continually come up with new ways to hurt themselves. This short article will offer some basic guidelines for the novice and perhaps educate some of those owners who have some knowledge and experience in dog first aid. Remember none of this is intended to take the place of a veterinarian and in many cases advice from a veterinarian or a trained technician is only a phone call away.

1. Overheating

Overheating in dogs is not only related to the outside temperature but also to the age of the dog, the weight of the dog, the excitement level of the dog, and even the stress level of the dog. Many people dismiss the early signs of overheating because they don’t think the temperature is hot enough for the dog to overheat or the dog has been in the shade. Overheating can occur even on cool days. It can happen to field dogs who have been in and out of water. So unless you have a working thermometer don’t rule it out.

Signs: Include excessive panting, hot to the touch, collapse, and body temperature greater than 105.

Equipment to Treat: Thermometer if possible. Many times a thermometer that gets too hot in your car will not work. The best thing to do if you do not have one handy is to feel the inside of the lips, thighs, and ears and compare them to another dog. You will also need ice and a hose. Water, and rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle if available.

Treatment: Submerse in cool water, not ice water because lowering the body temperature too rapidly or too low can result in shock. Apply alcohol and ice to the belly, feet and ears. In the past it was recommended to give cold water enemas, but I would reserve this treatment for the veterinary office as it makes it impossible to estimate the core temperature of the dog. Once the temperature is lower than 103 stop, as once the temperature starts to drop it can go down very rapidly, to the point of causing shock. Take the temperature each 10 minutes during the cooling.

After the temperature in under control take the dog to the veterinarian. Overheating can cause tissue damage and is excessively hard on the liver. Your veterinarian may use treatments to help stabilize tissue and may want to do some lab work on the dog. Do not work the dog for at least 72 hours as overheating may cause hemorrhage that can be fatal even after the dog appears to be fine. A very famous field dog died during a trial a few years back because his owner/handler didn’t rest him. He had overheated the day before and didn’t take the veterinarian seriously when he was told not to work him.

2. Open Wounds

Treatment is similar for wounds in the initial stages if the wounds are mild or severe. The first step is to stop excessive bleeding. Use direct pressure with a towel, sock or even newspaper. Hold firmly for 5 minute intervals until the bleeding is stopped. Tourniquets are not recommended as they can cause tissue and nerve damage. If the bleeding will not stop with simple pressure add an ice pack or use a padded bandage until you can get the dog to a veterinarian.

Remove excessive hair with clippers, at least half an inch around the wound. It will grow back. It is impossible to keep a wound clean when it keeps getting contaminated with hair. Clippers, scissors or a razor will usually work. There are battery operated pet trimmers available from WAHL that are very inexpensive and work well on small wounds.

Flush the wound with a large volume of water, contact saline solution is cheap, sterile and works well. Bottle water or even tap water also works. Peroxide is ok but you’ll need a lot so I’d use water the first time. Remove as much debris as possible. Go under the wound edges, some bleeding is normal. If the wound may need sutures it is important that the wound edges stay moist.

Scrub, hard and long and yes, it is going to hurt, with soap. Betadine or an iodine base scrub is best by nolvasan, or even Ivory or Dawn dish soap will work. Gauze sponges are ideal, but even a bandana will work. Towels tend to leave lint, but in an emergency they can be used also.

Do not put ointment or powders in severe wounds. Just clean them and get them to the veterinarian. If they will not stop bleeding or contamination is a risk then carefully bandage them, but do not use ointments, creams or powders. They make it harder to suture.

Bite wounds are in a slightly different category. Since most bite wounds are severely contaminated as most mammals harbor tons of bacteria in their mouths, bite wounds are seldom sutured. Bite wounds need to be clipped, cleaned and flushed, and then checked by your veterinarian. In most cases oral antibiotics are necessary and sometimes surgical placement of drain tubes are necessary. Ointments or powders on bite wounds prevent drainage and should be avoided.

If the wound doesn’t seem bad enough for veterinary attention here are some facts to consider. The wound needs to be kept clear of hair and cleaned twice a day. If the wound is very red or sore, small amounts of cream and ointment may help soothe it, but they should only be applied in a thin layer and only after twice a day cleaning. Hydrocortisone ointments may take some of the heat out of a wound, but if used excessively they can delay healing.

A little bit of licking is normal. Excessive licking causes damage to the tissue and continually recontaminate the wound with bacteria.

3. Fractures

If there is an open wound or bone pieces sticking out the open wound, treatment is the same as described as before.

If the fracture is above the elbow or knee do not put any sort of wrap or splint on it. Dogs are very good at walking on three legs and can protect it easier if they can control it. If you can’t wrap high enough, i.e. the upper legs, it causes a weight at the distal end of the leg and the resulting fulcrum effect makes the fracture worse. To properly wrap a fracture you need to immobilize the joint above and below the break. If you are not sure then it is better not to wrap the fracture.

In the case of splints, most people don’t have the knowledge or experience to apply and pad them correctly. You need several layers of padding on the leg before the splint is applied or you can cause sores or loss of circulation. If veterinary help will be available soon do not apply a splint.

The best field bandage for a fracture is called a Robert Jones. The following roughly describes the steps necessary:

I. Wound...cleaned, flushed as describe before, covered with a telfa pad or even a diaper.

II. Brown gauze covering the toes, wrapped in a couple of layers. Cover the toes and include them in the entire bandages to prevent the bandage from becoming too tight and cutting off the circulation to the toes.

III. Wrap a thick layer of cotton the entire length of the bandage. Diaper will work here too or even a rolled up towel.

IV. Repeat gauze.

                   V. Repeat cotton.

VI. Another layer or gauze and cotton should be applied if the fracture does not seem stable.

VII. Cover the last layer of gauze with Vetwrap or tape or something to protect it.

All fractures require veterinary attention as soon as possible. No bandage should be left on for more than 24 hours without the knowledge and consent of the veterinarian. Bandages should be firm, but never tight. A bandage that is too tight can cause loss of circulation and gangrene in a very short time. These cases usually require amputation and can result in death.

4. Shock

Shock is actually a very technical process, some of which is very poorly understood. Basically, shock is the collapse of the circulatory system from disease or trauma. Without circulation all organs begin to shut down. It can rapidly lead to perminate organ damage and death.

Signs: Include pale gums, rapid shallow breathing, usually a rapid weak heart beat, low temperature, mental confusion, depression, even unconsciencousness.

Treatment: Keep the patient warm. Consider carrying a space blanket in your glove compartment. Rub the extremities and encourage the dog to stay awake. Make sure the dogs airway is clear and stretch the neck out to make breathing easier. Get immediate veterinary care.

5. Respiratory or Cardiac Arrest

It is beyond the scope of this article to give proper attention and describe the technique for these procedures. Have your veterinarian show you the basics next time you are in the office. If you have had a recent human first aid course the idea is the same and your veterinarian can show you the proper positioning and discuss the amount of pressure for your particular breed of dog.

6. Gastrointestinal Upsets

On the lighter side, upset stomachs, vomiting, and diarrhea are very common. It is important to remember that what triggers vomiting in dogs is a lot less that what triggers vomiting in people. Being very excited or scared or even eating too fast commonly causes vomiting in dogs. These cases are usually very self limiting and go away without any special treatment. Some dogs get sick at shows or when you travel, or if any dog in the vicinity is in season.

To treat these dogs the best treatment is Pepto Bismo. The dosage is to of a cc per pound of dogs each 2 hours. This can easily make your show dog pink (not a natural color in most breeds) so use it carefully. It also causes black stools so don’t be alarmed. Imodium ( for small dogs, 1 for large dogs) can also be used, but it doesn’t soothe the stomach as well as Pepto Bismo. Sometimes it works to use Pepto Bismo for a couple of treatments then use the Imodium.

It is best to keep the dog quiet and don’t give anything by mouth for 3-4 hours. This includes bait. If it is a hot day and you are concerned with water intake give the dog a few ice cubes to drink. When it is time to feed your dog again try small meals of soaked food frequently, no more than cup. A good thing to carry is I/d canned food. Made by Hills and available from your veterinarian, this food is great for dogs with sour stomachs and may be something you want to add to your travel kit. Some of my clients have to give it to their show dogs whenever they travel. Medications for car sickness may also be helpful, but usually have to be given before the problem starts.

7. Eyes

If your dog has damage to the cornea, the clear layer over the eye, or he doesn’t rapidly improve, he needs to be seen by a veterinarian. Not all scratches are visible to the naked eye and your veterinarian may apply a stain to the eye to see if the cornea has been damaged.

If your dog suddenly comes up with a sore or red eye, the best thing to do is to flush the eye with large quantities of contact saline solution. Ointment or powders should only be used cautiously with the veterinarian advising it. If contact saline solution is not available tap water can be used. If the eye is still irritated, keep the dog in a dark place until veterinary help is available. In the case of foreign bodies in the eye, only remove what is easy to take out. If something is poking into the cornea do not remove it, let the veterinarian do it. Removing it may cause the eye to collapse and cause further damage.

8. Bloat

Bloat is a life threatening emergency and even with prompt veterinary treatment it is often fatal. If you have a breed that has a tendency to bloat, it is best to consult your own veterinarian as to what you can use. What you need depends on how comfortable and experienced you are at tubing a dog. Many people carry tubes with them and have been instructed by their veterinarian as to how to use them. Unfortunately, many times the stomach is twisted and it is not possible to pass a tube and immediate surgery is necessary. Sometimes the dog will not allow tubing. Talk to your own veterinarian to see what is best for you.

Dog First Aid Kit

The following is a list of things you should consider having in your dog first aid travel kit. Some of the items require a veterinary prescription. Many people carry more extensive kits than this, but this will give you some idea.

1. Muzzle for your breed. Many of the new nylon muzzles are adjustable and fit a variety of dogs. Gauze or even panty hose can be tied around the muzzle and then around the neck, I’ve even seen tape used, but a muzzle that works for your breed of dog is handier, faster, and more comfortable. About 20% of human bite wounds are from people being bit by injured dogs.

2. Thermometer (rectal). Unfortunately, thermometers do not travel well and tend to get too hot in a vehicle. Still they are a good investment and some of the newer electronic ones are not as sensitive to heat.

3. Stethoscope. Remember that your veterinarian wasn’t born with one attached to her ears, so you will have to practice to get good at listening through one. The stethoscope can help you determine if the dogs heart is fast or slow. Compare it to a normal dog. They are especially helpful in cases of young puppies. You don’t have to purchase an expensive one to get an idea.

4. Wound cleaning supplies. Betadine scrub is best. You will also need a small bowl to flush with and some gauze sponges to clean with. Baby wipes work ok too. Also thin washcloths, I like the ones from Walmart.

5. Keep a couple of bottles of contact saline solution. Once they have been opened throw them away, but they are great for flushing wounds and eyes and they are not expensive. The ones that are an aerosol can do not get contaminated so easily and have some pressure which is good for flushing wounds.

6. Bandaging material including telfa pads, brown gauze, cotton in a roll, Vetwrap and tape. You will also need a cheap pair of scissors.

7. A pair of nail clippers and some silver nitrate sticks or some Kwik Stop powder. The most common injury I see as a dog show veterinarian is injuries to the nails.

8. Topical Medications. Gentocin topical is an antibacterial steroid spray and is in my opinion one of the best products on the market for mild skin wounds and hot spots. Talk to your veterinarian. Panalog is a good ear treatment and has some antifungal properties, otomax is an ear medication that is similar to panalog, but slightly stronger. It is good to carry some sort of ear flush such as Solvaprep. This can also be used as a wound cleaner if you are in a bind.

9. Oral Medications. These are only good if you know how to use them and if you continually update your supply and throw out things that are outdated.

Ascriptin—Good for fever and pain. I probably take it more at the shows than I give it to the dogs. The dose for a dog 35 pounds or over is one twice a day. Remember that tylenol and advil are toxic and often fatal to dogs. Even Ascriptin can cause stomach irritation.

Phenylbutazone—Another anti-inflammatory medication, talk to your veterinarian.

Antibiotics—These are more than likely overused, but if you’re going to be on the road for some time it is a good idea to have something available. In case of injury, especially a dog bite or a nail injury, antibiotics are very helpful. I usually advise Clavomox. It comes in a foil pouch and is good for a variety of ailments. Albon is also good and can slow and stop diarrhea. Talk to your veterinarian and see what works best for your situation. Remember that you’ll have to keep up with the expiration dates.

Tranquilizer tablets—Most injured dogs should not be tranquilized, but in some cases it may be necessary. Most common veterinary tranquilizers cause a drop in blood pressure, this is not something most injured dogs need. Also dogs under the influence of tranquilizers cannot be shown or worked.

Benedryl—Benedryl is an over the counter antihistamine that can be used to help stop swelling and itching. It can also cause tranquilization in some dogs, so keep that in mind too. The dose is to effect, but a maximum is 1 mg/pound up to three times a day.

Pepto Bismo and Imodium AD—I have to be honest, I am usually the one diving into these, not the dogs. Dose you dog as you would a child. Dog’s don’t appreciate Pepto Bismo liquid and do better with the tablets.

Nutrical—This is a paste product that contains large amounts of nutrients and calories. It can be used to tempt a dog to eat and can keep the energy level up on a dog who is getting tired.

I/D—We talked about this earlier, it is a bland canned diet that is good on a sour stomach. Remember that you may also need a can opener.

Pediolyte—This is a calories, electrolyte replacement liquid that comes from the infant section of the grocery store. It is good to keep dogs that are vomiting or have severe diarrhea going until help is available.

10. Injectables

These depend on your situation and experience and depend on where you will be and what you will be doing. Your veterinarian may also face some legal hurdles regarding what can legally be dispensed. Sometimes one dose is acceptable, for example many dogs that sniff out illegal drugs have been poisoned and their handlers carry antidotes, talk to your veterinarian on what you may need. Remember also that you’ll have to keep up with the expiration dates.

Remember that a little knowledge can be dangerous and there is no substitution for prompt veterinary care.

This article or any part of it may not be reproduced without written consent of the author.

Dr. Beckie Williams may see more Flat-Coated Retrievers than any other vet in the country, she has a very loyal following of FCR owners and breeders. She has been breeding and showing German Shepherd dogs in the breed ring and obedience ring for many years. Dr. Beckie is often the show vet at local shows. She is a member of the GWFCRC and is currently on a waiting list for a FCR puppy.

Updated 09/27/98