Canine First Aid for the Water Therapist

(presented by Lisa Dzyban, DVM, ACVIM Diplomate at the July 2006 ACWT Meeting)


  • Get pet medical history, including underlying medical conditions. Be sure to find out what medication(s) the pet is on. Have veterinarian and emergency contact information.
  • Have a pet first aid kit readily available. This should be in a place where everyone can get to it. Mounting it on a wall may not be a good idea as it can not easily be removed to take to the area where it is needed. (See the Pet First Aid Kit article for items that should be contained in your Kit).
  • Have a list of Emergency Phone Numbers readily available. Animal Poison Control (1-888-426-4435 or
  • All staff should be trained and current in pet CPR.
  • Have a disaster plan in place and practice safety drills with your staff.
  • Make sure all dogs have ID on.


Heart Disease

  • If the dog has been diagnosed with a heart condition, be sure to find out from the veterinarian if the dog can start an exercise program and what the parameters are.
  • Common medications include lasix, digoxin and enalapril.
  • Heart problems commonly show the day after exercise.
  • These dogs are not normal animals. Chemicals and heat can cause problems in these dogs.

Respiratory Disease

  • These involve the lung or upper airway.
  • Common medications include theodur and hycodan
  • Chemicals and heat can cause problems in these dogs.

Neurologic or Muscle Disease

  • This includes seizure disorders.
  • Common medications include phenobarbital and acepromazine.

Endocrine Disease

  • Common medication includes insulin.

Cancer or immune disease

  • Dogs shouldn’t go to public dog places while their white blood cell count is low (usually the 2 days while getting chemotherapy).

Canine Emergency Procedures


  • Did you know that a dog can drown on 1 tablespoon of water?
  • A dog can drown in water or in vomit. The heart will stop within 60 seconds.
  • Wet Drowning: Inhale fluids and lungs get full.
  • Dry Drowning: Nothing is in the lungs. The dog tries to breathe but the glotus closes and clamps shut. The dog does not get oxygen and there is a lot of lung trauma.
  • Gravity is your ally the first few seconds after drowning.
  • Procedure to assist a drowning dog:
    • Invert the dog to expel water and try to get the airway back by sweeping your finger in the back of the throat. Use gravity. You can stand the dog on it’s nose. Do not punch the dog.
    • Lay on side with it’s head lower than it’s torso .
    • Evaluate for CPR and begin if needed.
    • Wrap in warm blankets.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!


  • Causes: Diabetes, Addison ‘s, liver failure, insulin, and tumors. Puppies, Labrador Retrievers and hunting dogs are especially susceptible. Small breeds are more prone to low blood pressure rather than low blood sugar.
  • Signs: Weakness, disorientation and seizures.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Feed the dog if it is able to swallow.
    • If not able to swallow, corn syrup on the gums may work.
    • Honey, glucose tablets, marshmallows and frosting can be kept on hand.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!
  • A reward is that when you exercise a diabetic dog their medications may need to be lowered. Exercise is great for these dogs!


  • Causes: Epilepsy, low blood sugar, low oxygen and brain disorders. The brain feeds on oxygen and sugar.
  • Seizures can be Grand Mal to Petit Mal.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Protect the dog from injury. Hitting it’s head on the ground is the most common problem.
    • If the dog is in the water at the time of the seizure, keep its head above the water. If you are by yourself, stay in the water if the seizure lasts less than 5 minutes. The warm water could actually be helpful.
    • Do not rub or stimulate or yell at the dog. This could make the seizure last longer. Speak calmly and place your hands on them.
    • Time the event.
    • Give Phenobarbital if already prescribed.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian if this is a new problem, if the seizure is longer than 5 minutes or if there are two or more seizures in 24 hours!

Respiratory Distress

  • Causes: Prior heart, upper airway or lung disease, inhalation of water or vomit (choking) and foreign body. One of the most common culprits is beauty bark.
  • Signs: Air gulping, noisy breathing, raspiness, hoarse bark, lilac gums and no breathing. Upper airway noise can indicate inhaled items. Do not confuse these symptoms with reverse sneezing.
  • If the dog is oxygenating properly, there are usually no worries. If the dog has laryngeal paralysis, is overly warm or has had too much exercise, the dog is probably not getting enough oxygen and this becomes a life and death situation.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Keep the dog cool, calm and fan its face. If air conditioning is available, that is best. If you are in a humid place, take the dog outside.
    • Perform the Heimlich maneuver if a known foreign object is present. Do not do this if the dog is coughing.
      Evaluate the dog for CPR and begin if needed.
    • Take the dog to the veterinarian even if the dog improves.
    • If the dog has known lung disease, exercise the dog carefully and expose it only to perfect air quality.
  • Dogs with severe bronchitis may not be a good candidate for swimming.


  • Causes:
    • Neurologic: disc disease, slipped disc, emboli, tumor, endocrine disease, infection, Myasthenia, and certain medications.
      • Myasthenia is an immune disease affecting certain muscles. The longer the dog exercises, the weaker it gets. Hind legs are worse than the front. With rest, they get better. The esophagus is also affected. This mostly occurs in large breed dogs.
      • Hypoxia (low oxygen): heart disease, anemia and lung disease.
        • If the dog comes out of the water and collapses, the veterinarian will look at this as a possible cause.
  • Signs: Inability or incoordinated ambulation. Any dog that is weak of having trouble walking may have hypoxia. Gum color can be an indicator, however dead dogs can have pink gums so you can’t always use this as a sign.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Immediate and complete rest.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!


  • Causes: Heart disease, severe anemia and brain disorder. 90% of the time when a dog faints, they have a heart problem. Low blood sugar and low blood pressure can also cause fainting.
  • Signs: Loss of consciousness with rapid recovery. If the dog falls over, is limp, wakes up and is ok, it has probably fainted versus having a seizure.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Get a heart rate or rhythm while fainted if at all possible. This can be very helpful to the veterinarian.
    • Immediate and complete rest.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!

Pulse and Heart Rate

Normal heart rate (resting)

  • Small dog: 100-160 beats per minute (bpm). This can go up to 250 bpm if the dog is very anxious.
  • Large dog (over 30 pounds): 60-100 bpm. The larger the dog, the slower the heart rate. A Mastiff may have a heart rate of 60 bpm and a Labrador might have a heart rate of 80-100 bpm.

Pulse Points

  • Take the pulse at the inner thigh (femoral), the left fifth rib space (heart beat) or pedal or palmar (paw).
  • Heart rate is similar to pulse but not exactly.

Allergic Reaction (anaphylactic)

  • Causes: Bee stings and spider bites are most common. Also, vaccine and medication reactions.
  • Signs: Swollen muzzle and face, itchiness (usually the first sign), hives, vomiting and diarrhea (a severe sign). Hives are more evident in short haired dogs.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Give Benadryl (diphenhydramine) at a dose of 1 mg per pound. If the dog does not get better right away, it will need a stronger medication. If swollen face and itchiness are the only symptoms, the dog is still in a safe place. Benadryl may keep the dog from going to the next stage which is usually hives.
    • Steroids and epinephrine are also treatment options. An Epi-Pen is used only for life and death situations.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!

Gastric Torsion

  • Cause: Distension of stomach with gas and/or food and rotation of organ on axis. It cuts off its own blood supply and usually takes the spleen with it. Starts as bloat.
  • Signs: The cardinal sign the veterinarian looks for is dry vomiting. You may or may not see a distended stomach. Also, a rapid heart rate.
  • Treatment procedure: Get the dog to the veterinarian immediately. Can be fatal within 4 hours.
  • Simple bloat is rarely fatal. The flip of the stomach is what is most dangerous.
  • Large breed, deep-chested dogs are more prone to bloat. With these dogs, it can be hard to tell if the stomach is distended just by looking at them. An x-ray will probably be needed.
  • The only cause that has been found is exercise after eating. Usually 1 hour after a meal but can be as long as 4 hours after. Also, don’t let dogs eat 4-6 before swimming.


  • Cause: Body temperature greater than 104 degrees. Usually associated with heat (such as being left in a hot car) or exercise. Bulldogs and dogs with laryngeal problems are especially prone.
  • Signs: Excessive panting, drooling, collapse, noisy breathing, brick membranes, cherry red gums bloody diarrhea and rapid heart rate.
  • Treatment procedure:
    • Wet body with cool (not cold) water and place in front of a fan or air conditioner.
    • Get the dog to the veterinarian!
  • When the body temperature reaches 104 degrees, the intestines start to melt and toxins are released into the bloodstream. At 105-106 degrees, the brain swells and damage occurs. Fluid moves into places where it is not supposed to be. The dog can have problems with their heart and kidneys afterward due to the release of the toxins.
  • Hyperthermia is a cardiovascular nightmare. Care can last 3 days or more.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

  • These symptoms can be an emergency if:
    • There is blood in the vomit or throughout the diarrhea.
    • The dog vomits more than eight times in 24 hours.
    • Vomit and diarrhea are occurring together.
    • There are other signs of shock or allergic reaction.
  • Treatment procedure: withhold food and give small amounts of water frequently if it does not trigger vomiting.

Bite Wounds and Eye Trauma

  • All eye wounds are an emergency! Prevent self trauma with an Elizabethan collar.
  • Flat faced dogs are especially prone to eye trauma.
  • All bite wounds are worse than they appear on the surface. There can be muscle trauma and infection.
  • Antibiotics should be started within 8 hours.
  • Bite wounds of the abdomen, neck or chest often need surgical exploration.
Posted in ACWT, How-To.

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