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Fact: as a veterinarian and online canine first aid instructor I have not once been asked about what to do in the event of a head injury. And actually, most dogs have a pretty thick skull so it’s not something we deal with a whole lot… (with the exception of hit by car (HBC) cases on emergency.)
But this blog post was inspired when I had two head injuries in one day in a day (non-emergency) practice, which is highly unusual. And neither were an HBC case!
(And for the record... the two dogs I saw in day practice both ended up being fine. One fell when he wiggled out of his owner’s arms, and the other ran into something during his afternoon zoomies.)
We must face it. Accidents can happen when we are on the trail and in nature with our pups. So naturally, we want and need to be prepared for everything! I assume that is why you are reading this blog post. To be educated for the unthinkable.
And let me just take a quick moment to COMMEND you on how fantastic it is that you are taking the initiative to be proactive. Because the unfortunate truth is… is that the majority of dog owners are not proactive enough to educate themselves before a crisis hits.
So, kudos to you my friend, no matter what your past experiences or education is… it is so badass that you are here right now reading this.
And remember that there are things out of our control, and that a head injury could absolutely happen on the trail. Whether it be from a fall if you are hiking near exposure, an encounter with wildlife, something falling on your dog, or they run into something due to sensory overload while frolicking through nature.
So, what do you do? We will break this down into two separate blog posts. Today we will cover a mild head injury, with the assumption that you are far from veterinary care. Because remember, if you are in town and your pup suffers a blow to the head… even if its mild! We recommend you get him checked out by a vet.
So lets get right down to it.
If you see your pup bump his head and it doesn’t slow him down, phase him, and he is acting okay it might be okay to observe him closely for the next several hours. This, again, is if you are far from veterinary care and logistically it is impossible to take him in. If you are at home or in town then by now you know you should always error on the side of caution. (Sorry if I sound like a broken record ;))
In this case of a perceived mild bump on the head I recommend you do the following:
- Gently palpate and examine his head for any swelling, bruising, or tenderness. Pay close attention to symmetry.
- When you are examining his head be sure to look in his eyes. Take note of his pupil size. Be sure the eyes and pupil size look symmetrical, the cornea is clear, and that the sclera (white part) is white. Ensure that he is visual and has the ability to blink.
- Examine his nose for any signs of a bleed.
- Lift his lip and take note of his gum color and CRT (this is especially important if you later note changes in his symptoms or behavior- so you have something to refer back to).
- Ensure he has good flexion in his neck. No stiffness or soreness when you gently turn his head side to side and up and down.
- Watch him walk and ensure his gait is steady and sure footed.
- Ensure that he is bright, alert, responsive, and listens for his name
- Watch that he has a healthy appetite, is drinking readily, and is not vomiting.
Once you have established your pup’s behavior is normal and you have examined his head and neck for any injury I recommend you continue to monitor for the next several hours and anywhere up to 12 hours depending on the perceived severity of the impact to the head and your physical exam findings.
If you have been reading this blog for a while now, then you know and understand why I am continually driving home the importance of a physical exam. And in the event of a head injury, it is imperative to know (before it happens) what is normal for your individual dog. You can only be comfortable with understanding normal vs abnormal if you are routinely practicing your physical exams.
My members know and understand this all too well because I am constantly going back to it. In fact, we have four weeks worth of content devoted to understanding your dog's medical history, the canine physical exam itself, understanding normal, and understanding abnormal. Our membership only opens for enrollment 4 times yearly, and we relaunch in October. Join the waitlist to be the first to informed when we reopen! Click here to join!!
This sums up your action items for when you pup bumps his noggin. In order to commit this to memory read through the bullets one more time. Write the steps down in your own words, and perhaps stick it in your first aid kit so you can reference it quickly.
Also, stay tuned for next week when we discuss first aid for symptomatic or more severe head trauma. And until then I challenge you to take the bullets listed above- read it- write it- keep it in a safe place for quick access- and bonus points if you perform an exam on your dog!
Never hesitate to reach out to me with any questions!
Until next week get out and explore more with your pup!
Libbie Fort, DVM