First Aid for Falls in Dogs

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Dogs are not always as surefooted as they should be. Even though they have four feet, it only takes a stumble on one foot to make a dog tumble down. Dogs that fall from heights can suffer sprains, broken bones, head trauma, and chest or abdominal injuries. Small dogs can incur the same degree of injury falling from much smaller distances. Toy breeds have been known to break one or both legs when simply jumping down from the sofa.

What should I watch for?

If you see your dog fall, observe him carefully for a couple of days.

Some injuries are immediately obvious while others are not apparent until hours or a couple of days after the fall. Even if you do not see your pet take a tumble, you should be suspicious of a fall if you note the following signs:

  • reluctance to stand or walk
  • pain when lying down or rising
  • stiff gait
  • limping
  • difficulty breathing
  • whining
  • lethargy
  • decreased appetite or difficulty apprehending food


What should I do?

Serious injuries from falls need to be immediately evaluated and treated by your veterinarian. But here are first aid steps to implement at home as you prepare to take your dog to your veterinary hospital.

Monitor breathing. If your dog is struggling to breathe, he needs emergency veterinary care, and transporting him can be tricky especially if ribs were broken.

  • For small breeds, support your dog behind the front legs and in front of the back legs and gently carry him to the car.
  • For large dogs, make a sling out of a towel or blanket to make transporting him easier. You can also use a make-shift gurney out of rigid material such as a piece of wood.
  • Dogs with broken ribs need to stay as still as possible to avoid lung puncture, so do not let him struggle. If he prefers to lie down or sit up, let him do so.
  • If your dog stops breathing, you need to ventilate him to keep his oxygen level up. Make a funnel by wrapping your hand(s) around his muzzle. Keeping his mouth closed, blow air into his nose. Proper ventilation should make his chest rise. Give 10 breaths per minute until he starts breathing on his own or until you have reached the emergency hospital.

Protect open wounds. If the skin was broken during the fall, wrap a clean towel over the area to minimize contamination. It is particularly important to cover a wound that has a broken bone protruding from it. Bone infections can seriously complicate healing. Puncture wounds to the abdomen should also be covered to minimize infection from outside contaminants; however, if the intestines are punctured, infection could start from within. Your veterinarian will assess this problem.

Control bleeding. If the wound is bleeding, wrap the towel tightly around the injured site and apply gentle, but firm pressure. If the towel becomes soaked, do not remove it, just put another towel on top of it to avoid disturbing the clot. Most bleeding stops within 5-10 minutes; however, for dogs with clotting disorders, it may take longer. Extreme bleeding may occur if the spleen or liver was injured, so prompt emergency care is vital.

Look for head injuries. Blood in the eyes, nose, or mouth means possible head injury. Dogs will usually swallow blood that pools in the mouth and lick blood that flows from the nose, so there is no need to control the bleeding; just proceed to your veterinary clinic.

Be aware of back injuries. A dog that cannot get up at all could have a back injury and should be kept as still as possible. Slide the dog onto a rigid object like a board (for large dogs) or baking sheet (for small dogs). Cover him with a blanket and seek emergency help.

Monitor your dog for several days. Sometimes, dogs appear normal after a fall as they walk around and play. Later, they become lethargic and weak or develop difficulty breathing, so it is important to monitor them closely for several days after a fall. Delayed injuries include collapsed lungs caused by punctures from broken ribs, or hernias that start as small openings but tear open later. Diaphragmatic hernias occur when there is a tear in the wall separating the chest from the abdomen. If abdominal organs (liver, stomach, intestines) move into the chest cavity, respiration is impaired. Hernias may also occur in the abdominal wall, creating pockets that trap the intestines, bladder, or other organs. These delayed problems are emergencies that require prompt attention. Transport your dog with the injured side down as you head to your veterinary hospital.

Monitor eating and elimination. Broken jaws are not always obvious injuries. Watch your dog eat and drink. If he drops food, yelps when he chews, or drools excessively, have him examined by your veterinarian. Monitor his eliminations. If he does not urinate in 24 hours, seek help. Your dog may have ruptured his bladder, or the bladder may be impinged in an abdominal hernia. If he does not have a normal bowel movement without pain within 48 hours of the fall, bring him to your veterinarian.


How can I protect my dog from having a fall?

To avoid falls, teach your dog that jumping on and off the furniture is not allowed. Most dogs will learn to sit by the sofa and wait for you to help them up. When hiking, keep your dog on a leash or survey the area in advance for risky ledges, ditches, and ravines.

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