Basic First Aid for your Dog

Dog wearing medical cone with veterinarian

Your dog has fallen down the stairs and broken his leg. What do you do? Or maybe your dog gets overheated while playing out in your yard on a hot summer day. How do you cool him off? Despite your best efforts, accidents happen. While you should never use these procedures as a substitute for veterinary care, these first aid tips can help you keep your pet alive until you can get him to a veterinarian.

Poisoning and Exposure to Toxins

Numerous household items are toxic to dogs. In general, things that are toxic to humans are also dangerous for canines. Many household cleaning products and antifreeze are poisonous to dogs. Some common household plants, such as American holly, carnations, gardenias, mistletoe, peonies, rhododendrons, tulips, and lilies are toxic to dogs. Some foods, such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, garlic, onions, and xylitol (found in candy and chewing gum) are also toxic to dogs.

If you think your dog’s skin has been exposed to a toxic substance, such as a household cleaner, read the instructions on the product’s label on how to handle human exposure to the toxin, and follow the directions provided. For instance, if the product instructs you to wash your hands after exposure to the substance, wash your dog with soap and water, being sure not to get soap in your dog’s eyes, mouth, or nose. Then, call your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary clinic for further advice.

Signs that your dog has ingested a poisonous substance include seizures, loss of consciousness, breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, irregular heartbeat, and lethargy. If you think your dog has ingested a poisonous substance, call your veterinarian or emergency veterinary clinic immediately for advice. You can also call the ASPCA Poison Control hotline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 888-426-4435. The ASPCA Poison Control hotline charges a consultation fee.


Signs of a fractured leg include swelling, abnormal movement of the leg, misshapen leg, an unwillingness or inability to walk, whining, holding the leg up, and bruising. If you suspect your dog has broken her leg, don’t attempt to set it. Splinting the leg may prevent your dog from moving her leg, but a badly placed splint can actually cause more harm. If your dog is bleeding or if her bone is sticking out through her skin, gently warp her leg with a clean bandage or towel before transporting her to your veterinarian. Put your dog in a carrier or kennel to transport her so that she cannot move around much and further injure her leg.


Run cold water over the burned area for several minutes. Wrap the burned area in a clean cool wet towel. Do not put any type of ointment on the burn. Place your dog in a carrier or kennel to transport him to your veterinarian or emergency veterinary clinic.


To stop the bleeding, place a clean bandage, towel, or piece of clothing over the wound, and apply gentle, but firm pressure on it. It usually takes several minutes for bleeding to stop, so don’t check the wound until you have applied pressure to it for at least three minutes. If the blood seeps through the cloth, apply another piece of cloth on top of the first piece, and continue to apply pressure to the wound. If bleeding is severe, you may need to apply a tourniquet. You can use a strip of clean cloth as a tourniquet. Once the bleeding has stopped, call your veterinarian for further advice. If bleeding is severe, transport your dog to your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary clinic for treatment.


A dog can quickly overheat on a warm day. Signs of heatstroke in canines include depression, thick, sticky saliva, vomiting, weakness, red or pale gums, diarrhea, bright red tongue, shock, rapid panting, and coma. If your dog is suffering from heatstroke, you’ll need to lower his body temperature. However, lowering your dog’s body temperature too quickly can actually lead to other life-threatening conditions. Run cool (not cold) water over your dog. Place a clean cool wet towel around your dog’s head and neck. Rewet the towel and replace it every few minutes. Even if your dog seems to be recovering, it’s essential to take her to your veterinarian to ensure she is not suffering from dehydration or other complications.

If Your Dog Stops Breathing

Make sure your dog is unconscious by gently shaking him and talking to him. Only begin rescue breathing when you know your dog is unconscious rather than deeply sleeping. Next, make sure your dog’s airway is clear. Open your dog’s mouth, and pull his tongue forward. Use your finger to clear any vomit or saliva from your dog’s throat. Sometimes clearing the airway is enough to help your dog breathe again. Watch your dog’s chest to see if it rises and falls and listen for breath sounds for 10 seconds following clearing out his airway.

If you don’t see any evidence of breathing, you will need to start rescue breathing. Pull your dog’s tongue to the front of his mouth so that it is in line with his canine teeth. Hold your dog’s mouth closed, and blow into his nostrils until you see his chest rise. If you don’t see his chest rise, blow more forcefully, and ensure you dog’s lips are sealed shut. Allow two to three seconds between each rescue breath to give your dog’s chest a chance to deflate. Continue rescue breathing while someone transports you and your dog to a veterinarian. Even if you r dog begins to breathe on his own, it’s essential to go to the vet to determine the cause of the problem and to prevent further complications.

If Your Dog’s Heart Stops

Lay your dog on a hard, flat surface on her right side. For medium or large dogs, place one palm on top of the other over the heart. For small dogs, cup your hand around the dog’s rib cage so that your fingers are on one side of the chest and your thumb is on the other side. The heart is located behind your dog’s front left elbow. Keep your elbows straight, and press down about one inch on your dog’s chest with hard fast motions. Continue compressions at a rate of approximately 100 per minute until you reach the vet. If your dog is not breathing, give her one rescue breath after every five chest compressions.

Despite your best efforts, accidents can happen and emergencies can arise. While you should never substitute these procedures for veterinary care, these first aid tips can help you save your dog’s life.

Common Diseases and Symptoms in Dogs

Old purebred blind jack russell dog with cataracts in eyes

Dog owners must know that canines are susceptible to a variety of common diseases. Some are treatable and others are preventable. Recognizing the symptoms of an illness helps ensure that your pet receives medical intervention as soon as possible, which increases the chances of recovery.


Not unlike how the disease process affects people, dogs may develop different types of cancer. Some types form localized tumors and others are more likely to spread or metastasize throughout the body. Different veterinarians may also have varied views concerning treatment options. While the reason cancer occurs remains unknown, genetic and environmental factors may contribute to malignancy development. Cancer symptoms include:

  • Lumps or unusual swelling
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Abnormal discharge from any body region
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Generalized unexplained fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing, having bowel movements or urinating
  • Black, tarry-looking bowel movements
  • Lameness in the absence of injury

Diagnosing cancer may involve a needle biopsy performed on abnormal growths to examine the cells under the microscope. Blood tests and imaging studies are also commonly used. Treatment may involve surgical removal of the malignant growth, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of therapies.

Cancer may occur in any dog species at any age. However, older dogs and certain breeds are more susceptible. Boston terriers, boxers and golden retrievers are more prone to mast cell tumors or lymphomas. Large and giant breeds, which include great Danes and saint bernards are more prone to developing bone cancer.

Neutering male and female dogs at an early age is one way to dramatically reduce the chances of pets developing cancer in later years.


Similar to humans, dogs develop diabetes when the body becomes insulin resistant or the pancreas does not produce sufficient amounts of insulin. Without insulin, sugar cannot nourish cells and remains in the blood. If left untreated, hyperglycemia causes many different health problems. Although an exact cause is unknown, autoimmune disorders, genetics, medications, obesity and pancreatitis are thought to contribute to the development of the disease. Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Increased appetite
  • Increased water consumption
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Increased urination
  • Dehydration
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Sweet-smelling breath
  • Cataract formation
  • Skin problems that do not heal
  • Frequent urinary tract infections

Females and obese dogs have a greater risk of developing diabetes. The disorder is typically diagnosed when the animal is between six and nine years of age. Certain breeds also seem to carry a greater risk. These dogs include Australian terriers, dachshunds, keeshounds, miniature and standard-sized poodles and samoyeds. Juvenile diabetes is not uncommon in golden retrievers and keeshounds.

Diagnosing the disease process involves evaluating symptoms, performing a physical examination and evaluating blood and urine samples. Treatment is determined based on the severity of the disease and other possible health problems. Some dogs merely require oral medications or dietary changes. Some need routine insulin injections. Seriously ill dogs require hospitalization to monitor and lower their blood sugar.


The disease is caused by a parasitic worm that travels through the bloodstream while damaging blood vessels, which eventually infects the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. Complete infestation typically takes six months after the initial exposure. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes. The animal must become infected with a male and female worm before parasitic reproduction occurs. If not detected, over the course of five to seven years, the dog may be infested with hundreds of worms. When not caught in time, the disease causes death. Symptoms of heartworm include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue after little physical activity
  • Some dogs may not have symptoms until latter stages

Diagnosis involves a physical examination, imaging studies and a blood test. Dogs should undergo blood testing every spring before receiving a preventative prescription. Treating an infected dog involves a series of injections with adulticides. Although the medication has a high cure rate, dogs must be monitored and kept calm during the process in order to prevent further cardiovascular damage.

Animals living in hot, humid climates are at greater risk of becoming infected. However, infections have been recorded in every U.S. state with the exception of Alaska.

Kennel Cough

The generic phrase refers to bacterial, fungal or viral respiratory infections, which cause inflammation throughout the animal’s throat and may venture downward to cause bronchitis. The affliction is not unlike a chest cold that affects people. Depending on the underlying cause, the infection often resolves without treatment. However, it is extremely contagious to other dogs. Kennel cough symptoms include:

  • Chronic, dry, honking cough
  • Gagging
  • Coughing foamy, white phlegm
  • Nasal congestion and discharge
  • Fever

The infection occurs in many different ways. Dogs may inhale microbes from the air. They might become infected after coming in contact with an ill dog or contaminated objects. Animal shelters, kennels, and other enclosed environments having poor air circulation are breeding grounds for microbes. Very young dogs and any dog not vaccinated against Bordetella and parainfluenza are at greater risk. If not treated, the infection could lead to pneumonia.

Infected dogs must be isolated from others. Humidifiers, vaporizers or other steam-producing environments help open breathing passages. Veterinarians may prescribe cough supressants and antimicrobial medications. Ensure the animal continues eating and drinking. Eliminate stress and over active behavior.