What to do when your pet suffers a wound
There's one time when advice from your vet is almost always needed: when your pet suffers a physical wound. Most people are novices in such situations: they don't know what to do. Does the wound need to be sutured? Or will it be OK just to allow it to heal naturally? And if it's bleeding, what should be done to stop the blood flow? The ideal answer would always be to have a vet on the spot to give you advice, but that's not always possible. So this week, I'm discussing some simple pointers about what needs to be done in such emergencies.
First, what is a wound? The dictionary definition is "an injury to living tissue caused by a cut, blow, or other impact, typically one in which the skin is cut or broken". In theory, this could mean just severe bruising after a nasty blow to the body, but the common understanding is that a wound involves cutting, tearing or splitting of the skin, exposing the tissues beneath. If blood vessels beneath the skin are torn or cut, there will be bleeding. If other structures, such as bones or nerves, are damaged, there can be dramatic loss of function (such as a broken limb or even a broken back).
Whenever a wound takes place, there are a number of issues to deal with, and it's best to prioritise these in terms of what needs sorted first.
Bleeding is the biggest priority: if a major blood vessel is damaged and an animal is bleeding copiously, a situation can rapidly become life threatening. It's critically important to stop any bleeding as soon as possible, and simple pressure is the best way to do this.
Danny, a greyhound who cut his lower leg while out on a run in the park, was a classic example of this. He ran over broken glass and managed to lacerate the underside of his lower left foreleg, just above the paw. The cut went straight through a major artery, and blood flowed rapidly, forming a pool around his foot as his owner looked on, horrified. She took immediate, effective action: she used a t-shirt as a make shift bandage, winding it round the cut leg, and holding it on tightly. She stopped the bleeding in the short term, and a friend then drove her to our clinic. We were able to apply a sterile bandage to replace her t-shirt, and then the wound was sutured under general anaesthesia. Danny made a full recovery: the wound was deep, but it was only a few centimetres wide, and it healed well. But without his owner's prompt treatment at the scene, Danny might not have survived.
Such severe bleeding is rare: more often, a wound will just ooze blood. But it's always helpful to stop all bleeding if possible, and direct application of a clean fabric pad of some kind is the best way to do this.
Pain relief is often the second big concern of owners when their pet suffers a wound, and one of the first actions of vets when attending a wounded animal is to ensure that this is given promptly. Owners need to be cautious about giving home versions of pain relief: the most common poisoning of dogs happens when people give human pain relieving medication to their pets. The metabolism of animals works differently to humans, and drugs that are safe for us can cause serious illness in pets. It's best to remember that the animal's body is good at producing natural pain relieving endorphins in an immediate crisis. Focus on getting the injured animal to the vet, and they'll be able to provide pain relief that's much better and far safer than anything you'll be able to give yourself.
The third question with a wound is: what needs done to make it better? Does it need to be sutured? Or will it heal naturally? This can be difficult for a lay person to answer, and it's even difficult for vets to make this judgement sometimes. The answer depends on many factors, such as the size, the location, the shape of the cut and the degree of contamination. In general, vets prefer to close wounds, by suturing or stapling: if the wound edges are closely applied to one another in this way, you can be fairly sure that the wound will have fully healed within ten days. If a large wound is left open, it may still heal, but it could take many weeks rather than days, and there is a risk that it may still eventually need surgery to allow it to close over completely.
Small cuts (e.g. less than 1cm wide) and grazes can often be treated simply: the best approach is twice daily bathing with mildly salty water, also known as "saline". I always recommend a teaspoonful of salt in a pint of boiled water: when people ask me if this will sting, I explain that this concentration is similar to the saltiness of blood, and when you think about it, blood never causes a wound to sting. Mildly salty water is the gentlest way to clean wounds: it removes dirt, limits infection and importantly, it doesn't damage or irritate the living tissue. Many commercial antiseptics are used by owners at home but studies have shown that it's hard to beat the effectiveness of mildly salty water for cleaning wounds. If a small cut is bathed twice daily, this keeps the surface clean and healthy, and it allows the owner to monitor it carefully. As long as it looks better, day by day, no other action may be needed.
It's important not to let pets lick or bite wounds: bandages or plastic cones should be used to stop them. This is one instance where nature definitely does not know best.