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How to Build the Ultimate Tailgate & Field Medical Kit for Your Gun Dog

Straight from a sporting dog veterinarian, here is what you need to keep your bird dog safe.

How to Build the Ultimate Tailgate & Field Medical Kit for Your Gun Dog

A proper field medical kit contains not only the necessary supplies and equipment you may need, but the knowledge of how to use its contents, should the unthinkable happen. (Seth Bynum photo)

The life of a gun dog swings somewhat unpredictably along the pendulum spanning perfection and complete disaster. Their drive to find or retrieve game with unquestioning investment of their full mental and physical capacities leaves them with a certain vulnerability to injury. The risk-taking is part of their charm. The undeniable fact they encounter a situation without distraction or prejudice, wagering bodily harm against the single-minded pursuit of their one true calling only fuels our admiration for them.

As a veterinarian and hunter, I’m often asked about what I carry with me in the field to deal with injuries in my dogs. Many seem deflated that someone with so much experience would carry so little to address a problem, as though a clinician that spends his day amid hundreds of instruments and gadgets would naturally desire to lug those things high into the chukar hills to perform surgery among the sagebrush. Like most of us, I go hunting to get away from work, not to bring it with me.

My kit, however unimpressive in its breadth, is heavy on functionality. Over time the list of contents has been modified to account for aging dogs, changes in my comfort level with certain risks or truncated by compromises hashed out between space, weight, and a western hunter’s need to carry extra water. It’s neither sexy nor intimidating, and I’m happy to report my field care kit rarely gets used.

First, a caveat: The medical kit offers little benefit if its owner isn’t familiar with its contents or lacks the desire to learn their proper use. You owe it to yourself and your dog to hone up on your basic first aid skills as a prerequisite. Don’t hesitate to include gear that fits the specific needs of your dogs and preferred habitat. Terrain, weather, dog temperament, risk tolerance and, honestly, your inherent squeamishness all factor into how you stock your ideal field first aid kit.

The Base Station

The larger kit that I keep in my truck includes an assortment of supplies and medications deemed too bulky to carry in the field. From my old anatomy lab, I repurposed scissors, hemostats, a scalpel and blades (a sharp pocket-knife will suffice), as well as tissue forceps that have proven valuable on multiple occasions. I also carry wound glue, which is effectively a sterile form of super glue. The non-sterile dollar store kind works just fine for quickly closing small nicks and minor cuts. A multi-layer application with a small brush works like epoxy on minor pad abrasions and can help you salvage the rest of your hunting trip as long as you intervene early.

Field medical kit supplies
Build your base kit beginning with several vital pieces of equipment and supplies. (Seth Bynum photo)

With an abundance of dirt and debris, the field is no place for closing a wound. I keep a clean skin stapler handy back at the truck for crudely affixing loose flaps of tissue with a few staples in the short term. I urge you to exercise caution with this instrument and emphasize this isn’t the place to impress others (especially your vet) with your plastic surgery skills. You’ll quickly do more harm than good if you zipper closed a laceration without thoroughly decontaminating the underlying tissue. In this instance, less is truly more. No doubt your dog will appreciate some modest restraint on your behalf when enduring the repeated sharp sting from a staple-happy owner. Try it on yourself and see if you agree.

I carry a few packs of basic suture, usually ones discarded by the clinic after they’ve surpassed their expiration dates. They still work, and this approach frees up more money for shells. Suture boasts superior tensile strength compared to staples, and it also offers the option of tacking down deeper tissue layers for closing complex wounds. Because this technique requires sufficient wound cleaning and often sedation, I tend to save the suture for times when a trip to the local vet clinic is impossible or impractical.  

While I’m no fan of the overzealous stapler, I do applaud an attempt to decontaminate a wound. Repeated flushes with dilute chlorhexidine, betadine, or hydrogen peroxide will minimize infection from opportunistic bacteria. If unavailable, a squeeze bottle of sterile saline can help irrigate debris from cuts and scrapes. I’ve had several hunters admit to using alcohol for this purpose. While quite effective at decontamination, alcohol in an open wound feels exactly how you’d imagine. There are less painful alternatives, which I’ve mentioned above. However, isopropyl alcohol applied to the pads and ear tips can help quickly cool a dog that’s struggling with overheating, and it’s certainly cheap enough to keep around to quickly sterilize equipment.

I’ll confess that for a veterinarian I’m pretty horrible at applying bandages. It’s a product of working with quality technicians who have transformed wound dressings into a functional artform. While my finished product won’t win any tailgate beauty contests, it certainly passes the muster as a functional bandage. With a little practice, you’ll quickly surpass my skills. The trick is not in the aesthetics, but in operating safely within the space between too loose and too tight. Familiarize yourself with the obvious barometers used to gauge if you’ve erred too far in one direction.

Inspecting dog's foot
Develop a system for checking over your gun dog before, during, and after hunts to catch any subtle injuries. (Seth Bynum photo)

Several kinds of stretchy white tape, vet wrap (Coflex) and non-stick gauze fill the base station in the event I need them, which isn’t that often. Bandages should be used in bird dogs to help a bleeding wound clot and to protect superficial sutures in the near term. The vast majority of minor scrapes and cuts heal better when cleaned and left to air dry. While bird dog lore contends that dog saliva has magical healing powers, I’d argue that most superficial wounds just heal faster in the open. The dog tongue also does a pretty good job of keeping out bacteria-harboring debris and serum as well, even if their oral bacteria don’t really belong underneath the skin.

Dog with porcupine quills
Porcupine encounters are a common field trauma in many upland covers. (Seth Bynum photo)

If you hunt over one of those stubborn porcupine killers (I do, on occasion), and you’re a hands-on hand-ler that feels comfortable around the sharp end of a drahthaar, invest in a mouth gag to pull quills from the oral cavity. I carry a custom model made by Tom Healy, a fuzzy faced breed aficionado from Montana. While on the surface it conjures feelings of a medieval torture device, I appreciate the thoughtful design that puts soft plastic up against the dog’s valuable large premolars. I hope I never have to use it to its full capacity, but it does safely keep the dog’s mouth open to access quills under the tongue and along the gums. Other instruments include nail clippers and a dental hand scaler that doubles as a curved pick for tiny crevices. Dedicated bandage scissors help reduce the risk of nicking loose skin while blindly cutting off wraps and dressings.

The Pack Kit

As western hunter and a passable field medic, I employ a slimmed down kit of bare essentials to free more elbow room for extra water and occasionally a limit of birds. Having endured the gut punch of losing a dog for an extended period of time, I’ve added a GPS tracking collar and transmitter to my list of basic requirements. Yes, they’re undeniably expensive, but you can’t help your dog with an injury if you can’t find him.

My field kit contains a sturdy sealed plastic bag filled with minimal tape, gauze, and vet wrap to help secure a serious wound that requires pressure to stop bleeding. As space allows, I’ll throw in a small squeeze bottle of sterile saline to flush wounds and irrigate grass awns from eyes and ears in the early season. If you carry nothing else, a multi-tool with integrated pliers has proven its worth on numerous occasions, particularly during porcupine encounters. I’ve removed fish hooks, long thorns, and relied on this invaluable device to help repair boots and gear.

I used to carry a tourniquet, but the years spent exposed to the elements in my pack undermined the integrity of the rubber hose. While it gave me comfort to carry one, I often questioned its true utility for in field injuries. I fear that with the miles we cover in remote places, if one of our canine team incurred an injury severe enough to warrant a tourniquet, the outcome remained grim with or without it. While spartan, I’ve determined that these bare essentials are all I require to salvage a hunt or get a dog safely back to the truck where we can put the bulkier base station kit to use.  

Pain Meds and Antibiotics

The simple fact that a dog brushes off the pains of a barbed wire gash endured in its quest to track down a wounded rooster does not imply they are any less a sentient being than their handler. Rather, they experience pain as yet another stimulus that—while undoubtedly noxious—does not detract from the olfactory smorgasbord and predatory instincts given first priority on the trail of bird scent.

Canine injury is one of the few times I openly encourage anthropomorphism in dog owners. If your dog’s injury looks like it would be painful, it most likely is. You should do something to alleviate their discomfort. Even if they don’t act painful, controlling inflammation with medication can have profound effects in speeding up healing on a cellular level. Assuming a bird dog has received a regular checkup, I’m more than happy to dispense a modest pharmacy of helpful medications with appropriate doses for your kit. Always consult with your vet before administering these medications.

Most pain experienced in moderate injuries or grinding joint stiffness can be safely managed by carprofen, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that comes in a convenient chewable tablet. Anything stronger creates paperwork headaches for the veterinarian, and many in our profession remain reluctant, rightfully, to administer a just-in-case supply of opiates amid our current addiction epidemic. If the pain is severe enough to warrant heavy doses, you need to get the dog to a veterinarian anyway.

Major wounds and skin irritation can be managed with appropriate topical care and assisted by oral antibiotics with varying spectra of coverage. Punctures and deep lacerations call for Clavamox, while superficial injuries involving the skin respond well to cephalexin. Minor wounds heal nicely without vet intervention, but keep in mind your goal should not involve curing serious injury with medications alone. They simply give you a leg up in the foot race against infection while you line up appropriate medical care for your bird dog.

Gastrointestinal issues can ruin a hunting trip and pre-dispose an otherwise healthy dog to dehydration. Travel stress, changes in diet, or extra prairie nuggets (a dog delicacy) most frequently contribute to loose stool. I tend to treat aggressively with the GI-centric antibiotic metronidazole in conjunction with a palatable probiotic to prevent dehydration on multi-day hunts. Selfishly, I rank cleaning a blown-out kennel on the road near the bottom of my list of favorite dog chores.

Probiotics and supplements for the gun dog
Probiotics and nutritional supplements can help your dog stay in top-performing function, especially during long road trips. (Seth Bynum photo)

Optional but still strongly recommended medications include anti-nausea treatment (Cerenia or Zofran), sterile antibiotic eye ointment and topical antibtiotic/steroid cream for ears and skin. Senior dogs receive a dedicated joint supplement daily while we’re hunting.

An Ounce of Prevention   

You don’t have to be a scientist or theologian—just an avid bird hunter—to have experienced one of the more commonly encountered tenants of Gun Dog Truth: the risk of severe injury in the field is inversely proportional to how prepared you are to deal with such a disaster.

Plan and pack like a boss, and the barbed wire gods will look down favorably upon your pup. Skimp and shirk your responsibilities as your dog’s in-field first responder, and you will likely endure the punishment of a porcupine tussle three miles from the pickup. I’ve been on both ends of this spectrum, and I’m convinced the more I plan to manage a disaster, the less frequently they occur. While I’ve beaten the odds on occasion, this principle rings as true as a grouse bell in fall alder.

Post-hunt tailgate check
The best plan to overcome any medical issues that may be encountered is to come prepared and stay vigilant. (Seth Bynum photo)
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