It’s easy to miss the signs when your dog is hurting. They can’t talk, which helps them maintain their status as man’s best friend, but as a result, dog owners don’t always know when something is wrong. It’s one thing when you’re a quick car ride from the vet. But take your dog into the backcountry for a long hike or a hut trip where you both may be tired and under stress, and you exacerbate the situation.
A dog in the backcountry, like a human, can have mishaps—a cut, a broken bone, an allergic reaction, or even just overexertion. But dogs aren’t able to evaluate risk like humans, and they also can’t tell their owners they’ve had enough and want to turn around.
“Most dog injuries aren’t serious and are from the general exuberance that comes with being a dog,” says Dr. Rachel Brodlie, doctor of veterinary medicine at Vermont’s Milton Veterinary Clinic and an avid hiker and snowshoer. “And most dog injuries come from weekend warriors taking their dogs out for more than the animal can handle.”
Canine cuts and scrapes can be managed in the same way you would handle a minor human trauma—cleaning and covering an open wound, stabilizing a broken bone. But before you can stabilize a break, you have to realize your dog has one.
Brodlie’s rule of thumb: “If you suspect an injury, watch your dog. He’ll tell you what’s wrong and how bad it is. Give him a second to figure out what he is feeling. But most importantly, don’t panic—your pet will feed off of your emotions.”
Deal with hurt pets like you would deal with a human emergency: use common sense. And if you’re heading into the woods for a day or longer, bring a first aid kit that will work for man and beast alike. Add these items to a well-equipped human first aid kit, and you’ll be ready for most things you and your dog might encounter.
If your dog is sprayed by a skunk or a seed, insect, dirt or other foreign object gets lodged in its eye, rinse it with saline. The saline bottle should squirt so that you can get the liquid into the corners of your pet’s eyes if you need to. Available at most pharmacies.
Like humans, dogs can have allergic reactions to plants as well as bites and stings. Give your dog Benadryl orally if he shows hives or a strong allergic reaction. The rule of thumb is 2mg of Benadryl per pound of body weight every eight hours—more than a normal human dosage. Benadryl is also recommended for snakebites. But take note: It will make your dog drowsy. Available at most pharmacies.
If you need to bandage one of your dog’s legs, stretchy wrap will make it possible. Get vet wrap from your doggie doctor, or buy a self-stick ace bandage. In Dog First Aid: A Field Guide, veterinarian Randy Acker advises to wrap sprains or cuts from higher on the leg to lower in a helix pattern, working down then up. Stretchy bandages can also be used as a tourniquet in case of a snakebite or a heavily bleeding wound. Check your wrap job to be sure it isn’t so tight it causes paw swelling. Available at most pharmacies.
Certain minor dog injuries, like badly broken nails, bleed a lot. A styptic pencil, often used to stop shaving cuts, is generally made of powdered crystal from an alum block and a waxy binder pressed into a pencil shape. Dab it on, and it seals small cuts and nicks, usually in a few minutes. Available at most pharmacies.
There are a hundred possible uses for a multitool in the field, and you probably already have one in your pack. When traveling with your dog, make sure you carry a tool with a good pair of pliers. You’ll need them if your dog has a run in with a porcupine. Quills need to be pulled as soon as possible—left alone, they work their way in deeper and can get infected. Multitool pliers can also be useful for pulling thorns, and for removing a hanging toe nail or dew claw. Sog’s Power Duo has great grip, and the curved handle provides extra leverage. $80; sogknives.com.
SLIP LEAD OR MUZZLE
Most dogs, when injured, frightened or in pain, revert to animal instincts—they bite, even their most beloved owners. If you need to pull porcupine quills, staple a wound or treat a significant injury, it’s important to have something you can fashion into a muzzle on hand. Acker recommends carefully laying the lead over the bridge of the nose, tying an overhand knot under the chin and then tying a knot at the base of the dog’s head on its back. A lead is also essential for walking your injured dog out of the woods in a controlled manner. $10; remingtonsportingdog.com.
MYLAR EMERGENCY BLANKET
In an emergency, this compact and nearly weightless sheet can be your most important tool for helping an injured dog (or human) maintain body heat. Also called a space blanket, wrap it around an injured dog to help it stay warm, and if your dog has open wounds, lay him on the blanket to keep him from getting dirt in his cuts. Available at most outdoor stores.
If your dog injures his paw, a bootie provides the best protection. Booties are also great for dogs that get chronic snow build up between their pads in winter. When your pet pulls out the icy chunks from between his toes, he is ripping out chunks of hair with the ice, which will bleed. A bootie solves both problems. For serious backcountry dogs, we like Ruffwear Booties, which have Vibram soles like many hiking boots. $17-$70; ruffwear.com.
Another way to prevent snow build up between pads in winter is musher’s wax—the stuff that sled dogs use. It also moisturizes cracked pads without interfering with your dog’s sweat glands (dogs only sweat through their feet and their mouths). $15; musherssecret.net.
If your dog has a serious skin gash, like a bad cut from barbed wire, a medical stapler can help you close the wound in the field quickly and neatly. Stapling is faster than hand suturing. Clean the wound as best you can, make sure that you’ve controlled any severe bleeding, and, if possible, clip the hair where you’ll need to put in the staples. Inject lidocaine around the edges of the cut, hold the sides together and go. Complete instructions are available in Acker’s Dog First Aid: A Field Guide. $10; surgical-staples-depot.com.
Feed your dog over-the-counter human anti-inflammatories like Aleve (Naproxen), Advil (Ibuprophen), Tylenol (Acetaminophen) and you can cause cause bleeding ulcers, kidney damage or worse. Buffered aspirin is the safest non-prescription anti-inflammatory pain medicine for pets—a chewable version is available for dogs—but you may also want to ask your vet for a canine-specific prescription. $20; palatech.com.
Dogs, like humans, can contract Lyme disease. The sooner you get a tick off your dog, the better. A tick nipper is a small plastic tweezers/pliers that removes the whole tick, including the mouth, which can break off if you pull it out with a regular tweezers. $6; adventuremedicalkits.com.
FOLDABLE BOWL FOR FOOD AND WATER
Like humans, dogs need water and food to survive. Dogs are often fine drinking out of a stream or lake, but if your route doesn’t have water, or you suspect that the water on your trip might be contaminated or salty, carry water for your dog too. Transport it in a reusable plastic bottle, and bring a collapsible bowl to pour it into. We like Granite Gear’s Slurpin’ Bowls. They’re collapsible and rollable, but super stable when full. $18-22; granitegearstore.com.
Like people, dogs can bonk. Like people, they sometimes need more than just water for the fastest recovery. But many human electrolyte replacements are toxic to dogs because they have sugar or fake sugar—neither good for your canine companion. Try Elete, a super-concentrated non-sweetened electrolyte replacement. $6-$18; eletewater.com.
GUIDE TO DOG FIRST AID
It’s easy to panic when you’re in the field and your pet has a problem. Carry a quick guide to ailments with detailed directions on how to treat the most common ones. We like the Field Guide to Dog First Aid from Wilderness Adventures Press. It details how to deal with everything from cuts and scrapes to gun shot wounds, with instructions on how to use all of the items in your first aid kit. $15; wildadvpress.com.
If this list sounds like a lot to carry, don’t worry. A healthy, active dog can pack his own gear, up to 20 percent of his body weight. The best way for your dog to pack his own supplies is in a doggie backpack, like Ruffwear’s Approach or Palisades, or Granite Gear’s Alpha or Long Howl dog packs. Each model comes in several sizes. A pack should be snug but not constraining. The chest strap should allow your dog to walk and run freely, and the rear strap should buckle behind your dog’s ribs, stabilize the load, and keep the pack from sliding over Rover’s head. Certain packs are hydration focused while others can carry anything. $65-$150; granitegearstore.com, ruffwear.com.
Don’t have a first aid kit? Consider L.L. Bean’s Sporting Dog First Aid Kit. It includes a field guide to first aid for dogs, and comes with everything you’ll need for canine emergencies, as well as most things you’ll need for yourself (you will need to add blister treatment) in a rugged canvas bag. It’s a bit heavy for backpacking, but complete. $80; llbean.com.