The Ultimate Dog First-Aid Kit

This article originally appeared on Outside

Dogs love hiking, backpacking, and camping just as much as their human counterparts (maybe even more). Keeping your pup safe and healthy in the backcountry is part of your responsibility as a pet owner. That includes having a good dog first-aid kit ready to go in case of medical issues.

We consulted with Heather Berst, MA, VMD, Medical Lead with Zoetis, on what first-aid items to carry for your dog on your adventures. Dr. Berst, her husband, Rich Puchalski, and their 10-lb Chinese Crested dog Dottie are avid hikers. The trio's home turf is Asheville, North Carolina, but they've left bootprints and pawprints on trails across the country.

What Should Be in a Basic Dog First-Aid Kit?

"Dogs are our best hiking friends," says Dr. Berst. "They love it, and we love to have them with us. Plan ahead and make sure you have a first-aid kit, leash, water bowl, treats, and water before you set out with your pup."

Beyond those staples, here are her suggestions to build a solid, all-around first-aid kit for your pup.

Essential Items For a Basic Dog First-Aid Kit:

> Tweezers and/or forceps
> Pet wrap
> Bandages
> 3% Hydrogen peroxide solution
> Ice pack
> Alcohol wipes
> Benedryl (Diphenhydramine)
> Bandana
> Safety gloves
> Non-medicated saline rinse
> Medical scissors
> Activated charcoal
> Muzzle
> Towel
> Bandana
> Slip leash (a lead that doesn't require a collar)
> Extra treats
> Sling or dog-specific emergency harness

woman hiking with Chinese crested dog
Dr. Berst hiking with her mighty Chinese Crested dog, Dottie. (Photo: Heather Berst)

Dog First-Aid Kit Specifics: The Expert Explanation

Below, Dr. Berst shares her thoughts on a few specific items, and why they’re important to bring with you, whether you think you’ll need them or not:

Why Bring a Muzzle?

“Even a nice dog may bite if in pain, such as when bitten by a snake,” she says. “I recommend a cage muzzle that allows them to pant but prevents them from biting you if you must pick up or carry a very fearful or painful dog.”

Why Carry Towels?

“Towels can be used for fractures instead of a splint,” Dr. Berst says. “You can create a splint by using a towel and duct tape. Splints may not shape well to a dog's limb, so towels are great for mobilizing injuries. They can also be used as a damp wrap if your dog is overheating.”

Why Pack Slings?

“For small dogs like my 10 lb Dottie, I have a backpack I can put her in if she has a problem,” she says. “Even mid-sized dogs can be carried in some of the newer dog packs where you carry a dog in the front. An emergency dog harness for mid-to-large dogs is essential for evacuating larger pups.”

Note: emergency slings like the Fido Pro Airlift Sling come in specific sizes for dogs. That includes small dogs whose injuries may prevent them from sitting safely in a backpack.

Helpful Medications and Tools

A few items in this list also have specific uses, which can make or break your backcountry adventures:

3% Hydrogen peroxide induces vomiting but should be used cautiously. Do not induce vomiting if your dog has ingested corrosive chemicals (usually items like toilet bowl cleaner or bleach sprays) or sharp items like glass or plastic. These kinds of things could cause severe damage to the esophagus if regurgitated. But in the outdoors, you can induce vomiting if your dog has eaten mushrooms, human feces, or foods dogs are allergic to, such as grapes or raisins. You should only administer 1 – 3 teaspoons (3 tsp max for dogs 45 lbs. and over). Check out this guide on how to make your dog vomit--a helpful resource in dire situations. And even if your dog vomits on his or her own, call your veterinarian when you get off the trail and let them know what happened to see if they need to do more.

Activated Charcoal binds toxic substances and prevents your dog from being poisoned. This is a good product to ask your vet about. Activated charcoal powder can be bought over the counter, but vets can prescribe tablets that will be much easier to have your dog ingest. Here’s a guide on activated charcoal for dogs so you can study up on various uses.

Non-medicated saline rinse can flush wounds or dislodge an irritant in a dog's eye. Do not use medicated eyedrops for humans, as these can harm dogs.

Benedryl (Diphenhydramine) is used to counteract an allergic reaction or to help with anxiety. Write the dosage your dog may need on the package, so you don't have to guess while in the field. And be sure to check out this guide to Benedryl usage for dogs before you give your pup the pills.

Note: If your dog is on prescription medications, be sure to consult your veterinarian before adding other medications to your dog first-aid kit and before administering them in the field.

Additionally, a small amount of dog-safe sunscreen is wise to carry to rub on sensitive areas around the nose and ears in high UV conditions. For hairless dogs like Dottie, a jacket offers better sun protection.

What Should NOT Be in a Dog First Aid Kit?

"Dogs can not take many common human drugs, and it is best to confirm with your veterinarian before giving your dog meds or adding them to your first aid kit," says Dr. Berst. "For example, Tylenol is toxic. The one drug I would say to have in the first-aid kit is Benadryl (diphenhydramine). It can be given for an allergic reaction, swelling, or to keep the dog quiet. Confirm the dosage for your dog with your vet. There are several excellent dog NSAIDs available you can get from your veterinarian if you think your dog has pain or arthritis."

> Bug spray should not be used for dogs
Note: DEET is poisonous to most animals, including dogs. There are several decent prescription flea and tick medications out there. Ask your veterinarian which is best for your pet’s size and weight, and the common insects in your area.
> Human Pain Relievers
> Human antacids, especially those with xylitol, which is poisonous to dogs
> Human eye drops

Backcountry Dog-Injury Situations: How You Should Respond

dogs sunset hiking
Keeping your dogs healthy on the trail will ensure you bag many days of adventure together. (Photo: James Dziezynski)

Dogs play hard, they’re curious, and they often leap before they look. As the owner, it’s crucial to know how to respond if they get into a pinch. Below, Dr. Berst offers advice on a few common backcountry medical situations that dogs tend to face, and how to deal with them if they happen to your pup.

Broken Nail(s)

“Broken nails can be painful but relatively easy to fix hiking,” she says. “You will want to restrain the dog before working on the nail and consider using the muzzle. Use a nail clipper to remove any hanging piece that could get caught on something.”

PRO VET TIP: If the nail is gushing blood, you can use Styptic powder or, in a pinch, corn starch to stop the bleeding. Apply it directly to the nail and hold it for a minute or so until the bleeding stops. It can be challenging to bandage a regular toe, but you can wrap a declaw. After the hike, if you notice swelling or discharge, take your pup to a veterinarian as soon as possible to avoid infection.

Porcupine Quills

“Removing porcupine quills is very painful, and if you attempt to remove them yourself, you could push them further in or break them off,” says Dr. Berst. “Do not attempt to remove them yourself. Cut your hike short and take your dog to the veterinarian immediately. Your pup will need to be sedated and examined for removal, by a licenced veterinarian.”

PRO VET TIP: The best thing you can do if this happens is prevent the dog from rolling, or rubbing or scratching the quills. All these actions could push the spikes into their skin further, causing more problems. While Dr. Berst is not a fan of e-collars in general, if your pup gets stuck with porcupine quills, that would be a case where a shock collar might come in handy to hike out safely, and fast, she says.

Overheating in Dogs

dog drinking cold water
Keep your dog well hydrated by taking frequent water breaks to prevent overheating. And don’t assume that just because you’re not thirsty, your pup doesn’t need water. (Photo: James Dziezynski)

“Most people think about a dog panting when they overheat, and while this is a sign of overheating, they can show other signs too,” she says. “If you notice your dog breathing heavily, lying down, acting confused, tripping, or drooling-these can also be signs of overheating. Prevention is your best bet.”

PRO VET TIP: If it’s a hot day, try and hike in shady areas, provide your dog with plenty of water, and take more breaks. You can put bandanas, towels, or other soft products in the freezer before you go, and drape on the dog on a hot day. If your dog is getting overheated, consider it an emergency situation--too much heat for too long can be fatal. Put them in the shade on a wet towel.

Additionally, know the biggest mistake people make is cooling their dog off too fast, which can cause serious issues or even death, she says. “You will want to use room-temperature water on them. In a hiking situation, this would be the water in your water bottle and not cool stream water,” warns Dr. Berst. “You must get your dog to a veterinarian if you think they are overheating.”

Bee Sting or Snake Bite

“You must get your dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible for a snake bite, especially if it is poisonous,” she says. “If possible, try and get a photo of the snake if you don't know if it is poisonous or not to show your veterinarian. Do not try and wrap it, and do not use a tourniquet.”

PRO VET TIP: Bee stings can be managed very similarly to a human bee sting. Try and use tweezers to remove the stinger and apply cool water to the area. “I would keep them quiet for a few minutes and head back towards the car,” she says. “You could give the dog Benadryl (diphenhydramine) if you notice swelling. Dogs can have allergic reactions to stings like people, and if they bite a bee, it can cause breathing complications. Look for heavy breathing, face swelling, and acting disoriented. If you see any of these, get them to a veterinarian.”


“Dogs can get Giardia from contaminated streams, ponds, or puddles,” says Dr. Berst. “If you are doing a day hike, they won't show any signs of illness during the hike, but you will see signs later. Some dogs will show signs of GI upset-loose stools, diarrhea, or vomiting, but many dogs may not show any signs when infected. Your veterinarian can test for Giardia and treat it.”

PRO VET TIP: To prevent Giardia, your best bet is to carry water for your dog--and make sure they drink what you brought, not what’s around outdoors. There are a variety of dog backpacks, if you want to have your dog carry its own water.

Altitude Sickness

“Yes, dogs can get altitude sickness,” she says. “They can't tell you they have a headache, but they may seem lethargic and not eat as well the first few days at altitude. More severe signs could occur, such as pulmonary edema or heart problems. So, I would not recommend taking a dog with breathing or heart problems to altitude if they live at sea level.”

PRO VET TIP: If you notice your dog breathing heavily or coughing and wheezing, get them to a veterinarian immediately. “When I take my dog to Colorado, I take it easy with her the first few days to allow her to acclimatize--no long or strenuous hikes the first few days. It is very similar to what you would do for yourself.”


“Technically [dogs] can [get experience this], but very few cases are reported in the academic literature,” says Dr. Berst.

PRO VET TIP: Dog goggles can be used if your dog has specific eye sensitivities, but snowblindness is generally not a concern for most dogs. If you plan to head out on a trip with cold temperatures and snowy conditions, be sure to ask your veterinarian if there are extra precautions you should take.

Signs of Discomfort

“Most people think about a dog crying and limping when they are in pain,” she says. “These signs certainly occur, but sometimes the signs may be more subtle. Dogs will try and mask pain. Sometimes a dog lagging on a hike may indicate pain. You may not see them limping, but notice them walking differently up rocks and hills. Panting and breathing heavily can be another sign of pain.”

PRO VET TIP: Pay close attention to your dog’s body language and monitor changes that seem out of the ordinary. Sure, it’s fun to explore and enjoy where you are, but keeping tabs on your pup and remaining vigilant may help you identify if they’re in pain--and earlier is always better.

3 Injury-Prevention Tips to Hiking with Your Dog

Always Be Aware of the Condition of Your Dog's Paws

Dog paws need to develop thicker pads over time. If you have a younger or less-trail experienced dog, start with short hikes (three miles or less) and check the paws after each hike. If cracking, bleeding, or splitting occurs, it's time to rest or turn around. Remember: dogs hide pain very well, so it’s crucial to catch paw damage before it becomes too severe. In the field, having balm or wax like Musher's Miracle and a bandage can be a temporary fix.

English shepherd on mountain hike
Dog paws need to work up to longer hikes, especially if they are exploring rocky terrain. (Photo: James Dziezynski)

Never Push Your Dog Hard in the Backcountry

Not all dogs love summit ridges or jumping into lakes. Breeds like huskies wilt in even mild temperatures, creating a dangerous opportunity for overheating. Dogs that don't have a lot of trail miles under their paws are prone to cracked pads and sore joints. Bottom line: take it easy on them, so you can get out tomorrow, and the next day, and beyond.

Remember: Dogs Have Fun Sniffing Around, Too

Dogs have as much fun sniffing in a meadow as they do hiking a mountain. Pay attention to your dog's needs and respect what they enjoy in an adventure. Some dogs can ramble for hours with energy to spare, while others are happy to roll around in whatever gross pile they can find on the forest floor. They love to be outside, and your job is to keep them fit for it.

Knowing your dog's personality can help you understand when they’re not feeling well. Always watch out for your best friend and keep a stocked dog first-aid kit ready in case of injury or illness in the field. This ensures both your pup and you will make it home after each adventure.

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