Dog First Aid for owners: Essential tips and tricks for emergency situations

Updated 15 May 2024
Read time: 13 mins
article author
Written by Dr Alex Crow
Team Vet
article author
Reviewed by Elle Padgham

Emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere, so as an owner, it's essential to be prepared for them.

Pet first aid is just as important as first aid for humans and it can make a huge difference in our dogs' well-being during a crisis.

From minor injuries to life-threatening situations, knowing what to do in the heat of the moment could be the deciding factor in your pooch's outcome.

A big part of pet first aid is being prepared, as emergencies can strike when we least expect them. That's why it's crucial for us to have the necessary knowledge and resources to tackle such situations efficiently.

Being prepared for emergencies means having your vet's number stored in your phone, having a well-equipped pet first aid kit, and knowing some basic first aid techniques for your dog.

Understanding what to do in various emergency situations, such as choking, wounds, or seizures, can potentially save your pet's life.

So, whether you're a new pawrent or a seasoned owner, it's never too late to learn about pet first aid.

Recognising an emergency

As a dog owner, it's essential to know the signs of a health emergency and when to seek help from a vet. In this section, we'll go over some common signs of distress and how to quickly assess your pooch's condition.


Signs of distress

It's crucial to keep an eye on your pet's behaviour for any sudden changes. Some common signs to watch for include:


  • Lethargy or withdrawal
  • Seizures or shaking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse or inability to stand
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea


If you notice any of these symptoms, it's essential to act fast. Dogs can be very good at hiding their pain, so even subtle changes in behaviour could indicate a serious problem.


Assessing your dog's condition

If your dog exhibits any of these warning signs, it's important to quickly assess their condition to determine if it's an emergency. Here are some steps I recommend:


Stay calm: Panicking won't help your pet - it can actually make their condition worse.


  • Take a few deep breaths and try to remain as calm as possible.
  • Check responsiveness: Gently call your pet's name or lightly touch them to see if they respond. Unresponsiveness could be a sign of a more serious issue.
  • Inspect for visible injuries: Look for any signs of injury such as wounds, swelling, or active bleeding.
  • Assess breathing and heart rate:
  • Place your hand on your dog’s chest to feel for a heartbeat, and check their breathing by watching their chest and sides.


If you're worried, it's always best to consult with a vet as soon as possible. First aid is never a replacement for proper veterinary care; rather it acts to limit any damage that might occur to your pet whilst you get them to the nearest vet.


A cream coloured curly haired dog against a pink background

Fundamentals of pet first aid

As a vet, I’ve seen first-hand that emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere. That's why it's essential to be prepared with the basics of pet first aid.

In this section, I'll cover the essentials for a pet first aid kit and the immediate steps to follow in an emergency situation.


Pet first aid kit essentials

A well-prepared pet first aid kit is crucial for keeping our furry friends safe in case of emergencies.


Your pet first aid kit should always be nearby and to hand, whether that be in your bag or car. Here are some items I recommend including in a pet first aid kit:


  • Sterile gauze and adhesive tape for wound dressing
  • Curved scissors for safe handling
  • Tweezers for removing splinters or debris
  • Tick removal tool for correctly removing ticks
  • Cold pack for reducing swelling and pain
  • Saline solution for eye injuries and rinsing wounds
  • Emergency contact information for your vet and local emergency vet
  • Muzzle to prevent bites in case your pet experiences pain or fear


We can easily find most of these items at a local pharmacy or online. Keeping these first aid supplies close to hand can make all the difference when our pets need urgent care.


Immediate steps in an emergency situation

When the unthinkable happens, quick thinking and knowledge of basic first aid can save our dogs' lives.


The first step is always to stay calm. If we panic, it will be difficult to provide the emergency care our pets need.


Here are the immediate steps to follow in an emergency:


Assess the situation: Observe your dog closely to identify the nature and severity of their condition. Is your pet conscious? Are they breathing? Are there any visible injuries or signs of distress?

Call for help: Having your vet's phone number saved in your phones can be a lifesaver. After assessing the situation, we should contact our vet or emergency vet clinic to explain the situation and receive further guidance.

Administer first aid: Depending on the advice you receive from the vet, you may need to apply basic first aid techniques on your dog to stabilise their condition before transport. For example, applying pressure on bleeding wounds or offering reassurance to a distressed pet.


Similarly, we should be prepared to perform CPR if the situation calls for it. Always follow the guidance of the professionals in these situations.


Handling specific injuries

Wound care

  • The first thing to do is clean the area with a sterile wash or clean water.
  • For small cuts or abrasions, apply an antiseptic ointment and cover the wound with a clean bandage.
  • If the wound is bleeding heavily, applying direct pressure with a clean cloth should help control the bleeding.
  • Avoid removing the pressure. Even if blood seeps through, don't remove the material; instead add more layers to continue the pressure.
  • Don’t bandage up wounds unless your vet tells you to do so.
  • Incorrectly bandaging could cause complications if it’s wrapped too tightly.
  • In case the bleeding persists, it's best to contact your vet immediately.


Dealing with broken bones

  • If your pet has a suspected fracture or broken bone, the first step is to reassure them and keep them as still as possible to prevent further injury.
  • If the bone is visible or the skin is broken, covering it with a clean cloth can help protect the wound.
  • Splinting or bandaging may be necessary depending on the location and size of the fracture, but it's important not to do this yourself as it could cause more pain or damage.
  • Don't give your dog any painkillers that you may have at home (human or animal).
  • Seek immediate veterinary care in these situations.


Burns and scalds treatment

  • If your pet experiences a burn or scald, start by cooling the area immediately with cold running water for at least 10 minutes. Never use ice or iced water.
  • Ensure your dog doesn’t get too cold. Keep them warm with a blanket, but make sure it doesn’t make contact with the burn.
  • Using a cold, wet cloth to cover the burn can provide temporary relief.
  • Avoid applying any ointments or creams in these cases, as these may not be suitable for your dog and could cause complications.
  • For chemical burns, flush the area with water and contact a vet immediately.
  • Always get in touch with your vet, no matter how big or small the burn is.


Choking and airway blockages

  • If your dog is choking or experiencing an airway blockage, remain calm and try to open their mouth to see if the obstruction is visible.
  • If you can gently remove the item without causing injury, then do so.
  • If the object is lodged deep or the pet resists, visit the vet immediately.



  • When it comes to heatstroke, time is of the essence.
  • If you suspect your pet is suffering from heatstroke, the first thing you should do is move them to a cooler area with plenty of shade or airflow.
  • While it may be tempting to use ice, it's better to wet their coat with tepid or cool water instead. Never use ice or iced water.
  • Ice cold water can cause the blood vessels to constrict, making it harder for heat to be released.
  • You can offer a small amount of fresh, cool water to drink, but make sure to get to the vet as soon as possible.


Poisoning and toxins

  • If you think your pet has ingested a poison or toxic substance, it's important to act fast.
  • Remove them from the source of the toxin and collect any evidence of the substance if possible. This could be crucial for the vet to determine the appropriate treatment.

Here's a useful list of information to gather:

- Name of the substance or object

- Strength or concentration of the product

- Approximate amount ingested

- Time of ingestion


Once you have this information, contact your vet immediately.


Traffic accidents

Traffic accidents can result in serious injuries for our pets. If your dog has been involved in a road traffic accident, first ensure your own safety by moving to a secure location away from the road.


Then, assess your dog's condition - look for signs of shock, respiratory distress, or bleeding.


Providing first aid for pets in this situation may include:


  • Preventing your pet from moving to avoid further injury
  • Applying pressure to any bleeding wounds with a clean cloth or gauze
  • Keeping your pet warm with a blanket or towel


Remember to contact your vet immediately and follow their guidance. They may recommend you bring your pet in for an examination to determine the full extent of their injuries and the best course of action for treatment.


A tri-coloured Jack Russell dog against an aqua blue background

CPR and rescue breathing

The ability to perform CPR and rescue breathing might just save your pet’s life. In this section, I'll discuss how to perform CPR on your pet and demonstrate rescue breathing techniques.


Performing CPR on your dog

First, we need to check for two primary signs before starting CPR: breathing and heartbeat. If your pet is not breathing and their heartbeat is absent, it's time to initiate CPR.


  1. To begin, place your pet on a flat surface, ensuring their left side faces upward.
  2. For small pets, I recommend using a tabletop.
  3. Before starting chest compressions, ensure your pet's airway is clear by gently tilting their head backward and checking for obstructions.
  4. Next, place your hands firmly on their ribcage; one hand should be on top of the other.
  5. Press down firmly, compressing the chest by about 2 inches for large dogs and 1 inch for small pets.
  6. The compression rate should be about 100-120 per minute*.
  7. While performing compressions, it's important to allow the chest to fully recoil between compressions.

*So you know you’re performing at the right compression rate, some people find it easier to sing a song of the same tempo.


Here are some song suggestions to follow in your head:

  • Stayin’ Alive by the BeeGees
  • Another One Bites the Dust by Queen
  • Crazy in Love by Beyoncé ft. Jay-Z
  • Dancing Queen by ABBA


    Rescue Breathing Techniques

    Rescue breathing plays a vital role in providing oxygen to your dog when they’re unable to breathe on their own.


    Follow these steps for an effective rescue breathing technique:


    1. Gently tilt your pet's head backward: This action helps to open up their airway.
    2. Check for obstructions: If you see any foreign objects blocking their airway, remove them carefully.
    3. Close their mouth: Make sure your pet's mouth is closed before you begin the next step.
    4. Breathe into their nostrils: Place your mouth over your pet's nostrils and gently blow into them. Remember to watch for their chest expansion while doing this.
    5. Count and adjust: Aim for about 20 breaths per minute during rescue breathing.

    It's essential to adjust your force depending on your pet's size. In any situation where your dog’s breathing might be compromised, make sure to call your vet immediately after starting CPR to seek professional help.


    Preparation and prevention

    As a veterinarian, I can't stress enough the importance of being prepared for emergencies and preventing accidents.


    In this section, I'll discuss how to avoid common hazards, and the benefits of investing in training and first aid courses.

    Avoiding common hazards

    Ensuring our dogs' safety should be a top priority. Here are some simple yet effective ways to keep them safe:


    • Pet-proofing: Just as we childproof our homes, we should also pet-proof them by removing anything from their way that could be potentially harmful. This includes toxic plants and food, electrical cords, and small objects that can be swallowed.
    • Regular vet visits: Scheduling regular check-ups with the local vet will help identify any potential health issues before they become serious. Veterinary medicine has come a long way and can prevent many problems from escalating if addressed promptly.
    • Pet insurance: Accidents can happen, and having reliable pet insurance can alleviate any financial stress during unexpected emergencies.


    Training and first aid courses

    Taking the time to educate ourselves about pet first aid is invaluable. Here's why:


    • Knowledge: By attending a Pet First Aid Course in person, you can learn essential lifesaving skills such as CPR, wound care, and how to recognise and respond to common pet emergencies.
    • Confidence: The knowledge gained from training enables us to feel confident in our ability to handle emergencies, which can make all the difference when time is of the essence.
    • First aid kit: Having a well-equipped first aid kit is essential to be able to provide first aid to your pet. You can purchase these ready-made or make your own using the components that we mentioned earlier in this article.

      Additional resources

      Here’s a list of additional resources for you to explore. Here, you'll find helpful apps, further reading, and courses that can be lifesavers when you need them the most.


      Pet first aid reading and courses

      When it comes to pet first aid, there's always more to learn. I suggest looking into some of the extensive resources and courses available to deepen your knowledge:


      • Books: Some great reads include the American Red Cross's Pet First Aid booklet and the The Pet First Aid Handbook. Both of these books offer comprehensive information on how to handle a variety of situations and emergencies.
      • Online courses: To take your pet first aid skills to the next level, consider enrolling in an online course. Udemy offers a Pet First Aid course that covers first aid basics, in-depth demonstrations, and emergency care topics.
      • Veterinary Support: Lastly, always remember that your local vet or emergency care clinic should be your first call for any pet health concerns. They can provide you with the expert guidance and proper care your pet needs during an emergency.

      I hope these resources help you feel more confident and prepared to handle any pet emergencies or health concerns that may arise.


      Hopefully, you never need to implement the advice offered in this article but having the right knowledge and tools can make all the difference in an emergency.

      Comments (5)

      I find this information really useful. These points raised are not things I would think about off hand for pets. Thanks ever so much.

      Grace Mills - Jan 09 2024

      Very helpful recap, thank you

      Caroline Sargent - Jan 16 2024

      Very informative, will keep this in mind.
      Thank you

      Karen - Jan 17 2024

      This is great advice. Thank you Pooch and Mutt 🐾

      Emma Smith - Feb 08 2024

      This is great info. As a first responder to ppl, I think everyone pet own should know how to roughly do CPR. Well done to all who put this info together. Maybe some sort of print out would be handy too ?

      Georgina - May 08 2024

      Leave a comment

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