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Treating Dog Injuries on the Trail

Dogs, with their zesty attitudes and unrivaled sense of adventure, are wonderful backpacking companions.

Their exuberant romps through the wilderness add a tinge of playful innocence to any excursion, but that fervor to explore also gets them into trouble. Unfortunately, dogs are a bit oblivious and tend to jump in first and then figure out the consequences of their actions later, which eventually leads to an injury. Sometimes these mishaps are small and the adventure can continue as planned; other times it’s a life-threatening injury and your preparedness means the difference between life and death.

Athena - articleHaving fun … and looking for trouble. Photo credit: Ethan Holshouser

Being prepared is going to be the deciding factor in how smoothly treating your dog’s injury will go. If your trip is just underway and hiking back to the car (while potentially carrying your dog) means only a few miles, then makeshift patchwork might be all that’s necessary to keep your pet stable until you can get to an emergency veterinarian. But if you’re days out into the wilderness, then it’s up to you to know what to do.

Before you Go

Because dogs can’t communicate what hurts very efficiently, the first step is getting the background knowledge necessary to diagnose an ailment. Before going on your excursion, visit your furry friend’s regular veterinarian and get a general health checkup to make sure he’s in good enough shape for the hike itself. While you’re there, fill your vet in on the area you’ll be exploring and ask about any potential dangers the dog might bound into. Keep poisonous plants, dangerous animals, and potential allergies in mind because your vet might have emergency medicine on hand you can buy. (Be sure to get properly instructed on how to administer the treatment.) If you’re going to an area with uncommon plants and animals that the vet doesn’t know about, any pet insurance provider can direct you to a specialist.

The next step is to learn your dog’s body. Do a snout-to-tail examination with your vet, and ask him or her to point out areas that are common for injuries and learn what to look for.

Lastly, know what your dog can handle. Dogs are more prone to making a reckless move and getting injured because they’re trying to keep up with you. If your dog looks tuckered out, take a few minutes and give him a break to rest and hydrate.

This background knowledge will definitely come in handy if the unfortunate does happen and your dog is injured. Below are a few of the most common injuries a dog might sustain while exploring the outdoors, and some basic treatment advice. If you’re particularly worried about a specific type of injury, be sure to ask your vet about what to do.

What could happen?

Animal Bites

Animals stumbling upon each other can be a startling and dangerous situation — especially if your dog runs into another critter that is with her children. If your dog does get into a scuffle, then after it’s over (remember to be careful when interfering with a fighting dog) you’ll need to examine your friend for wounds. Look carefully for puncture wounds near the face, throat and legs. If there are any open wounds, take your leash, tie your dog to a stationary object so he can’t move his head, put on a muzzle, and then carefully trim away the hair around the wound. Afterward, thoroughly flush the wound with clean water or an antiseptic.

If it’s an open wound and the tissue underneath passes by when you move the skin, your dog will likely need stitches. The process is essentially the same for stitching up human wounds. If it doesn’t need stitches and the wound isn’t bleeding heavily, don’t bandage it and let the wound breathe and drain. However, if the wound is bleeding freely then you’ll need to apply generous amounts of pressure to the wound with a clean cloth. If blood soaks through the cloth, don’t remove it as you’ll release the clotting that has already begun. Instead, grab more cloth and keep applying pressure to the wound until the bleeding stops. At this point, get to a veterinarian.

As with any serious injury, be sure to keep on the lookout for signs of shock: pale or white gums, a rapid heartbeat and rapid, labored breathing. Lastly, if you know what attacked your dog and it’s an animal that might have rabies, you’ll need to try and kill the animal to give to your veterinarian so the critter’s brain can be tested for rabies.

Broken Bones

Broken bones are incredibly painful, and you’ll likely know something is wrong pretty quickly if it’s an open break (the bone is showing). But the more likely scenario is a fracture, in which case it might not be as visible. Check to see if your dog is limping, avoiding using one leg, or if a limb is kind of hanging there. Make sure to put a muzzle on your dog as well; even the most loving companion can lash out while in pain. Unless you know what you’re doing, don’t try and reset the bone with a splint. Instead, if it’s an open break clean the area around the punctured skin and cover it with a clean cloth. Afterward, carry your dog out and get to the vet.

In the unfortunate case that it’s a bad break, or your dog is too heavy for you to carry, then you’ll need to immobilize the leg with a splint. The purpose here is to keep the leg from moving, not reset the bone. Grab any sturdy object you can find (a large stick, tent pole, parts of a lightweight hiking pole) and then tie strips of cloth around the split to the leg. Make sure it’s tight enough that the split doesn’t shake free, but isn’t so tight that it hampers circulation. Take it slow and easy while hiking back to the car.

Heat Exhaustion

Dogs don’t have many sweat glands and vent most of their heat through their nose, tongue and pads, which isn’t super effective. If you notice your dog slowing down, panting excessively with a dry mouth, or his eyes are getting droopy, take a break. Find or construct a shelter from the shade and give your dog water. What works for a human typically will work well for your pooch, too. Rest in the shade for 15 to 30 minutes, pour cool water on his stomach and legs where blood collects, and give him some energizing food, such as molasses snacks.

Nicks, Scrapes

Your dog probably won’t even notice most small cuts he sustains, but if you see the wound and the two of you are exploring a particularly grimy area it’s important to treat it so infection doesn’t set in. Clean out the cut with some water or antiseptic.

Poisonous Plants

Treating any type of poison can be tricky, but your vet or pet insurance company can give you a list of potential poisons in your specific destination, and the recommended treatment. The general rule of thumb is to induce vomiting, and then collect a sample of his vomit and what he ate.


If your dog has thin, short hair and you’re going through an area with a high rate of sun exposure he might become sunburned. You might notice his skin becomes pinkish, and the dog might shudder a little bit while touching him. Wrapping him in a white T-shirt or dog-shirt to protect him will help, but be careful he doesn’t overheat because of the clothing. Sunburns typically are not serious, and will heal with time. Nonetheless, prolonged sunburns can lead to skin cancer. If your dog is going to be in the sun for an extended period of time, pet-friendly sunscreen will typically do the trick.

Torn Pads

Although your dog’s paw pads are fairly resilient, they do tear now and then. A good pair of dog boots will prevent any further injury. Plus, they are also excellent to prevent snow buildup between paw pads, which will lead to bleeding and cold-related ailments if left unattended. Most dogs dislike wearing dog boots at first, but they’ll eventually get used to them. Be sure to try out a few pairs before going on the adventure because not all dog boots will work the same, and it might take some trial and error until you find the right pair.

backpacking dog nappingSometimes they just need a little break. Photo credit: Victoria Polchinski

Be Prepared

What goes into a first aid kit for your dog? You can find dog-specific first aid kits, but most of the items in a well-equipped first aid kit for humans will work equally well for your dog, but there are a few more things to consider putting in.

  • Benadryl: Benadryl is one of the rare human medications that is also dog-friendly. If your dog has allergies that flare up during a hike from a plant, bite or sting, then an oral dose of antihistamine can definitely help.  Check with your veterinarian about the correct dosage, but in a pinch the general rule of thumb is 2mg per pound of body weight every eight hours.
  • Dog-specific anti-inflammatory: General human aspirin or ibuprofen is incredibly dangerous for dogs to ingest, but your vet should have dog-specific painkillers that can help your companion hobble along in casehe takes a tumble.
  • Emergency blanket: A Mylar emergency blanket is a super-compact, lightweight blanket that is one of the most important tools to regulate a dog’s body temperature. You can wrap one around a dog to keep him warm, or lay the canine down on it to treat open wounds while keeping dirt out.
  • Multi-tool: It’s hard to understate the value of a good multi-tool. Its uses are endless, from pulling out porcupine quills, cactus thorns and glass to cutting away at obstructions and even whittling wood.
  • Musher’s Wax: If you’re hiking in the snow and your dog simply refuses to wear dog boots, then take a look at Musher’s wax. It wedges in between the paw pads and keeps snow out while moisturizing the pads. Plus, it still allows dogs to sweat through their feet.
  • Muzzle: Even the most loving dog will be prone to snapping or biting when in pain. Having a muzzle handy and knowing how to properly use it is critical to preventing further pain (to yourself) when your dog has a serious injury.
  • Saline: Having sterile eyewash like saline can relieve irritation from dirt or other small objects that get caught in the corner of your dog’s eyes.
  • Styptic pencil: Take a peek in your shaving cabinet for a styptic pen, a pencil like tool that is typically used to stop shaving nicks. Besides saving you in the mornings, this nifty device is also very handy at arresting small wounds that bleed a lot, like a dog’s broken nail.
  • Tick remover: Lyme disease is a serious tick-borne ailment, so ticks require prompt attention. A tick-specific pair of tweezers can pluck out the tick from your dog, including the mouth. Be sure to remove any ticks you find immediately, and then check your dog and yourself at the end of the hike for any you might have missed.
  • Vet wrap: Vet wrap is a wonderfully stretchy bandage that has various purposes and sticks to fur better than standard adhesive medical tape, without pulling out fur when removed. It’s the same material you’ll see your pet adorned with after a surgery.

All of these materials might seem like a lot to lug around, but if your dog is healthy enough (and he should be if you’re exploring the outdoors with him) then buy a correctly-sized dog pack. This will allow your pooch to carry his fair share of the load. Lastly, in case an emergency situation comes up and you’re within cellular service range, have the phone number of your vet or pet insurance handy, to find out what the best course of action is.

Backpacking dogJojo catches a ride. Photo credit: Pradeep Thiyyagura


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