When you’re en route to a bug-out cabin, or even if you’re just spending some family time in the backcountry, chances are high that your family pet is along for the trip.
But while we might know the most basic first-aid tips for humans who sprain their ankle or cut their skin, the odds for knowing what to do if a pet is sick or injured are much lower. Consider the following tips from William O’Malley, DVM, to know just how to react if your beloved pet shows signs of illness.
If your dog is on the go and can’t stop itching, you may be tempted to give the pet one of your antihistamine pills to help alleviate whatever is irritating it. However, O’Malley warns against this. “If your dog is itchy, chances are high that something else is bothering him that can’t be treated with this type of medicine,” he says. In addition, it’s hard to know what type of dosage a dog should take and if the human medicine will bother it. Therefore, avoid administering medicine to your dog without advice from a veterinarian first.
One of the most common reasons that families bring their pets in for medical care during the summertime is a fear that the animal has overheated, O’Malley says. This is especially true for families who are camping or spending a lot of time traveling in the car. And while everyone should already know not to leave a pet in the car during spring or summer, you may not be aware of some of the other rules that help keep your pet comfortable.
“Cats are extremely good at finding places that are comfortable and temperate.” —William O’Malley, DVM
“If you’re camping, set up your site in the shade and near water,” O’Malley says. “This is where your pet will be most comfortable.” If the water source is too far away, you may not think to head toward it until you get hot; chances are that your dog will be hot before you are, and unless your dog knows how to find the stream, it could get overheated waiting for a chance to take a dip.
Ideally, the water will be a gently running stream as dogs can pick up parasites and infections in standing, brackish water. In addition, you don’t want a water source that’s too fast or your dog could get caught in the current. Sandy shores are ideal as rocky creek beds could cut dogs’ feet.
We’ve all heard about the dangers of dogs overheating, but what about cats, who often roam outdoors all day, even during the hottest part of the summer?
“Cats are extremely good at finding places that are comfortable and temperate,” O’Malley says.
Even though you might be sweating it out in the sun, your cat probably found a shaded area to relax in during the summertime, so you typically don’t have to be concerned about outdoor cats getting too hot. Of course, you should follow the same rules for cats as for dogs and never leave them in a hot car or other enclosed area, but when left to their own devices outside, cats can usually stay cool.
Even if you do set up camp in an ideal spot, keep an eye out for the symptoms of overheating.
“Dogs overheat very quickly,” O’Malley says. Look for panting with thick saliva dripping from its mouth and possibly vomiting or diarrhea first, he adds.
After that, the dog could become unconscious or have seizures, but you should get them cooled off before that happens. Therefore, at the first sign that your dog is hot, remove it from the heat and get it into the water (but ensure that the water isn’t too hot or too cold). Give the dog an ample supply of water to drink, as well and, if the dog isn’t able to cool down, get him to a veterinarian immediately.
“If you’re camping, set up your site in the shade and near water.” —William O’Malley, DVM
Many people grew up believing that if your dog’s nose is too warm, the dog has a fever and should go to the veterinarian immediately. But this is a longtime myth, O’Malley says. In reality, your dog’s nose doesn’t reveal much about the dog’s overall health, and its nose will fluctuate in temperature throughout the day. In addition, “dog fevers are somewhat rare unless the dog has an infection, which typically will have other symptoms,” O’Malley says.
Splints for Dogs
If your dog gets injured while you’re out on the trail, you should treat it the same way you would a human injury—get the pet stabilized until you can get professional medical care.
“If your dog starts limping, crying or is unable to put weight on a leg, chances are that the leg is injured enough to require veterinary attention,” O’Malley says.
While you’re making your way to the vet, however, you can make your dog more comfortable by cleaning open wounds with clean water and covering them with sterile gauze or by splinting a dog’s leg and holding it in place with gauze or tape. However, the sooner you can get the pet to a medical professional, the better.
If you have another type of animal, such as a reptile or fish that may not be able to emote like a dog or cat, you can look for signs of illness by observing changes in the animal’s behavior.
“If your snake always comes right over when you’re bringing it food, and it hasn’t seemed interested the last few times, there could be a problem,” O’Malley says. “These kinds of behavior changes are the types of things that only an owner would really notice but should be checked out.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.