Dogs are naturally curious, physical, and exuberant, and while we love this about them, these characteristics can also lead to unintentional injuries. These can run the gamut from very minor to severe and life-threatening. How do you know the difference? When is it time to consult a veterinarian and when can you manage a wound at home? Here are some steps for assessing wounds and treating them.
1. Keep in mind that wounds are painful!
Even though your dog may have never snapped at you or bitten before, tender injuries can make even the most docile, sweet-natured dog snap or bite. Whenever handling an injured pet, make sure that someone restrains the dog properly while you examine and investigate the injury.
2. All bite wounds should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
If your dog scuffles with another dog, cat, or a wild animal, immediate care with a vet is needed. This is true for several reasons:
First, animal teeth drive bacteria deep into wounds, even if they are only small punctures. Antibiotics are generally warranted any time that a dog is bitten by another animal.
Second, your dog might need to receive a rabies booster, particularly if he was bitten by a stray dog or cat or wild animal.
Finally, bite wounds are often referred to as “tip of the iceberg” injuries. Though the external wounds may not look severe, there can be underlying trauma to the muscles and other tissues (particularly in the case of a smaller dog being grabbed and shaken), or even internal bleeding.
3. Any punctures that have an unknown source should be treated by a veterinarian.
Puncture wounds can represent several types of injuries including gunshot wounds, bites from other animals, or foreign-body penetration. It is not uncommon for a stick or other sharp object to penetrate a wound and become lodged within it. Though the wound may look small from the outside, foreign material trapped in the wound can lead to delayed or lack of healing, localized infection, and/or tetanus.
4. A veterinarian should treat any wound that is over an inch long, occurs on the chest or the abdomen, is contaminated, or has jagged edges.
It is difficult or impossible at home to deeply clean a wound without risking injury to yourself or traumatizing the wound. It is also important to note that wounds on the body (thorax or abdomen) can be more severe than they initially appear and always need to be addressed by a veterinarian, whereas wounds on the face (away from the eyes) or small, superficial wounds on the limbs may do just fine with at-home management.
5. Use hydrogen peroxide to clean your dog’s wound only once, if at all.
Hydrogen peroxide can be used initially on a wound to decontaminate it, but it should not be used repeatedly – and, truth be told, there are better ways to clean a wound. Hydrogen peroxide is extremely irritating to tissue and can impede healing if used repetitively. If you do use it on a wound, use only after the initial cleaning and do not repeat.
Avoid alcohol on wounds, as the sudden, sharp stinging may provoke an otherwise well-behaved dog to snap or bite.
6. If the wound seems relatively minor (less than an inch long with clean edges), here’s how to clean it yourself:
You can clean gently with a warm wet washcloth and apply a thin layer of triple antibiotic ointment to the wound. If your pet licks the wound, use an Elizabethan collar (aka “cone”) or cone alternative to prevent self-trauma. You can also lightly wrap the wounds.
It is imperative that you are careful when wrapping. As an emergency-room veterinarian, I saw many complications related to improper bandaging.
To make a safe bandage, you should use three layers. Start with a sterile dressing square over the wound. Over that, you can place two or three layers of a cotton-gauze wrapping. The last layer should be a stretchy wrap such as PetFlex. Before placing it, unroll the stretch wrap to remove some of the tension and then rewind it. This will help prevent overly tight application. Place two to three layers over the cotton. You should be able to insert two fingers under all edges of the bandage. If you cannot, the bandage should be removed and re-wrapped.
Bandages that are too tight can lead to decreased blood flow to the limb below, as well as decreased blood flow to the wound itself. This will slow healing.
It is also imperative that wounds receive oxygen to heal. Change the bandage every 12 to 24 hours. If the wound appears to be healing well after 72 hours, you can remove the bandage.
Any wound, whether being managed at home or by your veterinarian, should be monitored for sudden changes. Acute redness, swelling, or discomfort, or discharge that is thick, foul-smelling, or copious merits an immediate trip to the vet.
Is Your Dog Licking the Wounds?
Wounds go through several phases of healing, and just like with our own wounds, each phase can cause the dog to feel a variety of sensations. These can include itching, burning, pain, and a tight, pulling sensation as the skin knits back together. Dogs will frequently lick or chew healing wounds in an effort to alleviate these feelings of discomfort, but all that moisture and pressure can increase the damage to the wounds themselves (especially if there are stitches or staples present) and promote infection.
If your dog tries to lick his wound, it’s important to use an Elizabethan collar or some alternative product to prevent him from further traumatizing the area. “Cones” can be bulky and annoying to your dog, and though most dogs will adapt to wearing one relatively quickly, there are many lighter and/or more comfortable options. For a wide selection of products that might suit your dog better, see “Best Dog Cone Alternatives“.
Whatever product you use, be patient, and keep it on your dog until the wound is healed and/or your dog is no longer paying any attention to it.
Better Safe Than Sorry
It is important to remember that when in doubt, all but the most superficial wounds should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Wounds can seem misleadingly slight, belying significant tissue trauma beneath. Hopefully, your visit with the veterinarian will be a quick evaluation, wound cleaning, and some prescription medications. If not, though, the sooner a wound is evaluated, the better the chances for healing and recovery.
Catherine Ashe graduated the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. After a small-animal intensive emergency internship, she has practiced ER medicine for nine years. She is now working as a relief veterinarian in Asheville, North Carolina, and loves the GP side of medicine. In her spare time, she spends time with her family, reads voraciously, and enjoys the mountain lifestyle.