Direct Line magazine

Guide to First Aid for Dogs

Updated on: 16 February 2021

A dog with a bandaged paw.

The UK is a nation of dog lovers. When something happens to our faithful friends, panic can hit. With this guide, you’ll learn the best course of action to make sure your dog has the best chance to make a speedy recovery. You’ll learn how to:

  • Spot the signs of poor health in dogs

  • Decide whether to contact the vet

  • How to apply basic first aid

  • Care for your dog at home

It’s information every dog owner needs. After all, accidents happen. How we prepare and react can have a huge influence on the outcome. Learn how to correctly apply first aid, and you’ll be ready if an emergency happens.

Is it an emergency?

First things first, what has happened to your dog? It’s easy to panic in stressful situations and overreact about something which could be treated at home. The best way of deciding whether an injury or illness is an emergency is to understand your dog’s normal behaviour – and how much it has changed.

sick dog

Spotting changes in your dog

Paying close attention to your dog can help you identify smaller issues before their health gets worse. Key things to know include:

  • Temperature. A healthy dog’s temperature should be 38C to 39C (101 to 102.5 F). Anything above 39C is considered high. This is slightly hotter than normal for humans, so your dog could feel hot to you yet be within the normal range.

  • Normal temperament. You’re the best judge of your dog’s character. If they start acting abnormally, think about whether there’s any reason – perhaps they’re trying to tell you they’re in discomfort or pain. Odd behaviour isn’t something to panic over, but it should be monitored.

  • Levels of activity. Is your dog sleeping more than usual or having difficulty getting about? Keep an eye on how these changes develop.

  • Eating habits and digestion. Every dog is different. Some might snack throughout the day; others will eat their meals at great speed. Whatever your dog’s normal eating habits, if they suddenly stop eating or have a strangely increased appetite, it could be a sign of illness. You should also keep an eye out for any signs of vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation.

  • Coat condition. Any dry or itchy skin, sores or lumps could need treatment. It could be a reaction to something they’ve encountered or a sign of underlying illness.

  • Breathing. Depending on the size of your dog, their resting heart rate could be anywhere between 60 to 140 beats per minute. For larger dogs, it’s around 60 to 100, and for smaller dogs, it should be around 100 to 140. Any abnormal breathing should be considered serious, especially if your dog is struggling to breathe.

  • Bad breath. You shouldn’t expect your dog’s breath to be minty fresh, but persistently bad breath can be caused by gum disease or tooth decay – both of which should be addressed. It could also be a sign of health problems elsewhere.

  • Eye irritation. Your dog’s eyes should be bright and alert, free from any redness, cloudiness or gunk.

Deciding when to go to the vets

Some health issues can resolve themselves, although sudden changes tend to require more immediate attention. In most cases, a dog will show signs of improvement after 24 hours, but knowing when to wait and when to visit a vet is a difficult decision to make.

There’s now a service which helps you make this decision, taking away doubts about your dog’s health.

PawSquad connects you with trained vets who can provide video or text consultations, which are recommended in the following situations:

  • Non-urgent questions. Got a small concern that’s been niggling you? Text a vet or arrange a video consultation.

  • Preventative care. Not everything will be an emergency – if you’re interested in getting tips on keeping your pet healthy, contact PawSquad.

  • Ongoing conditions. Some owners will be managing their dog’s chronic condition and require ongoing advice.

  • Advice in an emergency. Vets can talk you through your options calmly.

Dog with a stick

If you’re unsure about whether to see a vet, this service is ideal. Although illnesses can’t be diagnosed over a video, a PawSquad vet can help you to better understand the symptoms and the urgency of the problem.

For any emergency, PawSquad will recommend you go straight to your registered vets. Examples of such situations are:

  • Injury or impact

  • Struggling to breathe – noisy or rapid breathing, or continual coughing that is causing distress

  • Potential neurological conditions – sudden difficulties with balance, for instance, if your dog is having a seizure

  • Persistent abdominal pain

  • Severe vomiting or diarrhoea

  • Urinary problems – being unable to urinate can indicate a blockage in the bladder

What to do in an emergency

Before you act, try to assess the situation. Injured dogs are frightened animals; they can act out in pain or may try to bite, even if they’re usually calm and friendly. Unfortunately, emergencies happen, so it’s best to know what to do in the most common instances.

Trauma – including broken bones, burns and stings

Potential fractures

For any major trauma, you’ll need to visit the vets. But before you head there, you can do your best to prevent further damage. For suspected broken bones, don’t try to reset the fracture or apply any ointments to an open fracture. You should do the following instead:

  • Cover open fractures with a clean gauze or bandage

  • Apply gentle pressure to bleeding

  • Support any broken limbs

  • Keep your dog warm

  • Consider muzzling your dog if pain causes them to act out in self-defence – although not if they’re struggling to breathe

Don’t be tempted to use human medicines to treat your dog. The drugs and doses used are different, meaning it can do more harm than good.


For burns, the treatment is similar to how you’d treat a human. Run the burn under cold water for a decent amount of time – at least five minutes – and contact your vet.

If you know it’ll take you some time to get to your vet, apply a saline-soaked dressing, but don’t use any ointments or creams. Try to keep your dog warm too.


For many dogs, their inquisitive nature can get them in trouble. In the summer months, watch out for signs of hives or swelling on your dog. They could also whine, drool or paw at the area if they’ve been stung by a wasp or bee.

If you can see any evidence of a stinger left behind in the skin (only left by bees), remove it. A solution of bicarbonate of soda will help with the pain of a bee sting, whereas vinegar will help with wasp stings. If you’re unsure what your dog has been stung by, try applying ice for a soothing effect.

Usually, stings can be treated at home, but do watch out for any signs of allergic reaction (swelling elsewhere or general weakness). If the dog has been stung in the mouth or around the throat, any swelling could interfere with their breathing, so it’s best to get the sting checked out by a vet. Getting stung in this area is more common than you’d imagine, as dogs can try to chase, bite or catch insects.

How to bandage a bleeding wound

If you have access to first aid materials:

  1. Place a non-adhesive dressing on the wound

  2. Cover with a cotton bandage

  3. Wrap a layer of conforming bandage – these materials should have a lot of stretch in them and will hold the dressing in place

  4. The last layer should be tape with adhesive backing

If you don’t have access to a first aid kit:

  1. Improvise with towels or clothing

  2. Wrap additional tight layers if blood continues to seep through

General advice

  • If the wound is somewhere difficult to bandage, hold a dressing down firmly until you get to the vets

  • If bandaging a leg, always include the foot to prevent swelling

  • Don’t leave a bandage on for more than 24 hours

Respiratory distress

Seeing your dog struggle to breathe can be one of the most panic-inducing experiences. It’s important you stay calm to ensure you act quickly.

You’ve got to be able to identify what’s a normal change in breathing (caused by warm temperatures, exercise, stress, and excitement) and what’s unusual. How does your dog usually breathe during a walk? What about after you’ve returned and they’re resting?

If their breathing is abnormal, laboured or their chest sounds tight, visit your vets to help pinpoint the problem. If breathing has stopped, find out how to perform CPR below.


If your dog starts to have a fit, your instinct might be to comfort or hold them. But this can provide stimulation and prolong the seizure. Current evidence suggests seizures don’t hurt dogs, but you can reduce the chance of them injuring themselves unintentionally. Rather than trying to calm your dog, change the surroundings by:

  • Turning the lights down

  • Reducing any noise

  • Padding out the area with cushions

  • Removing any sharp objects

Don’t try to move your dog, but once they’re comfortable, contact your vet immediately. They can give you advice should the seizure last more than five minutes or if your dog has multiple fits within a short space of time.

Dogs do not swallow their tongues during a seizure, so your pet could have an isolated fit and be unaffected. Rest assured, the confusion and disorientation after the seizure isn’t an indication of how severe it was. A vet will be able to tell you more.

If your dog has a history of seizures, it’s worth noting that they tend to occur when the levels of brain activity change, such as:

  • Any excitement, e.g. being fed or going for a walk

  • Falling asleep or waking up

Sick dog in lap


A concern for owners of large, deep-chested dogs is Gastric torsion or Gastric Dilation Volvulus (GDV) Syndrome – often referred to as bloat. Although any dog can get bloat, large and giant-breed dogs may be at higher risk, especially deep-chested breeds such as Great Danes, German Shepherds, and Standard Poodles.

As the name suggests, the most obvious symptom is an enlarged belly, but you can also watch out for:

  • Excessive drooling or dribbling

  • Attempts to vomit or vomiting

  • Too much air intake – common in dogs when they’re anxious

  • Laboured breathing in general

  • Gulping

  • Pale nose and mouth

  • A weak pulse

GDV happens when there’s a twist in the stomach, and it fills with gas. It’s life-threatening, so symptoms must be treated seriously. Contact a vet as soon as you suspect your dog has bloat.

While vets can help in an emergency, there’s a notable lack of understanding or evidence about why bloat happens. Although people will tell you it’s more common in older, larger, male dogs, who have drunk or eaten a lot and then been excessively active, it can happen to any dog – which is why it’s so important to recognise the symptoms.

Active dog outside


Dogs aren’t that efficient at cooling themselves down. Whereas humans sweat, dogs pant to circulate the air through their bodies and cool down. When they can’t keep their temperature in a safe range, heatstroke occurs:

  • Moderate heatstroke would be temperatures around 40-42C (104º to 106ºF)

  • Severe heatstroke would be a temperature over 42C (over 106ºF)

Although higher temperatures require immediate veterinary attention, you should get your dog examined if heatstroke is suspected.

Signs that your dog is suffering from heatstroke include:

  • Heavy panting

  • Excessing drooling

  • Lethargy, drowsiness and a lack of coordination

  • Vomiting

  • Has collapsed

You can start to bring your dog’s temperature down by covering them in cool water and putting a fan on to increase the air movement. Be careful you don’t use cold water though, as you want to cool your dog slowly. Cold water can change body temperature too quickly and cause too much heat loss, especially in small dogs.

Keep checking their temperature, with the aim of getting it to 40C or just below. Make sure you then dry your dog and don’t continue any efforts to further cool them. They should also have free access to water but don’t force them to drink.

Heatstroke is more common during the summertime, when it’s wise for dog owners to take precautionary steps because of the heat. You should:

  • Restrict exercise during the middle of the day

  • Always ensure your dog has access to shaded, cool places and water

  • Not keep a muzzle on your dog

  • Never leave your dog in a parked car

Reminder: A healthy dog’s temperature should be 38C to 39C (101 to 102.5 F).

Suspected poisoning

Dogs are inquisitive, and most tend to be greedy. You’ll often catch them eating something they probably shouldn’t, but in most cases, it’s unlikely to cause harm. However, there are certain things which we would eat as part of a normal diet that are toxic to dogs. These include:

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine

  • Chocolate

  • Garlic and onion

  • Grapes and raisins

  • Xylitol (sweetener often found in chewing gum)

  • Macadamia nuts

  • Avocados (pit)

Source: PetCoach

Certain plants are also dangerous to dogs, including:

  • Philodendron – an ornamental houseplant

  • Daffodils

  • Conkers and acorns

  • Lilies

  • Azalea or rhododendron

  • Yew – including dried leaves

  • Lily of the valley – often used in bouquets

  • Castor oil bush

  • Cherry laurel

  • Laburnum

The first step when poisoning is suspected is to try and identify what they’ve eaten or tried to eat – if it’s potentially toxic, keep any packaging so you can call your vet and let them know what your dog has ingested. Unless your vet asks you to do so, don’t try and make your pet sick as this can do more damage.

Perhaps you don’t know what your dog could have eaten, but they’re showing symptoms like those listed below. You should contact a vet if there is:

  • Vomiting

  • Obvious stomach pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Diarrhoea or constipation

Road traffic accidents

Unfortunately, dogs do sometimes get hit by cars. Whether it’s your pet or an unknown animal, approach calmly as dogs can act unpredictably when hurt. Make sure they can see you, talk softly and make slow movements.

Ideally, you wouldn’t move an injured dog, but if they’re on the road, you should try moving them to safety. Beware of any cars, and put the dog on a lead to see if they can walk. If not, improvise with a coat, blanket or something firm as a stretcher. If you’re unfamiliar with the dog, proceed with caution and see how they react to your touch – starting with their side.

Don’t coax them with food or offer water in case the dog needs a general anaesthetic for treatment. Even if they’re walking, injuries could be hidden.

If it’s your dog, take them to your local vet immediately to investigate any potential injuries. If it’s another dog or you don’t feel comfortable with animals, you can call the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999 for advice and support. They can also come out to rescue the injured animal to ensure they get to a vet quickly.

Dog outside with owner

Giving CPR to dogs

In some of these incidents, you might need to give CPR to your dog. Basic resuscitation involves the following steps:

1. Put your pet on its side, extend its head back and check that its breathing has stopped. You should be able to see easily by holding a bit of fur up to the nostrils.

2. Open the mouth and pull the tongue forward, checking for anything that could be blocking the airways. If there’s an obstruction, remove it but still take your dog to the vets. If there’s nothing and your dog remains unresponsive, continue with the following steps.

3. Check for a pulse – there’s an artery just below the skin on the inside of the back legs which can be used to check the pulse. Run your hand backwards from in front of the rear leg where it joins the body towards the groin and you should feel the artery.

If you can feel a pulse, but your dog isn’t breathing, perform the respirations only and watch for the chest to lift as you fill the lungs with air. Do not attempt compressions.

If your dog isn’t breathing and doesn’t have a pulse, you should begin CPR.

4. If you can’t feel a pulse, push on the chest every second, using the technique described below which best fits your dog. You should compress the chest approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of its width.

5. For every 15 compressions of the chest, give two breaths into the nose, ensuring that the mouth remains closed.

6. Try in two-minute cycles – two minutes of compression and breaths before checking to see if breathing returns to normal. Ideally, CPR is performed on your way to the vets.

Depending on the breed of dog, the position changes. The first image below shows chest compressions with the dog on its side – this works for most dogs. For dogs with keel-shaped chests – such as greyhounds or Dobermans – you’ll notice the hands are further forward and lower as you always want to press on the widest part of the chest.

The last image shows a barrel-chested dog, which should be placed on their back before you begin – place your hands on the sternum at the centre of the chest. For all larger dogs, keep your fingers locked.

When performing CPR on smaller dogs, place one hand on top of the other with the palms down. Rest your hands on their ribcage and compress the chest for only an inch. It’s the same process for larger puppies. For a small puppy, wrap your hands around their chest with the thumbs on top, ready for compressions, and the fingers underneath.

If you’d like to prepare yourself with training on how to give CPR to your pets, PawSquad will be running complimentary first-aid courses with our mobile vets.

Treating your pet at home

We dote on our pets, and try our best to give them everything they need – including the best care possible at home, should an injury, illness or accident happen.

Whether that’s ensuring your dog takes it easy (it’s surprisingly difficult to keep excitable pets calm) or stocking your home with emergency provisions, treating your dog at home is something every dog owner will have to do at some point.

Making your dog first aid kit

Having some necessities to hand gives you valuable peace of mind. It means you’re prepared to deal with any minor injuries at home. A comprehensive first aid kit for dogs should include the following:

  • Bandages – self-adhesive and conforming

  • Non-adhesive dressings

  • Antiseptic wipes or spray

  • Saline solution

  • Medical sticky tape

  • Absorbent gauze pads

  • Cotton wool

  • A blanket or towel

  • Ice pack

  • Tick remover or tweezers

  • Scissors

  • Thermometer and petroleum jelly

  • Disposable gloves

Dog playing outside with toy

Key dangers in the home

Where possible, the chance of accidents or injury should be minimised. This is easiest in your own home, where you can control what your dog is exposed to and how they’re cared for. Here are some potential dangers overlooked in the home:

  • Edible hazards. As mentioned earlier, there are foods and plants which are toxic to dogs and should be kept out of reach.

  • Medicines. Similarly, human drugs can interfere with oxygen flow or harm animals.

  • Cleaning chemicals. Dogs often don’t know what they should and shouldn’t eat so all cleaning products should be stored away.

  • Batteries. If eaten, the acid in batteries can cause mouth ulcers, throat and stomach issues.

  • Fertiliser and plant food. If you’re a keen gardener, be careful about what chemicals and insect repellents you use as many are poisonous.

  • Toys with movable parts. Anything which could be accidentally swallowed should be kept out of reach of dogs.

  • Antifreeze. Found in screen washes, brake fluids and some inks, antifreeze is poisonous.

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