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Field First-Aid vs. Finding the Nearest Veterinarian

A basic guide for triaging field canine emergencies.

Field First-Aid vs. Finding the Nearest Veterinarian

How to decide what to do with an injury and whether a tailgate remedy will suffice or professional veterinary intervention is warranted. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

If there’s a fertile piece of common ground among flusher enthusiasts and pointer advocates, it’s that field emergencies involving gun dogs are universally stressful and unwelcomed events. With enough time spent afield, they’re equally unavoidable; a consequence of unbridled prey drive turned loose in an arena wrought with hidden hazards and tough terrain. The responsibility of assuring our dog’s health and wellness feels like a small price to pay for their devotion and dedication to their craft. 

For the bird hunter, in-the-field triage is an all-too-common predicament. When does an injury warrant intervention? What can an amateur safely tackle, and when should we get a veterinarian involved? If the contents of my inbox offer any indication, many of my fellow hunters wrestle with these same questions. And while I’d love to offer a simple formula to help you arrive at an answer, no two injuries, dogs, or owners are alike. I will, however, share some insight into my own decision-making process when weighing the severity of an injury, whether a tailgate remedy will suffice, or professional intervention is warranted. 

german shorthaired pointer running into a barbed-wire fence
There is never a shortage of hazards and potential injuries for our bird dogs in the field. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

First, please understand there’s certainly no shame in seeking professional help for an injury you feel uncomfortable or unqualified to tackle. It’s hard to place a value on peace of mind when dealing with our four-legged hunting companions. Even in my professional career, I routinely refer cases outside my wheelhouse to those with more expertise and experience. 

Additionally, let’s dispel any notion that bird hunters should moonlight as field medics. While I strongly suggest every hunter or sporting dog enthusiast develop and maintain a minimum competency in first aid, we should all embrace our limitations. While not common, I have seen minor problems transform into train wrecks at the hands of well-intentioned but woefully misinformed handlers. 


Temperament

A dog’s temperament—not necessarily your first aid skill set—offers the biggest hurdle in a successful outcome in field first aid. Fortunately, most hunting dogs I work with have been gifted proper training and some experience with maintaining manners in painful or stressful situations. 

Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to see hunters arrive at the vet clinic with more severe wounds from dog bites than those sustained by the dogs themselves. If you’re at all apprehensive about your dog’s reaction during an injury or lack the supplies to protect yourself from the sharp end of a canine, let trained veterinary staff utilize safe restraint or sedation, no matter how minor the ailment. 

upland bird hunter holding a german shorthaired pointer
Your own comfort and confidence to administer first aid to your gun dog will depend on their individual temperament. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

Easy Fixes

There are a few field injuries I see in the clinic that don’t require any heroics or surgical skills to correct. Debris in the eyes and ears are far easier to address around the time of injury than waiting until after the hunt, as they love to dig and irritate valuable tissue. As these are extremely sensitive areas, most dogs will alert you when a grass awn or other organic debris has landed where it doesn’t belong. Pawing at the eyes or muzzle, head shaking, or rubbing the face across the turf are all common reactions to the annoyance of an eye or ear foreign body. 

Sterile saline or contact solution in a squeeze bottle always has a home in my field kit. It’s cheap and easy to carry, in addition to being highly effective at cleaning wounds. Irrigate both the eyes and the ear canals thoroughly as soon as you discover the problem. You’ll be rewarded with kisses for your effort if successful. 


Long before veterinary school, a veteran bird dog handler shared with me another strategy for clearing eyes of seeds and debris. If a squeeze bottle of saline isn’t available, you can use your tongue to gently sweep around the eyeball to push the foreign objects toward the edge of the eye and out. As gross and salty as it sounds, I’ve used this technique successfully on a few occasions. While my dog looked at me like I was deranged, he hunted on without the annoying foxtail grinding away at his cornea. Your mileage may vary. 

Pad abrasions are as frustrating for hunters as they are for their dogs. Fortunately, the vast majority of these don’t require assistance from a veterinarian. They do, however, require rest and restraint, two traits that neither bird dogs nor bird hunters exercise reliably. Pad tissue heals remarkably fast, but that fact offers little consolation deep into a multi-day road trip. Utilize this tip I borrowed from a colleague: If you need to squeeze a few more miles out of a raw pad, cover the wound with moleskin and affix the edges to the healthy tissue with super glue. Don’t forget to cover your work in a secure dog bootie before returning to the field.

Lacerations

Bird dogs are drawn to barbed wire, perhaps because our birdiest habitats are choked with these pesky obstacles. As a veterinarian, I find it challenging to accurately gauge the severity of scrapes and cuts from owners’ descriptions. Most overestimate, while a few owners have brushed off ultimately fatal injuries as no big deal. The good news is that the vast majority of field cuts and scrapes could heal without any intervention other than rest and a thorough cleaning. However, a small few will appear benign on the surface while later ballooning into serious wounds without proper intervention. 

Instead of asking the owner how bad they think the cut is, I try to surmise what kind of hazard the dog ran into as my benchmark of severity. Most barbed wire cuts and scrapes can wait until normal clinic hours or require little more than disinfectant and a staple or two at home. Run-ins with hog wire, sheet metal, or stick punctures tilt the scales in favor of a vet visit. Often the origin of the insult remains a mystery, in which case you’ll have to rely on input from your gut along with a pain assessment of your dog whether intervention is warranted. When in doubt, take them in. 

Minor lacerations offer the avid DIY’er a great opportunity to help out an injured dog. Admittedly, I have a longstanding troubled relationship with skin staplers and often cringe at the thought of their misuse. Early in my career, I saw enough overzealous or improper handling to advocate against them in the hands of most dog owners. I later learned that a great number of minor lacerations were cleaned, stapled, and fully healed without issue or intervention on the part of a veterinarian. I’ve since changed my tune on the utility of skin staplers since admitting these successful and uneventful cases were excluded from my sampling. I still encourage hunters to emphasize proper cleaning with betadine, chlorhexidine (or hydrogen peroxide, sparingly) followed by the application of just enough staples to hold the skin in place. 

german shorthaired pointer with a skin laceration on leg and bandage wrap
Most minor skin lacerations can be managed by handlers in the field on their own. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

Serious Injuries

Broken bones and other serious trauma should be handled in a prompt manner by a veterinarian. Not only are these situations extremely painful for the dog, but they also tend not to improve with procrastination and inaction. While I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any of these types of injuries with my dogs, my disaster plan involves getting them to the clinic as fast as possible. While clinician preference will vary, I don’t formally field splint most broken bones. Instead, I utilize an upland pack with enough capacity to gurney any member of my canine string out of the field. Since shock and internal hemorrhage can accompany serious fractures, I don’t waste precious moments with formally stabilizing most of these injuries. A thick padding of clothing around an injured limb will suffice. 

Any contact with a moving vehicle—no matter how minor—warrants a veterinarian’s exam. I made the mistake early in my career of minimizing what seemed like a minor hip check a patient sustained from a vehicle, only to have them return a few hours later with profound blood loss from undetected internal injuries. Occasionally, more life-threatening, occult problems from these types of hazards only become obvious once the adrenaline flood of the event wears off. 

german shorthaired pointer with a deep puncture wound on bed in animal hospital
For major injuries, such as deep puncture wounds, you are better off running your dog to the nearest veterinary clinic. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

While a run-in with a moving vehicle offers a visually powerful cue that injury is likely, other times serious problems have more subtle outward symptoms. I strongly recommend having a veterinarian evaluate any dog that becomes acutely lethargic, unconscious, disoriented, or painful in multiple joints. Working dogs undoubtedly show exhaustion and soreness after giving it their all in the field, but they’re also a stubbornly stoic group that can mask a major issue behind an iron facade. Most vet clinics have the diagnostics to easily rule out metabolic mishaps, endocrine issues, or potentially life-threatening infections where these symptoms occur. 

Personally, I’d rather avoid injury and illness altogether. Perhaps the greatest deterrent to disaster is adequate preparation. Carry and utilize a fully-stocked first aid kit in your vest and in the back of the truck. Have the number to your local vet clinic stored in your phone, and research the nearest clinic and after-hours protocols when traveling to new areas. I’ve learned both in practice and in the field that the likelihood of catastrophe diminishes with each step taken in preparation for a worst-case scenario. 

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