Your pup might just be the best hiking partner you’ve ever had with one small exception: dogs make lousy wilderness first responders. That means saving the day is up to you. Being able to administer first aid to your dog is critical when disaster strikes. Check out these worst-case scenarios and tips from Sid Gustafson, DVM and author of Canine Field Medicine: First Aid for Your Active Dog.
If your pup gets curious about what’s on the other side of a steep bank and decides to take a leap of faith, broken bones are a definite possibility. “You’ll know your dog has a broken limb if there is loss of function,” says Dr. Gustafson. Your dog will likely be carrying the affected limb, but breaks are easy to spot. Simply put, “a limb with a significant fracture will look different than the other three,” Dr. Gustafson says.
The best course of action? Let your dog carry the limb out on his or her own by going on three legs if able. Otherwise, carry the dog out in a blanket or sleeping bag if there are two people. Aspirin can be administered as a pain reliever, but never give a dog Ibuprofen or Tylenol.
Dogs’ feet and lower flanks (as well as the sheath on male dogs) can be prone to frostbite in subzero conditions. Causes include buildup of ice between the toes, inadequate nutrition for the conditions, and exhaustion. “This is common in Montana [where I live],” says Gustafson. “Dogs sweat out the pads on their feet and the sweat freezes. This ball of ice then freezes the toes.”
As always, prevention is the best cure: don’t allow the ice to ball up in the first place. “Keep the fur trimmed between the toes, use musher’s wax or booties, but make sure the booties aren’t cutting off circulation and simply adding to the problem,” he says.
If you spot hard or whitish skin, or notice your dog carrying its feet, frostbite has likely set in. Thaw slowly with tepid, then body-temperature water. (Don’t rewarm in the field if you think refreezing is likely; tissue damage can be irreversible).
Wild animal attack
What happens if you encounter a wild critter on the trail and your pup decides it looks like a playmate? First off, make sure your dog willingly comes when called. “If a wildlife attack occurs it is the owner’s fault. You need to be a sentinel for your dog,” Gustafson says. Prevention comes by keeping your dog close to you.
To make sure your dog comes when you need it, don’t “poison” the come command. “People poison it when they know their dog is not going to come when called but they call it anyway,” says Gustafson. “You have to reward it for coming when called with verbal praise or meaty treats. Never punish a dog when it comes to you.”
If, however, your dog does get into an encounter and gets bit, flush the wound repeatedly with sterile solution or diluted disinfectant. “You can use a mild iodine solution or simply lavage it with drinking water,” Dr. Gustafson says. He also points out that you should be aware of the area you are in and whether or not rabies is prevalent. “Don’t put yourself at risk. Dogs are usually protected against rabies—you are not,” he says.
Dogs with the highest risk of heat stroke are those that are obese, older, new to the trail, metabolically diseased, or under-conditioned. Don’t be fooled, however: Even healthy dogs running in hot weather can be affected by heat stroke. Signs include weakness, refusal to continue exercise, inability to move, frantic panting, bright red tongue, muscular weakness and collapse. “Severe signs include paralysis, bloody diarrhea, unremitting panting, and glassy eyes,” says Dr. Gustafson. If you are experienced at doing so, you can diagnose heat stroke by feeling your dog’s chest to see if it is significantly hotter than its back.
To treat a dog suffering from heat stroke, cool her off. You can do this by bathing her in cool water and allowing her to air-dry. Find a shady spot to rest your dog while you monitor her temperature and other vital signs. Offer electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade to restore proper muscle and nervous function.
If your dog cannot walk out on his or her own and needs to be evacuated from the trail, there are several methods depending on the injury. With a broken bone, “a dog is generally held chest to chest, with one of your arms snugly under and around his neck and shoulders, and the other behind his upper hind legs, tucking them under the pelvis,” says Dr. Gustafson. Another option for evacuation is to secure your dog to a rigid surface with sheets or a blanket to stabilize his full length and width. Pup not having it? Try suspending him in a sleeping bag or blanket.
The best way to deal with an emergency? Don’t let it happen in the first place. Most major injuries occur when your dog leaves your side, so make sure you have your pet under voice command. (When approaching unfamiliar situations, always leash your dog.)
“It’s all about preparation,” says Dr. Gustafson. “But we are all humans and have busy lives so we don’t always prepare the way we should. Before you go out, figure out the limitations and adaptions of your dog and don’t exceed them,” he says.