Dog First Aid In The Backcountry
Adapting Skills For Our Canine Companions
Dog first aid in the backcountry is remarkably similar to human first aid. For example, when we think about using our first aid skills, we have to remember that in order to help someone (or somedog), we must keep ourselves safe.
If you’ve ever taken a Wilderness First Aid class, you’ll remember that everything leads to one goal: get the injured or ill to definitive care. In humans, that might be an ambulance or helicopter, but for our furry friends, it will be the vet every time. Read on for illnesses and injuries you hope your dog never faces—and what to do just in case.
Note: This article does not in any way replace actual first aid training or professional advice from a veterinarian.
Bites & Stings
Snakes bite and bugs sting … and also bite. Your first defense is a good recall and/or a leash to prevent unsavory encounters. You can also ask your vet about a rattlesnake vaccine (note: this doesn’t create immunity), or take your dog to a rattlesnake avoidance class if they are prevalent in your area.
If your dog is bitten by a (rattle)snake, the primary goal is getting to the vet, where they will likely receive antivenin to inactivate the venom, but the immediate goal is to keep their heart rate low while you’re on the way. This will help slow the spread of the venom. Rinse the wound with fresh water, and keep your pup on a leash or carry them. Do not attempt to suck the venom out or wrap the wound—swelling can occur rapidly.
Gearhead Tip: Many vets don’t keep antivenin on-hand. Call ahead to see if the clinic has it available—emergency vets are a better bet.
Bugs can be less obvious and harder to avoid, but bites and stings can cause an allergic reaction. You can use an antihistamine early to help keep the reaction from getting worse—ask your vet about the proper formula and dose for your dog before you go out, and keep a log of what you give when.
Gearhead Tip: If you can, take photos of the reaction to watch its progress.
Check your pet for ticks and foxtails regularly throughout your adventure, as well as once you get home—especially paws, ears, noses, and tails. If you find a tick or foxtail in the fur, but not embedded, simply remove and dispose of it—we recommend the toilet grave. If the tick has attached itself, use tweezers or a tick tool (or, if you’re an angler, grab your forceps) to grasp as close to the dog’s skin as possible and pull out steadily. If part of the foxtail has gone under the skin, you’ll want to visit your vet to have it removed as they can travel further inside the body as your dog moves.
Skunks do not directly harm dogs very often, but your pup can experience eye irritation and allergic reactions. Flush the eyes with eyewash (a sterile saline solution), and get them to a place where you can bathe them. There are lots of recipes for combating the smell, but at minimum, you’ll want to scrub your dog with dish soap to get rid of the oils in the spray.
While avoiding porcupine encounters is ideal, getting quilled is common in curious pups. If possible, let the vet remove the quills. If not possible—for instance, if the dog is messing with them too much—apply pressure on both sides of the quill when you pull to prevent puckering of the skin. Do not break off the quills.
Hypothermia & Heat
Dogs are less sensitive to changing temperatures than we are, but can be affected by hot- and cold-related illnesses.
Some signs that your dog is too cold include shivering, shivering and then stopping, acting lethargic or confused. To help them warm up, insulate them from the ground and add a thermal reflective material. Our travel mat is a great option, but you can also use an emergency blanket. Instant hand warmers placed in the armpits or at the core will also help them warm up, as will boiled water in a water bottle (but be sure it’s sealed well). Keep them dry and block the wind as best you can.
Gearhead Tip: Watch your dog’s paws. If they’re shifting from foot to foot, it might mean the surface is too hot or cold for them.
If your dog is overheating, you might notice excessive panting, vomiting, bright red gums, or even collapse. To help them cool off efficiently, soak a shirt or bandana for them to wear and pour water on their body. Get them out of the sun, and apply an instant ice pack to their core or under their armpit.
Gearhead Tip: Get to know your dog’s baseline: How fast is their pulse (dogs’ hearts beat faster than humans’) or breath cadence usually? What color are their gums? This will help you determine if something has changed.
Another thing to watch out for when it’s hot is stomach torsion (aka bloat). It’s more common in hot weather and among large, barrel-chested breeds. You can help prevent it by making sure your dog doesn’t exercise immediately after eating—and by that we mean for up to an hour. Hang out at camp after breakfast or keep them on a leash with a slow starting pace so they can digest, and if they do start showing signs of bloat (foamy drool, distended belly), get them to the vet ASAP.
Choking & Drowning
One difference between human and dog choking is that we do not finger sweep a choking dog—putting your hand in the mouth of a panicking dog is an excellent way to get bit, and you risk pushing the object further into their airway.
Instead, use the Heimlich maneuver. Dispel the obstruction just like you would for a human (hands clasped below the ribs), but also lift their back legs and point their head toward the ground to get some help from gravity—for larger breeds, enlist a friend to help. The back blows they teach for choking babies can also be very effective for dogs.
If your dog gets trapped in or swept away by fast-moving water, do not go in after them. They actually have better odds than you of getting out and remember—you can’t help them if you’re unsafe. Try to go downstream to find a branch to extend over the water or a rock you can stand on to try to grab them. A dog life jacket is a great way to help even strong swimmers stay safe around water.
If they are coughing or vomiting up water when they get out, let them recover on their own. If they are not breathing, lift their back legs and point their face toward the ground to help the water drain from their throat, and give rescue breaths if they don’t improve.
Gearhead Tip: Rescue breaths for dogs are similar to human CPR, only you need to hold the dog’s lips shut and breathe only into their nostrils.
Whether they fell off a rock, barreled into a tree, or ran too far on unconditioned paws, our canine companions sometimes get hurt despite our best precautions. To decontaminate minor wounds, a splash of eyewash or clean, filtered water is your best bet. You can also keep alcohol wipes and antibacterial ointment in your first aid kit. Use gauze and wrap with vet wrap (self-adhesive, waterproof material) to protect the wound, and always wrap from far away (paw side) to closer (torso side).
Gearhead Tip: Injured paws and nails are super common. They can bleed a lot, and are easily contaminated. Slowly build up trail time to condition paw pads, and keep a bootie in your first aid kit just in case.
Pressure is the name of the game when it comes to stopping bleeding—use gauze or material to cover the wound and apply plenty of pressure. If comfortable for the dog, you can also elevate the wound: have them lay down so their limb is level with their heart instead of below it. If the bleeding does not stop, you may need to use a pressure bandage. If so, leave it on until you reach the vet.
Most dogs stay away from heat sources on their own, but sometimes the food on a camp stove or the squirrel just past the campfire is just too tempting. If your dog gets a burn, the treatment is the opposite of stopping bleeding: use a dry, loose bandage, and don’t apply any water or ointments.
If your dog gets impaled—which unfortunately can happen when chasing a bouncing stick—do not remove the object. Wrap the wound with the object still inside and let the vet remove it instead. If the impalement affects your dog’s eye, wrap as above and be sure to cover both eyes: if the uninjured eye moves, the injured eye moves, too. Outside of impaled objects, if you suspect your pup has gotten small debris in their eye or scratched the surface, flush with eyewash from inside (nose side) to outside.
Dogs are remarkably good at protecting and hiding their injuries—so good, in fact, that they even hide them from us sometimes. Because dogs can’t communicate with us, it’s virtually impossible to clear their C-spine in the backcountry. If you suspect a spinal injury, you can try using a pack frame to support them in good alignment as you carry them out. If not, just try to jostle them as little as possible.
Gearhead Tip: A bed sheet can help you carry or drag a dog. You can also use a sheet for bandages, splints, and even makeshift muzzles.
In the case of injury to a limb, most dogs will protect themselves by holding that leg up and hiking out on 3 legs—this is better than us interfering with a splint. If the dog can’t do this (e.g., if two limbs are hurt), your best move will be to carry them—something like this sling will help you transport larger dogs. If you must splint the dog, make sure the splint touches the ground and ideally goes past the joints on both sides of the suspected injury. Use a pack, jacket, or towel as a sling under their belly to support some of their weight.
Gearhead Tip: Even a dog you’ve known forever may behave unexpectedly when in pain or panicked. Keep a mesh muzzle in your dog’s size in your first aid kit to keep you both safe while you treat their injury. Don’t use a muzzle on a dog that’s vomiting or struggling to breathe.
Jani Holder is pet first aid certified and has years of experience as a dog trainer and rescue worker. When she isn’t typing for Backcountry, you may find her adventuring with her dogs, Sharky and Chirrut, training for competitive dog sports, or doing behavioral work with dogs in foster care.