Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Emergency Veterinary Medicine

There is a lot written about how to take care of people in the outdoors, but what about our “furry friends?” In the textbook Wilderness Medicine, there is a chapter on Emergency Veterinary Medicine. Given that we are apt to hike or camp with pets, it’s a good idea to understand basic concepts of how to recognize illness in animals and, where appropriate, know how to initiate treatment, particularly if you are a health care provider. 

Chris Ralphs, DVM of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists in East Greenwich, Rhode Island gave a wonderful presentation on this topic at the 2010 summer Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society in Snowmass, Colorado. The following is information presented by Dr. Ralphs.

The Basics

The normal temperature of a dog is 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Heart rate is 60 to 160 beats per minute and depends on the size of the animal. The pulse is appreciated most easily by feeling the femoral artery. The breathing rate is 10 to 30 breaths per minute, not counting panting. Animals can certainly become dehydrated—I witnessed this in search dogs that participated in search and rescue activities following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. If the dehydration is severe, the animals may require fluid administration either by intravenous or subcutaneous (administered under the skin) route. Signs and symptoms of dehydration are shortness of breath, increased abdominal efforts with breathing, coarse breathing sounds, and deeply red colored mucous membranes.

Laryngeal Paralysis

A medical problem that may be encountered in large breed dogs such as Labrador retrievers is “laryngeal paralysis,” which is manifested by harsh noises on inspiration and bluish discoloration of mucous membranes. It may be life threatening and cause the animal to faint. The afflicted animal should be kept calm, cool, forced to rest, and not muzzled. If a skilled person who knows how to administer medications is present, the animal might be administered a sedative. In a critical situation, it may need to have a breathing tube passed, or a surgical airway created. 

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke afflicts dogs. We usually hear about it when animals are left trapped in closed cars in the heat. Heat stroke is life-threatening, with symptoms of extremely red mucous membranes, increased breathing rate and effort, altered mental status (tired, uncooperative, confused, weak), weak pulses, and seizures (fits). The animals should be treated promptly by spraying with cool water and fanning to promote cooling creating by evaporation. Sometimes, cold water enemas are given. The goal is to reduce the body temperature to 103 degrees Fahrenheit within 30 to 60 minutes of treatment. Of course, any time an animal is this sick, one should seek the wisdom and care of a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Other Potential Afflictions

Animals may also suffer from hypothermia (low body temperature) that requires emergency rewarming, and various poisonings (such as toxic [to the animals] plants and mushrooms, certain toads, DEET [insect repellent], grapes, raisings, rodenticides, insecticides, lead, antifreeze, etc.) for which there are treatments (ASPCA poison control telephone number is 888.426.4435 with a $55 fee for service). Dogs will eat just about anything, so it is wise to be prepared for this eventuality. Other afflictions include the entry and migration of foxtails through the skin, carbon monoxide intoxication, injuries (bleeding, broken bones, and internal injuries), gastrointestinal disorders such as “bloat” (when parts of the GI tract dilate, twist and obstruct), and more.

One problem for which the treatment is straightforward is when a dog is “quilled” by a porcupine. If only a few quills are present, the treatment is to muzzle the animal, cover its eyes, grasp the quills individually with pliers as close to the skin as possible, and pull.

There was a great deal more useful information in this presentation, much of which was unique for us “people doctors.”

Finally, one may encounter injured wildlife. is a website with basic instructions on caring for injured wildlife.

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Tags: Backpacking , Bites & Stings , General Interest , Hot & Cold , Just for Kids

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.