First Responder - Level 3
Should You Begin Treatment at Home?
Learn what conditions require an immediate trip to a veterinary facility, and what could benefit from initial treatment at home.
By Jon Geller, D.V.M., DABVP
Depending on how far you are from a veterinary hospital, it may be necessary for a dog owner to provide initial medical care and first aid at home. Certain conditions, however, require immediate transport to the nearest veterinary facility, since time becomes a critical factor in survival. The following conditions also require either oxygen, drugs, fluids or surgery, and these can only be provided by a veterinary facility.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if you should begin treatment at home, or take your dog immediately to a veterinary hospital:
- Does your dog have pale or white gums?
- Is your dog’s stomach very distended, and is he trying to vomit but unable to?
- Was he bitten by a rattlesnake or other poisonous snake?
- Has he collapsed (from any cause), and is unable to get up?
- Does it appear he is having seizures?
- Has there been possible spinal cord injury or head trauma?
- Is your dog in respiratory distress, having difficulty breathing, or is there extremely noisy breathing?
If you answer yes to any of the above questions, you should not attempt treatment at home, but proceed as quickly (but calmly) to the nearest open veterinary facility.
Certain guidelines should be kept in mind when you transport your dog to a veterinary facility for treatment of an emergency condition:
- Call ahead so you are expected.
- Ideally, have a second person with you who can monitor your dog during transportation.
- If your dog is large (greater than 30 pounds), keep him on a blanket so the blanket can be used as a stretcher. Carrying a large, injured dog in your arms can worsen some injuries and increase the possibility of a dog bite due to pain or stress.
- Help keep your dog calm and cool by avoiding panic and keeping car temperatures low.
- If your dog has suffered possible spinal cord injury, characterized by an inability to walk, try to minimize manipulation and immobilize him as much as possible.
- Apply pressure with a clean cloth or bandage material to stop any bleeding.
- Seizures last only a minute or two, but often can reoccur in clusters or become more prolonged. Avoid putting your hand near your dog’s mouth, due to the risk of getting bitten. Contrary to popular belief, dogs cannot “swallow their tongues.” Seizures in a puppy or very small-breed dog may be due to low blood sugar, and could benefit from initial treatment at home with a small amount of honey rubbed on the gums.
Other medical emergencies may not be as urgent, or may benefit from initial treatment at home. In particular, any dog that ingests a toxic substance or “foreign body” (i.e. a sock, coin, underwear, bathroom trash or children’s toy), should be made to vomit at home if you are 30 minutes or more from the nearest veterinary facility. However, call your veterinarian first, because there are some substances, such as bleach, which can cause even more damage if your dog vomits. Following initial treatment at home, your dog should be transported to the nearest veterinarian for the ongoing care.
Conditions that would benefit from initial treatment at home include:
- Heat stroke
- Lacerations and bite wounds
- Broken bones
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Toxin or foreign body ingestion
- Bee stings/insect bites with facial swelling
- Nose bleed or other bleeding
- Difficulty giving birth (dystocia), characterized by longer than one or two hours between puppies or inability to deliver an initial puppy after protracted contractions
- Weakness in a puppy (low blood sugar) or known diabetic
Although your dog may be experiencing pain from some of these conditions, pain medications should not be given orally, because many have unwelcome side effects, and often oral medications are not absorbed well. Your veterinarian will give an injection of pain medication as soon as it is medically feasible.
These lists are by no means exclusive, as dogs seem to find lots of ways to get into trouble. Common sense and a phone call to a 24-hour veterinary facility can get you quick information if needed.
Note: The next First Responder course, in Session 400, will cover how to administer first aid for a selection of conditions that benefit from initial home treatment.
Jon Geller, D.V.M., DABVP, is an emergency veterinarian and freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo. He recently became board-certified in canine and feline medicine, and is also certified by the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. He shares his home with his family, including three cats and one dog.
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