Updated: May 29
Accidents happen, even to the most careful and attentive pet parents. It can be as dramatic as your dog running across some hot coals from your campfire or as subtle as noticing them squinting and rubbing their eyes after a romp through a field. It’s a situation no pet parent wants to be in, but should always be prepared for: pulling out your pet’s first aid kit.
You might think an old ouch-kit you put together and threw in the trunk of your car before that road trip a few years ago would be sufficient, but our pets tend to face unique problems, and they’re not always exactly cooperative patients. Having a pet-specific first aid kit doesn’t mean you’re carrying a mobile veterinary hospital around—you can leave the stethoscope behind—but there are a few necessary components of your pet first aid kit that will make dealing with the results of your pet’s intrepid adventures more efficient and less stressful. Of course, just having the right equipment doesn’t solve the problem on its own, either: you’ve got to know how to use it.
This week, let’s talk about the bare minimum, must-haves in your pet’s first-aid kit and how to use them—after all, just a little bit of preparation on your part can give you some extra time to get to a vet, or even solve the issue on your own!
Dressing & Bandaging
If you’re confused about the nuance between dressing and bandaging, you’re not alone—they’re often mixed up, though they have two very different uses in your pet first-aid kit.
Dressing is a sterile material that goes directly on a wound to either stop the bleeding or help it heal. On the other hand, bandaging is used in conjunction with dressing, but rarely on its own; bandaging covers dressing and holds it in place. It’s best if the bandaging is clean, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be sterile, as it shouldn’t be coming into direct contact with the wound.
Now that we’ve covered that, we’ll be honest: we’re listing three different types of dressing and bandaging and counting them as one item on our “top 7” list. Is that cheating? Maybe. But these materials all play different roles in wound management, and all three are necessary to handle most wounds.
1 (a). Non-Adherent Pads
Whether it’s your dog getting a little too rowdy in their adventures or your cat moonlighting as a back alley brawler, when they return to you a little scratched up or bleeding, reach for a non-adherent pad to dress their wounds. You can get them in different sizes, usually in individual packages that keep them sterile. They work by having an absorbent pad covered with a thin, perforated film; the film prevents the absorbent material from sticking to the wound while still allowing drainage.
These types of dual-layered dressings are common—it’s similar to the padding on a bandaid—but it’s important to choose large, non-adherent pads (without the sticky, tape-like siding) for your pet first-aid kit. Dressing adhesives don’t often stick well to fur, and if they do, your pet won’t appreciate having clumps of their fur removed alongside their dressing.
1 (b). Gauze
Gauze is, in some ways, an intermediary between wound dressing and bandaging—it can play both roles. Gauze is a thin, stretchy material made with 100% cotton, so it’s highly absorbent while still being breathable. It comes in two different forms: a roll or a pad, and they both have their pros and cons.
A gauze pad is usually a sterile, pre-cut square of fabric; it’ll be thicker (with a higher ply count) and more tightly knit than a roll of gauze. It’s ideal for cleaning and drying wounds, packing deep cuts, or as a temporary absorbent pad. However, it’s not as versatile as a roll of gauze, and the fibers of a gauze pad are more likely to stick to a wound if used in place of a non-adherent pad.
You can take strips from a roll of gauze and wad it up to clean or pack a wound in a pinch, though it’s thinner and less absorbent than a pad. On the other hand, its flexible and stretchy qualities make it ideal for wrapping around hard-to-bandage areas, like your pet’s limbs or head. When properly applied, roller gauze can be used to apply pressure to wounds or offer extra protection over non-adherent pads.
To use roller gauze to bandage non-adherent pads in place and protect the area around it, wrap the gauze gently around the affected area—you want it to be snug without being constrictive. Leave a tail of about 5–6 inches hanging on the first wrap. Continue to carefully wrap up over the wound or pad; try to cross back over a previous wrapping (making an “x”) at least once—this will secure your wrapping and keep it from slipping. When you’ve covered enough, use your scissors to cut the roll, leaving another 5–6 inches free; tie your two ends together to keep it from unravelling.
There’s one more major reason we recommend keeping a roll of gauze in your pet first-aid kit: as a makeshift muzzle. Even the most mild-mannered, gentlest of dogs can lash out when they’re in enough pain, so be prepared to tie some gauze around their jaws if they aren’t inclined to let you give them the treatment they need.
1 (c). Vet Wrap
Aptly named, vet wrap is a durable elastic and self-adhering bandage originally designed for use by vets on their animals, including horses and livestock. However, this type of bandage is so versatile that you’ll probably want to save a roll or two for your own uses. Remember how we said you shouldn’t use bandages with sticky adhesive sidings? This is the joy of vet wrap: it only sticks to itself and continues to stick even when it gets wet.
Vet wrap is the preferred method of bandaging your pet’s wounds overtop of their dressings, as it’s durable enough to stay on while they continue to trot around and harder for them to chew off. If you’re bandaging your dog or cat’s paws or limbs, try and have the edge of the vet wrap on the underside, where it’ll be harder for them to nibble at and peel off.
Wound Dressing Tips
Avoid touching sterile pads as much as possible, even if you’re wearing gloves. Most of the individually wrapped pads have easy-peel packaging, making it easy to place directly on the wound.
If the first layer of dressing soaks through, don’t remove it right away—place another absorbent pad on top of it and continue to apply pressure. If the second pad soaks through, you may carefully remove the saturated dressings and put on fresh ones, but remember that these are temporary measures—you should be getting to a vet ASAP.
2. Blunt Tip Scissors
You’ll need scissors to cut your gauze, and vet wrap can be a challenge to rip on occasion, so you’ll appreciate having some scissors on hand. Make sure you get the blunt-tip type, though—it’ll put your mind at ease when handling a squirmy pet.
3. Fine-Tip Tweezers
Tweezers have plenty of uses in your pet’s first-aid kit, from pulling out a thorn from a paw or rocks from a cut, but there’s one use they’re known for helping with best: ticks. Ticks are a risk of outdoor adventures across Canada, so be sure to carefully go over your pet’s coat after they’ve spent time outside, especially if they’ve been in wooded areas or tall grass.
You can check for ticks by running your hands through your dog or cat’s fur like a comb, starting with their head. Pay attention to any small bumps you haven’t noticed before, and don’t neglect areas like under the collar, inside their ears, or between their toes. If you find a tick, the goal is to remove it right away in its entirety. Don’t wait for it to fall off or use any old wives' tale remedies like heat or petroleum jelly—they don’t work! Use your fine-tip tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible and pull upward with steady pressure without twisting or crushing the tick's body. If the tick separates, use your tweezers to carefully remove the mouthparts that are still attached to your pet. Under no circumstances should you use your fingernails to try and pry it out—you don’t want any gross tick juice anywhere near your fingers, where you’re more likely to transmit it somewhere where it can cause more serious infections, like your eyes!
Once you’ve got the tick out, you can dispose of it by flushing it down the toilet, wrapping it tightly in tape, or dropping it in alcohol. It’s not advisable to simply crush a tick even after it’s safely removed—they’re still potentially full of nasty, disease-spreading gunk. Wash the bite area and your hands with an alcohol swab or soap and water.
We’re not recommending you carry a full pharmacy for your pet in your pet first-aid kit, but having a few simple medications on hand can take a load off your mind. You don’t need to find full-size versions or packages of these items, either: look for travel sizes or keep a single blister pack with the correct dosages for your pet’s weight.
4. Eye Flush
Dogs, in particular, may need eye flush more than cats, as they tend to be a little less circumspect when shoving their faces into less-than-safe spaces—including out the car window or simply slamming through the bushes and getting whipped in the face with branches. An eye injury shouldn’t be taken lightly, but often it can be resolved by simply flushing the irritant out.
If you notice your dog or cat squinting, unable to open one eye (or conversely, an inability to close one eye properly) or pawing at their face, then it might be time to give their eyes a little rinse.
A travel-sized bottle of contact lens solution works wonders here and is great to have on hand in your emergency pet first-aid kit; there are dozens of ways to administer eye drops to your dog or cat, depending on their temperament. It might involve having them face away from you (their butt to your belly) and lifting their head back, or maybe they’re a little anxious and just need you to comfort them and gently stroke their head while easing the bottle towards their eye from behind. Whichever way works for you, just remember to not touch the bottle to their eye—there’s no need to make an unpleasant situation even more uncomfortable for them!
If the irritation persists or isn’t easily flushed away, it might be time to get to the vet.
Unfortunately, allergies are a real thing, even for our pets. Some allergies or intolerances might only crop up a few times a year or in certain locations and cause a few sneezes, but an encounter with a bee or swarm of mosquitos can have your pet puffing up in no time.
Benadryl (specifically Diphenhydramine) is the go-to over-the-counter allergy medication for pet first-aid kits, but it does come with some caveats. First, read the label closely to ensure the medication you’ve chosen is strictly Diphenhydramine—never give your dog or cat any medication that contains acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine, as these are toxic to our pets. Similarly, avoid liquid Benadryl, as it can contain alcohol which is—as you may already know—not ideal for your furry companion.
The recommended Benadryl dosage for dogs is 1mg per pound of weight, and the standard Benadryl pill is 25mg—ideal for a 25-pound dog. You might need the children’s format of Benadryl if you’ve got a smaller dog; the children’s liquid formula contains no alcohol and might be easier to portion out.
You can feed your dog Benadryl 2–3 times a day with at least 8 hours between doses. If you’re heading to an area where you know your dog is likely to react—like a mosquito-infested trail when you know your dog tends to break out in hives—give your dog their antihistamine about 30 minutes before hitting the trail so it has time to kick in!
Benadryl also isn’t for every pet: puppies, kittens, pregnant dogs or cats, or pets with a history of high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, or a previous adverse reaction to antihistamines should not be given Benadryl. As always, it’s always best to consult your vet before giving your pet any new medications.
6. Silver Nitrate
Ask any dog owner what the most used item in their pet first-aid kit is, and they’ll likely start singing the praises of silver nitrate sticks. These little sticks can be found in some pet stores or medical stores, and they’re an absolute clutch item to have hanging around, especially when you’re trimming your dog’s nails. If you’ve ever trimmed your dog’s nails a little too short, you know they can bleed suddenly—and a lot. It’s alarming for you and uncomfortable for your dog, but frett not: grab one of these little sticks and press it onto the broken nail to start the healing magic. Silver is a natural antiseptic and astringent and can help reduce bleeding by cauterizing the wound within two minutes of application. It’s that easy!
You could have all the gadgets and tricks packed away in your first-aid kit, but there’s always the chance of an incident you won’t be able to handle—and that’s when it’s time to get to the vet. But making a mad dash to the vet isn’t a walk in the dog park when you’re frazzled and worried about your furry BFF.
7. Emergency Vet Contact Information and Locations
The title says it all: when you’ve got a distressed pet and it’s time to get to the vet, you’re probably not going to be thinking straight. Generally, if your body is giving you “all systems go” adrenaline levels, it’s not the best time to be madly googling your vet’s number or trying to figure out which emergency veterinary hospital you’re closest to. Instead, do yourself a favour by having all that information printed out and tucked away in your pet’s first-aid kit. Remember that your usual vet might not be an emergency animal hospital, so include all your local options—and maybe their hours of operation, too.
Expecting the Unexpected
In a perfect world, you’d never need any of this. Your beloved pet will live a long, happy life without needing any emergency pet first-aid materials or skills—and that could very well happen! But having everything you need to make the unwanted and unexpected situations go that much more smoothly is a gift to your future self. On top of that, knowing how to use everything in your kit can make you more confident in your adventures with your pet, and more attentive to their needs when you know what to look out for. After all, carrying everything you need for the worst case scenario doesn’t mean it’ll happen—just that you’ll be ready for it if it ever does.