First aid

A beginner’s guide to canine first aid

First aid can save your dog’s life, and is mostly common sense. The first step is always to remove you and your dog from danger. Always keep in mind that a dog in shock and in pain is more likely to lash out by biting – even a dog which has never bitten or shown aggression before. So instead of trying to lift an injured dog, it is usually best to use a big towel or blanket to quickly wrap your pet in, or roll it onto, to drag it out of danger. Once you are both safe then assess what needs to be done.

Safety first

We may not like having to muzzle our dogs, but if your dog is struggling and trying to bite, then put one on. You must protect yourself and be able to administer first aid, and some dogs will give up and relax once muzzled. Muzzles may also be improvised out of gauze bandaging or even pantyhose. Place one or two loops around the nose with a half hitch under the chin then take it behind the ears and secure. It should be firm or the dog will be able to pull it off with its front feet.

It is often difficult to obtain co-operation from an injured dog, especially as it is difficult to know whether you are hurting it. Try to be calm yourself, and to have another person hold the dog and try to comfort it. Take your lead from your own dog’s usual behaviour; some dogs will behave better up on a table, others will be very compliant if held in someone’s arms.

Treating your dog with minimum pain will help it relax. For example, it is better to wash a cut by gently pouring or syringing saline over it rather than trying to touch it with a cloth. A cut on the bottom of a foot can be washed by putting the foot in a container of warm saline and gently moving the foot around.


CPR is one of the first things we think of in first aid in humans, and there is a different version for dogs. If your dog is unconscious and not breathing, first check the airway is clear. Pull the tongue forward so the tip is just through the teeth and close the mouth. Place your hands around the closed mouth using the lips to seal it as best you can.

Extend the neck to make a line from nose to tail and breathe into your dog’s nose. The smaller the dog, the smaller the breath should be. After giving five breaths, try to assess the cardiac function by feeling for a heartbeat behind the left elbow. If your dog still has a heartbeat continue to give nose to mouth resuscitation at 12 (for small dogs) to 20 (for large dogs) breaths a minute.

If there is no heartbeat, cardiac massage should be started. In very small breeds, lie the dog on its side, placing your fingers on one side of the chest and your thumb over the heart (the sternum should be in your hand). Compress the chest firmly and rapidly between your thumb and fingers.

For small to medium breeds one hand can be placed on either side of the chest, and the heart compressed between them. For medium to large breeds, place a towel or blanket under the chest and, keeping the dog’s back against your body, compress the chest with both hands. It is also possible to resuscitate a larger dog while it lies on its back, but it may be more difficult. The ideal compression rate is between 60 and 120 beats per minute.

Resuscitation from full arrest is very difficult, especially in large dogs. Even for humans in the best circumstances, such as an arrest in hospital, resuscitation rates are only about 40 per cent. However, dogs often go into respiratory arrest before cardiac arrest. This means that a dog may not be breathing but may still have a heartbeat that you can’t feel.

In these situations, dogs can survive if you can keep them breathing. If your dog is breathing but remains unconscious, place it on its side on a blanket with a towel under its chest, keeping the head slightly lower than the heart.

Blood loss

Rapid blood loss is a major and life-threatening problem, but can often be addressed. With any wound that is bleeding, firstly apply pressure. If there is an object like glass in the wound, don’t remove it, but put pressure around it.

Your cloth would preferably be clean, but the filthy shirts from farmer’s backs have saved innumerable dogs pulled from under farm machinery, so if clean isn’t possible, anything absorbent will do. Once it’s on, don’t remove it – this will only remove the clot and cause more bleeding. If the blood comes through the cloth add another one on top. Keep pressure on the wound, either by hand or a firm bandage. If you are bandaging a leg, do so from the toes upwards, firmly, but not tight enough to stop blood circulation.

Cuts that aren’t bleeding excessively should be cleaned and dressed. If you can, begin by trimming the fur around the wound, then clean the wound gently with a disinfectant or saline. When applying the dressing, always start with a non-adhesive layer, so that the dressing doesn’t stick to the wound. Cover this with cotton wool or gauze, and follow with Vetwrap or Elastoplast to hold it all in place.

Again, bandages need to be firm enough to stay on but not so tight that they stop the circulation. For chest or stomach wounds on big dogs, the dog can be firmly wrapped in a towel, secured with the Elastoplast. Treat bite wounds as you would cuts, but leave the dressing off. This will encourage the bite to stay open and drain, as well as allowing you to see if it becomes infected.


If you see what your dog has eaten and are sure it isn’t a corrosive substance such as drain cleaner or washing powder, try to induce vomiting. If the material is corrosive, you need to feed your dog milk to protect its stomach lining. Always phone your vet or emergency clinic for advice, they can tell you whether vomiting is safe and how to induce it.

If your dog is already showing symptoms of poisoning, don’t try to make it vomit – you need to get to a vet as soon as possible. Rat baits are a common source of dog poisoning; they cause bleeding but often the dog won’t show symptoms for several days after ingestion. Sometimes poisoning will cause coughing with blood, or bleeding from mouth or anus, but usually the dog bleeds into the chest or abdominal cavities.

If your dog has unusually pale gums, respiratory problems or a bloated stomach, and has access to rat baits, take it to a vet immediately. To assess your dog’s gum colour, lift its lip and look at gum that isn’t pigmented. Pale gums can be caused by bleeding, shock, illness or pain, so it isn’t foolproof but can be a useful guide.

By Fiona Adams