Wound Care for Dogs: A Guide
Medically reviewed by Ruby Wistreich, RVT and Bradley J. Waffa, MSPH, DVM
Dogs are like kids: they love to play and roughhouse and—just like kids—they sometimes get hurt. In this blog post, we’ll broadly explore the various kinds of wounds we see in dogs, discuss the healing process, and provide an overview for pet owners faced with this challenge.
Common Wounds in Dogs:
Cuts and Abrasions:
Dogs love to run and dig and dive and explore. Sometimes when running through thickets or along fence lines, they can cut or abrade their skin on sharp objects or rough surfaces. Minor cuts and abrasions are categorized as “superficial wounds” (i.e. they are surface level) and can sometimes be treated topically without the need for wound closure.
A deeper cut is often referred to as a laceration. These wounds often require closure with stitches, or “sutures,” to promote optimal healing.
The result of a penetrating injury from a thorn or nail or tooth, puncture wounds are easy to miss and sometimes don’t look dramatic at all. But while these wounds may appear small on the surface, they can introduce pathogens deeper into tissue setting them up for a serious infection.
Bite wounds from other dogs or wild animals can result in lacerations and puncture wounds. Additionally, because animal mouths are loaded with bacteria, these wounds can become infected extremely easily, and abscess formation without appropriate management is common. Though bite wound injuries can vary from mild to severe, they always warrant immediate veterinary attention for the best chance of avoiding more severe complications.
What to Expect During a Vet Visit for Wounds:
The vet will start by examining the wound. This includes assessing the size, depth, and location of the wound. They may also check for any foreign objects embedded in the wound.
One of the most dangerous and frustrating complications of wound management is infection, particularly if there is an antibiotic resistant organism (or organisms!) present. One way to learn that a wound could be infected with an antibiotic-resistant pathogen is when, several days into treatment, the wound is worsening rather than healing. At this point, your pet will require a follow-up visit, will have experienced several more days of discomfort, and may now have a more advanced and complicated infection that could be more difficult and more expensive to treat. At this time your pet would also need a wound culture, where a sample is obtained to grow out to identify the organism(s) present and their antibiotic sensitivity patterns, and this process can take from 3-5 days. That’s a long time to wait for answers when your pet isn’t doing well! Although it does incur a little more cost on the front-end, your veterinarian may recommend a wound culture when your pet first presents, even if the wound does not seem particularly complicated or infected. This ensures that, in the event the wound is not healing as expected, you already have an important head start in understanding what exactly you’re up against and how best to treat it. This more targeted approach also allows for better, more-specific antibiotic selection that helps reduce the likelihood of antibiotic resistance in the future.
Cleaning the wound is a crucial step to prevent infection. Always done after a culture sample is obtained, your veterinary team will gently clean the wound using a combination of antiseptic and/or saline solution to remove debris, dirt, and bacteria. This helps create a clean environment for the wound to heal.
Not all wounds require surgery or closure, but sedation is often recommended to allow a deep exploration and evaluation of all wounds present, as well as their severity underneath the skin. For certain types of bite wounds and abscesses, drains are placed to help promote faster healing and minimize complications. Bloodwork is frequently recommended prior to sedation or anesthesia to help minimize risk.
In cases of severe trauma (big dog on little dog bite wounds, vehicular trauma, etc) X-ray and ultrasound are used to help rule-out serious internal trauma not always evident from the wounds on the surface.
Debridement (if necessary):
In cases where there is significant debris or damaged tissue, the vet may perform debridement. Often done under sedation or anesthesia, this involves removing any dead or deeply contaminated tissue that would otherwise fail to heal or slow the healing process.
Wounds represent warm, moist environments in compromised tissue where bacteria love to grow. Depending on the nature of the wound, the presence or risk of infection, and/or culture results, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to help prevent or treat bacterial infections.
Wounds hurt! Dogs are great at hiding signs of pain, but we know they experience it just like people do, and we also know uncontrolled pain slows the healing process. Your vet will likely prescribe pain medication to keep your dog comfortable during the healing process. Sometimes other medications, like sedatives, are recommended to help keep your pet less active while damaged tissue is healing.
Certain types of wounds are sometimes left open to heal, and in these cases your vet may apply a dressing to the wound. This can protect the area, keep it clean, and promote proper healing. The type of dressing used will depend on the specific characteristics of the wound.
Follow-up Care Instructions:
Your vet will provide you with detailed instructions on how to care for the wound at home. This may include guidance on cleaning or compressing the wound, applying medications, monitoring for signs of infection, and/or when to return for suture removal. It’s crucial to follow these instructions closely for the best possible outcome.
Preventing Wounds in the Future:
Be Mindful of the Environment:
Watch for hazards in the areas your dog explores or plays, such as broken glass, sharp objects, or uneven terrain that could cause injuries. Familiarize yourself with the environment to ensure a safe space for your dog.
Avoid Overcrowded Areas:
Dog parks and other play areas can become crowded, increasing the likelihood of accidents. Consider going to the park during off-peak hours to reduce the number of dogs present and minimize the chances of a scuffle.
Always keep a close eye on your dog during playtime, especially in off-leash areas like dog parks. This allows you to intervene quickly if any rough play or potentially harmful interactions occur.
Always consult with your veterinarian for personalized guidance, and remember that a timely and thorough approach to wound care is important for ensuring your pet has a healthy and timely recovery.