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First Aid for the Field Dog

Knowing how to react in the field can mean the difference between life or death for your dog.

First Aid for the Field Dog
Photo Credit: Madelyn Root

“Are you kidding me?” I said exasperatedly to my twin brother and vet clinic partner, Randy. “So far today we have treated an eye injury, a barbed-wire laceration, a torn nail, and an encounter with a skunk.”

It was only the first day of our hunting trip to South Dakota with our sons and several friends, and we were as busy as if we were at home in Wisconsin at our clinic. But it wasn’t the dogs of clients we were mending—we were tending to an array of injuries to our own dogs.

For 45 years I have been a practicing veterinarian, as well as an avid upland hunter and active competitor in retriever field-trial competitions. What I’ve learned in that time is that most people don’t go hunting with two veterinarians in tow. The responsible sporting-dog owner should be prepared to render first aid in the field, and recognize when it’s time to go to the vet. Here’s some advice that I tell all my clients to consider before hitting the field.

Rule #1: Be prepared

Know in advance where to find veterinary care at your destination. Know the hours of operation, especially nights and weekends. Have a first-aid kit packed and ready to go, and know how to treat the conditions you feel comfortable handling. Knowing this information in advance can save valuable time, and your dog’s life.

Rule #2: Certain conditions absolutely require the immediate care of a veterinarian

I refer to these as “Get your car keys and go conditions.” Bloat, deep lacerations, fractures, snake bites, severe heatstroke, severe head or spine injuries, chest wounds, most gunshot wounds, shock, and near-drowning are conditions that need to be seen by a veterinarian. Time is of the essence—minutes can make the difference between life or death.

vet taking black lab's vitals
Photo Credit: Mark L. Atwater

Rule #3: Use common sense as to when to stop the hunt or competition

There will always be another day, even if it’s the last day of the hunt, or the last series of a field trial. I have seen numerous cases where the dog owner wishes they would have done a better job of conditioning prior to the hunt, or not allow the field-trial dog to take “just one more” loop searching for a bird when the dog is already exhausted and overheated. Remember, a dog will not stop on his own until it is usually too late. It’s our job as owners and stewards of these all-too-willing animals to save them from themselves.

Rule #4: Know how to restrain and muzzle when dealing with painful conditions

A leash, cord, or a four-foot length of conforming gauze can be used. Start with an overhand knot, loosely placed at the top of the loop. Place the loop around the muzzle as far back as possible while tightening. Loop and then tie another overhand knot under the jaw. Finish by firmly tying the remaining lengths behind the ears with a knot that can be quickly untied.

Common Field Injuries and Fixes


This is most commonly seen when an animal is left in a vehicle, but it can occur even with a healthy dog that overexerts on a hot day. You should always take the time to warm the dog up, and then cool him down after any strenuous activity. Also, be extra diligent about providing plenty of rest and fluids, particularly on hot or humid days. Signs to watch for include excessive panting; swollen, wide tongue; weakness; and collapse. If unchecked, these symptoms can lead to seizures. Treatment consists of immediately getting the dog into a shaded area, cooling the dog down with water (NOT ICE), and adding airflow like a fan or air conditioning in a vehicle. DO NOT put the dog in a crate and walk away.

It is vitally important to monitor the dog’s rectal temperature, and stop cooling when the temperature reaches 103 degrees. Cooling down too rapidly and letting the internal temperature plummet can cause serious harm. Seek emergency veterinary care if your dog’s condition does not improve quickly.

Snake Bites

Know before you go what venomous snakes are found at your destination. Be observant of the type of snake that has bitten your dog. The bite usually occurs in the face or extremities, and varies due to the type of snake and amount of venom released. Oftentimes, the dog will yelp when bitten. Calm and restrain your dog. The bite wound will usually start swelling immediately. Wash the swollen area with antiseptic, and flush with copious amounts of tap water. Do not use ice packs or cold water, as this will cause venom localization and thus more necrosis at the bite site. From above the bite, gently massage downward and away. Do NOT apply a tourniquet, lance the bite, or attempt to suck out the venom. Drive to the nearest veterinarian who has experience in treating snake bites and stocks antivenom—something else you should research during your trip preparation if you’re going to a snake-infested area.


If a wound is deep, or is penetrating the abdomen or chest, stop the bleeding with direct pressure or by using a hemostat to clamp spurting blood vessels. Then, wrap the area firmly and transport immediately. For superficial lacerations, wear gloves and begin with cleaning the wound with saline (.9 percent wound-flushing aerosols work well) until all debris is absent. Apply KY Gel directly to the wound, then clip or shave hair surrounding the laceration. The KY Gel provides a water-soluble barrier to prevent hair and antiseptics from irritating the exposed tissues.

golden retrieving running through woods with branch hitting eye
Photo Credit: Chip Laughton

A good rule of thumb is to never flush anything into a wound that you would not put into your eye. Gently scrub the surrounding haired areas with an antibacterial scrub. Flush soap and KY Gel from the wound with the pressurized saline. Oppose edges of laceration with thumb forceps, and use a skin stapler to apply staples every 1⁄8-inch apart. Small wounds can be closed with super glue only when applied to the skin edges after cleansing and drying. If the wound was not discovered for several hours, the wound should be flushed with saline and bandaged prior to transporting to a vet.

Bloat (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus)

Time is of the essence—minutes can make the difference between life or death for your dog. The exact cause of bloat is not truly understood, but there appears to be many different factors involved, and bloat usually occurs at night. The symptoms are progressive, starting with nonproductive retching and pacing due to abdominal pain, and eventually leading to collapse and significant abdominal distension. With early recognition of symptoms and rapid transport to emergency veterinary care, a dog can survive.


After proper restraint and muzzling of your dog, the injured leg should be immobilized before transporting to a veterinarian. Firmly wrap the leg with a terrycloth towel, followed by wrapping from the toes up with a gauze roll. Then apply a splint of either a makeshift tree branch or other sturdy object that acts as a stabilizer. You can also use a magazine that’s wrapped into a tube as a splint. Secure the splint with athletic tape, duct tape, or vet wrap.


Always do a thorough exam of the entire limb from the toes up, trying to isolate a sore area. Cruciate ligament injuries and groin sprains will cause a three-legged lameness that requires stopping the hunt and crate-resting. Immobilization is not required, but the hunt is over.

Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)

While rarely seen in a hunting dog, it can be confused with Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC) of the Labrador and other known breeds. Hypoglycemia signs are weakness, unsteadiness, collapse, or even seizures, whereas EIC presents with rear-end weakness following exercise. Treatment for low blood sugar consists of feeding fast-acting carbohydrate treats such as one or two pouches of non-grape fruit snacks. These are easily carried in your pocket if the dog has a tendency for hypoglycemia.

Eye Injuries

Dogs in the field are exposed to myriad foreign bodies that can lodge in the eye, or beneath the third eyelid. Close inspection and flushing of the eyes with an eye wash after each hunt is important. To examine under the third eyelid, use a moistened Q-Tip to get behind the lid and roll it out. Illumination with a pen light is very helpful. If the dog is squinting or has a red eye, the possibility of a scratched cornea exists. While not life-threatening, it should be taken seriously. A non-steroidal ophthalmic ointment should be applied every eight hours. With an obvious scratch of the cornea or intense pain, a non-steroidal pain medication or Tylenol should be given orally. If no improvement is seen and redness persists after 24 hours, the dog should be examined by a veterinarian.

Broken Nails

If nearly detached, broken nails should be removed following proper restraint, and Kwik-Stop should be applied to stop the bleeding. Other nail cracks can be stabilized with a small amount of super glue.

Pad Ulcers

If the pad of your dog suffers ulcers, or are torn up from burrs or overuse, it can be treated with New Skin and the foot wrapped or a boot applied.

hunter treating black lab's paw
Photo Credit: Mark L. Atwater

I have found that the most effective boot for hunting is to wrap the foot with vet wrap, and then follow with a couple layers of duct tape extending to the haired part of the foot above the wrap to keep it from slipping down and prevent burrs from getting into the homemade boot.

Bite Wounds

Bite wounds from other dogs or wild animals should be thoroughly flushed with saline, but not closed unless the wound is gaping more than a half-inch. Start on an antibiotic on the advice of your veterinarian, as this may prevent an infection. Monitor closely for fever and lethargy. A current rabies vaccine prevents the most serious concern. Notify your vet if you have started your dog on an antibiotic.

Vomiting & Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a symptom. It can be mild, and stress-induced (excitement, new food, different water source, etc.). This is not an emergency, so long as there is no blood visible. Over-the-counter Imodium can be given to combat diarrhea. Hydration with fresh water is imperative. Sometimes, “baiting” the water with a small amount of food will enhance drinking. Canned plain pumpkin (not the pie filling) can be added to food as a source of fiber, and most dogs find it very palatable. Repeated diarrhea with substantial blood in the stool is an emergency, and your dog should be seen by a veterinarian.

Vomiting has numerous causes, from metabolic conditions to foreign bodies and poisonings. This is an emergency if your dog is lethargic, or if blood is seen in the vomit. If the vomiting is intermittent, use over-the-counter famotidine (Pepcid). Ten milligrams can be given initially, and then repeated every 12 hours if necessary. Take the dog’s rectal temperature, and monitor for fever above 103 degrees.


Allergic reactions from insect bites usually resolve on their own; however, the rare dog can have a severe reaction. Immediately give Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) at a dose of one milligram per pound of body weight, and repeat every eight hours. If difficulty in breathing is noticed, transport to a vet immediately.

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