First aid tips for dog owners

Irina Wells
23 May 2022 - 3 min read
A dog having CPR

We spoke to first-aider Melanie Whitten from the Canine First Aid Company to find out what to do for your dog in a health emergency.

We've captured some of Melanie's tips to help you learn and recognise the signs and effects of heatstroke, shock and poisoning. We'll also explain how you can give your dog the best chance of making it until veterinary help is available.

If you have pet insurance with us, remember you have access to unlimited free video vet calls any time of night or day, so you can speak to a qualified vet for advice whenever you need it.

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What is the role of canine first-aid?

Melanie explains that the purpose of canine first-aid is to:

  • Preserve life

  • Prevent the situation from worsening

  • Promote recovery

"There is a long list of things that a human can do to save a dog’s life – a canine first aid course is vital to be able to deal with such a situation.

"With a canine first aid course completed – you stand a much better chance of saving your dog's life," said Melanie.

How to approach a canine medical emergency

Seeing your beloved pet distressed can be frightening. Here's Melanie's advice on how to keep calm and assess the situation.

"If an owner finds themselves in a medical emergency situation and needs to administer first aid to their dog, we use the acronym START. You as the human need to think about a chain of survival: early recognition, early call (vets), early CPR or intervention and then get to the vets."

  • "S – Stop and stay calm. Your dog will feel your emotions so try not to panic.

  • T – Think before you act. Don’t jump in without thinking about the dangers and the medical situation you may be dealing with. If you have a seemingly unconscious dog, you may need to conduct a primary survey (more on this below). If you have a dog that is in pain and injured, you may need to make a makeshift muzzle to keep yourself safe.

  • A – Assess the scene and situation. Are there humans around who can help? Is it a bleed, a seizure, a drown, a bite, poisons, anaphylaxis, choke, heatstroke and/or so much more?

  • R – Remove any dangers, eg other humans, dogs, cars, children etc.

  • T – Telephone for help. Maybe a family member to support you in moving the dog, maybe police if it is a road traffic accident and certainly your vet to be giving you further advice and also to be prepared for your arrival."

Primary survey – if the dog appears lifeless

Here's Melanie's guide on how to conduct a primary survey to work out what you need to do next.

  • Response – Check the dog for a response by shouting in its ear and tapping a foot or other area that you feel your dog may respond to. Remember, think of your own safety first.

  • Airway – Elongate the airway by gently pulling the head and neck up – check the airway to make sure nothing is obstructing it. Pull the tongue out of the way gently. It will be wet and difficult to hold, so use your sleeve or similar. The tongue can compromise breathing.

  • Breathing – place your cheek near the mouth of the dog and see if you can feel its breath on your cheek. Place your hand on the muzzle area in case the dog comes around. It may be frightened and bite you. Look, listen and feel for a pulse and count for 10 seconds.

  • Circulation – place three fingers inside the hind leg within the groin area and see if you can find a pulse. A secondary check should include placing your hand on the heart area located behind the left leg front elbow, as you pull it back slightly.

  • Send – for help

How to perform CPR on a dog

Before beginning CPR, feel and listen to the dog's chest to make sure there's no heart beat and that the dog is not breathing. If it is breathing, do not give CPR.

"During the primary survey if you find the dog is unconscious and breathing, do not do CPR.  Place the dog on its side and place something under its shoulder area to allow fluids to drain from the mouth and the tongue to fall out naturally – this will avoid a blocked airway – and is called the recovery position," advises Melanie.

  • Lay the dog on its right side on a firm surface, "left side high so that you are compressing the heart," recommends Melanie.

  • Compress the chest around 100 to 120 times a minute. You should do this in time to the rhythm of the song 'Staying Alive'. "For a large dog, go an inch and a half deep, for a medium dog – use one hand and a depth of 1 inch. With a small dog two fingers and a depth of half an inch," says Melanie.

  • Alternate 30 compressions, two rescue breaths.

  • Rescue breaths should last one second, wait one second for the chest to fall after the second breath before resuming compressions. Remember to hold the tongue out of the way and the muzzle firmly together.

  • To deliver rescue breathes, cover the dog's mouth and blow down their nose creating a seal around the nostrils with you mouth. If that's not possible, cover the sides of the nostrils with your fingers before blowing air into the nostrils. Ideally the chest should rise when you do this.

  • For a small dog use one hand. For a bigger dog, use both hands.

CPR can be helpful if a healthy dog's heart has stopped due to electrocution or drowning. It may not be successful or appropriate if there is an underlying condition.

Knowing how to respond in an emergency can help save your dog's life and the best way to be prepared is by attending a canine first-aid course. A certified first-aider will teach you emergency procedures and you'll get to practice on dummies.

How to recognise a heatstroke and what to do

Common signs of a heatstroke in dogs include:

  • Lethargy

  • Lack of coordination

  • Panting

  • Drooling

  • Racing heart

What to do to help:

  • Remove your dog from the heat and take it somewhere cool and in the shade shade

  • Give it cool or tepid water

  • You can soak a towel in cool water and drape it over its body

  • Call a vet

Signs your dog's in shock and what to do

Shock is a dangerous condition for your dog. When this happens your dog's body isn't circulating enough blood to all tissues and this can lead to organ damage. It has a rapid onset and needs immediate medical attention.

Common signs of shock in dogs can be:

  • Lethargy

  • Hyperventilating

  • Low blood pressure

  • Weak pulse

  • Collapse

  • Pale skin or gums

  • Severe weakness

  • Confusion

  • Vomiting or trying to vomit

A dog can go into shock due to:

  • Blood loss

  • Hypothermia

  • An internal injury

  • Excessive dehydration due to vomiting or diarrhoea

Shock can also be caused by blood poising, blood thinners and increased stomach pressure, among other things.

Blood transfusions can help dogs who have lost a lot of blood. Learn more about canine blood donation and how you can get involved.

What to do to help:

  • Seek immediate veterinary help

  • Minimise their movement to preserve energy

  • Wrap them in a blanket to retain body heat

  • Wrap their paws using bandages or other available material

  • Reassure them

Signs your dog's been poisoned and how to help

Many foods and household items can be harmful if ingested. Puppies are particularly at risk of poisoning due to mouthing and swallowing almost anything.

One common example is chocolate; however, grapes, raisins, ibuprofen, household cleaning chemicals, food and drink that contain artificial sweetener such as xylitol and mouldy foods can also poison your dog. Out and about, your dog might come across poisonous mushrooms or plants on walks.

Common signs of poisoning can be:

What you can do to help:

  • Get in touch with a veterinary professional or call the Pet Poison Helpline

  • Try to remember what was consumed by your dog and how much was consumed

  • If possible preserve the packaging to show to a vet

The Pet Poison Helpline recommends that you do not feed things like milk, peanut butter or vegetable oils even though these substances are often mentioned on the internet as home remedies for poisoning.

Dog first-aid courses

A dog first-aid course can give you extra confidence in knowing what to do if your dog needs help in an emergency.

"All dog owners, be it those who have had dogs for years or new owners –  should attend a canine first aid course. Our dogs deserve the same duty of care as their human counterparts. A huge difference can be made in saving a dog’s life if the owner has the skills to recognise, describe to a vet and treat a medical emergency with their dog while awaiting vet intervention.

"It's not just a case of what to do – it is also a case of what not to do," said Melanie Whitten.

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