Dogs. We love them, but they sure know how to get up to some mischief! Though usually harmless, some doggy hijinks—like overly-enthusiastic play, running with sticks, or stealing hot food off the grill—can lead to injuries, cuts, and abrasions. Unfortunately, what may look like a minor wound on your dog is often contaminated with bacteria and debris. Dog wounds get infected very easily, which is why it’s so important to manage your pet’s wounds and prevent further health complications.
What Causes Dog Wounds?
The most common cause of dog wounds are other dogs. Dogs can injure each other during rough play, minor disagreements, and full-on fights. Dog wounds can also result from being hit by a car, altercations with cats, sharp sticks or stones, some infections, and many other unavoidable aspects of dog life.
A wound is defined as anywhere the skin is damaged—from burns or scrapes that only involve the surface of the skin, to cuts and punctures that penetrate deeper, compromising all layers of the skin. And just in case you’re tempted to disregard a wound unless you see lots of blood, it’s important to note that the amount of bleeding doesn’t always reflect the severity of the wound. For example, small cuts on the ear may bleed very badly while large lacerations may not bleed at all.
Types of Dog Wounds
Just as there are many things that can cause wounds in dogs, there are many different types of wounds, too. Here are some of the most common types of dog wounds pet parents face:
Scrapes are superficial wounds that only involve the surface layer of the skin. They can be very painful. The most common way dogs get large scrapes is vehicular trauma.
Dogs often burn their paw pads in the summer when walking on hot concrete or asphalt surfaces. The severity of the burn wound is ranked according to how deep the damage goes. Dogs can also burn their mouths and throats stealing food while it is cooking or cooling.
Lacerations commonly occur when dogs fight. They are open wounds in the skin that can be long or short, superficial or deep. Dogs can also lacerate themselves on sticks, fences, or even from misjudging a jump onto a chair or into a car.
A degloving injury is a very severe form of a laceration where a large section of skin is pulled away from the tissue below it. These types of wounds are most frequent in fights where a big dog bites and then shakes or swings a little dog, causing the skin to come loose.
Like an iceberg, puncture wounds may look small, but there is often much more going on under the surface that you can’t see. Punctures are small, deep wounds that often occur during a fight with another animal or routine interaction with a sharp object. At first glance, they may not look too serious, but these types of wounds can easily become infected because bacteria and debris get trapped at the very bottom of the puncture with no easy way out. In the case of a fight, what looks like a small hole in the skin could be hiding severe internal damage, including broken bones, large deep lacerations of muscle, open chests or abdomens, and even damage to internal organs.
Insect bites, stings, and snake bites can all cause wounds. Typically, minor events—like a single ant bite or bee sting—do not require treatment, but every dog is different. Some dogs are allergic to insect bites and stings and need emergency treatment. Snake bites can cause severe, life-threatening wounds because the venom kills tissue as it spreads. So a snake bite wound should always be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.
Moist dermatitis (commonly known as a “hot spot”) may look like a scrape or a burn, but it is actually a skin infection. The treatment for hot spots is very different than the treatment for true wounds. (Check out Hot Spots on Dogs for more information.)
Any wound on or around the eye should be treated as an emergency. Delaying treatment risks your dog’s vision. Any product used to clean a wound near the eye should be safe for use directly in an eye.
How to Clean a Dog Wound at Home
No matter what type of wound you’re dealing with or what caused it, it’s important to treat your dog’s wound promptly and properly to clear it of bacteria and avoid dangerous infections. That’s because it is much easier (not to mention, often less painful, expensive, and risky) to treat a fresh, clean wound than one that is old and infected or has healed poorly.
However, always consult with your veterinarian first if you are at all concerned that the wound may be more serious. And that doesn’t just apply to large or bleeding wounds. Wounds that appear small may actually be more severe. So when in doubt, call your veterinary clinic.
When cleaning your dog’s wound, never apply hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, or other caustic cleaning products to your dog’s skin. These will worsen the wound and are painful to your dog.
Generally, wounds only need to be cleaned after the initial incident, if there is fluid drainage from them, or if exposed to contaminants like dirt or food. If an antiseptic cleaner is recommended, a mild soap (such as baby shampoo, dish soap, or unscented hand soap) is all you need. Your veterinarian may recommend using an Epsom salt solution instead of soap or may even send special wound-care soap home with you.
Cleaning a wound too frequently or vigorously can delay or prevent it from healing properly. That means you’ll need to be gentle, yet vigilant, to keep new debris and bacteria from entering the wound.
In some locations, an unscented gentle baby wipe is the best way to clean around a wound. Do not wipe directly on the wound unless you can see debris to remove, but instead clean the surrounding area. For wounds on the feet or lower legs, gently dry the area with a clean towel every time your dog comes in from outdoors. Wounds on the face should be wiped of debris and patted dry after each meal. And wounds near your dog’s hind end should be wiped and dried every time they go to the bathroom.
Dog Wound Care
A big part of keeping your dog’s wound clean so it can heal properly is preventing your pet from licking, chewing, or scratching at the wound during recovery. Some pet parents resort to elaborate, MacGyver-style systems constructed from old T-shirts, tube socks, and athletic tape. But a simpler (though, not at all stylish) method is to use the cone of shame, also known as an Elizabethan collar or e-collar.
You can get an e-collar from your veterinarian or at many pet stores. While they come in many varieties, generally the hard ones are most effective. An e-collar should be worn at all times, even when sleeping, until the wound heals. Though you can take the e-collar off for leashed walks and mealtime as long as you are actively watching your dog.
To make sure your dog’s wound is healing properly, keep a close watch on it, checking it at least every morning and evening. If you see any new debris, bruising, or swelling, if the wound has a foul odor, or if you notice more than a few drops of discharge, see your veterinarian immediately.
The best way to keep tabs on how your dog is healing is to take pictures of the wound’s progression over time—ideally in a room with consistent lighting so the images are easier to compare. Any changes to the wound that do not look like healing should be evaluated by your veterinarian.
As they heal, wounds progress through different types of scar tissue. The first stage is called granulation, where the wound is usually pink and moist. It is important to keep granulation clean and protected, as it is still vulnerable to contaminants.
The next stage of healing is when that granulation turns into a pink or lightly-colored scar that is dry, but may still be sensitive to touch. At this stage, the e-collar is key because chewing or licking can easily break down this fragile scar tissue, which would put your healing process back at square one.
If you can avoid that setback, the scar will mature, and your dog can be freed from his e-collar. Keep in mind, your dog’s hair is unlikely to regrow from a scar.
Surgical incisions are a different type of wound and need to be treated differently from other sources of wounds. Surgical wounds are “clean,” meaning they are not contaminated with dirt and bacteria the way other wounds are. They should be kept clean and dry according to the instructions provided by your veterinarian. You should not clean a surgical wound unless specifically directed by your veterinarian. However, you should still monitor these wounds as they heal for signs of infection, like you would any other wound.
If a veterinarian places a drain in the wound, be sure to follow their instructions for monitoring and follow-up closely. Drains help any fluid or infection leave the wound instead of getting trapped and stalling the healing process. Drains should never go more than two to three days without being evaluated by a veterinarian.
Final Take on Wound Care for Dogs
Wounds come in many varieties and are very common in dogs. Always seek veterinary care for wounds, because what you see on the surface may not tell the entire story of your dog’s injury. Keeping wounds clean and preventing your dog from chewing at them are the two most important parts of home wound care.
Knowing how to care for wounds at home will help your dog heal better and faster. Although many people expect that their dog will learn their lesson and not repeat whatever got them hurt in the first place, that is rarely the case. Dogs just want to have fun and quickly forget any lessons when it interferes with playtime. So don’t throw away that e-collar because, odds are you may need it again.
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