Do you know what to do if your dog has an allergic reaction to a bug bite or sting when you are out in the woods? Most people assume they can rush their dog to the vet when something like that happens. The vet is not an option when you are in the backcountry like we were though. Thanks to my pet first aid certification, I was able to handle the situation without too much panic.
To be clear, besides a basic understanding of pet first aid because of the pet first aid course I took, I am not super experienced with this kind of situation. In the 10+ years I have been hiking with Chester, this is the first time this has ever happened. However, I can share my experience and what worked for us.
My hubby and I hiked 5 miles into the woods to camp with the dogs. When we stopped to set up the tent, Chester laid down and started rubbing his face on the grass. It seemed a little strange but wasn’t a big deal because he does it sometimes at home too. We had no reason to believe he wasn’t just doing it because it felt good on his face after a long, hot hike.
That was, until I looked over and his face was all puffed up and distorted!
The hubby and I freaked out but I stopped for a minute to logically weigh our options. I knew from my mountain oriented first aid training that it’s not good to make a snap decision in an emergency.
Our first thought was to immediately pack up, carry Chester, and hike out. We were tired and hungry though and I knew that would put my hubby, Gretel, and I at risk for injury.
Another option was to just give Chester some antihistamine and go about our trip as planned. We worried about waiting so long that it was “too late”. The reality was that it would have taken us around 4 hours to hike out. Chester’s condition could have gotten worse within that time and we still would not be within reach of medical help.
After weighing our “nothing is ideal” options, I decided to give Chester some antihistamine from the first aid kit and wait to see if the swelling in his face went down, or at least he didn’t get any worse, before making a final call. I knew that his face being visibly swelled meant that there could be some inflammation internally that could interfere with his breathing so I watched and listened for that too.
I only brought the mini first aid kit on the trip and hadn’t checked it for Benadryl before I left. Luckily, there were some generic tabs in there. Despite having taken the first aid class, I wouldn’t have rememberd how much to give him if I hadn’t tried cutting the pills into the right size last fall. I was so glad that I had practiced and was comfortable with what I was giving him.
After 30 minutes, Chester looked like he was getting better so we decided it was the best choice for us all to stay the night and hike out the next day as planned.
I wanted to be more informed for next time so I did a little research when I got home. I reviewed the section on insect stings in my Walks ‘N’ Wags Pet First Aid manual given to me at the Metro Dog pet first aid class.
It says that although most insect stings are harmless, it is possible for a dog to have an allergic reaction to insect venom. Signs to look for are:
- Area hot to the touch
- Rubbing and pawing of the head
- Drooling (if stung in the mouth)
- Visible stinger (if a bee sting)
- Shock within 30 minutes (if there is an allergic reaction)
Chester was only exhibiting two signs. He had been rubbing his head, there was clear swelling, and he looked uncomfortable. It was very concerning but not an absolute emergency it seemed.
The condition when the face swells is called angioedema. It usually develops 15-20 minutes after being exposed to the allergen or the substance with which the dog is hypersensitive or allergic. Generally, angioedema is not fatal and is self-limiting; It will disappear by itself. It is possible, in very rare cases, that the swelling associated with angioedema can reach the throat lead to breathing difficulties. A more severe and life-threatening allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, which needs immediate veterinary attention.
This is what I learned about Benadryl: When used properly, Benadryl, a common brand name for the drug diphenhydramine, is very safe for dogs. However, over the counter versions of Benadryl designed for humans often contains other medications like acetaminophen or pseudophedrine, which can be toxic for dogs. It’s highly recommended that you buy a generic version, or a version that is made specifically for dogs (affiliate links), that contains only diphenhydramine. Luckily, it was generic Benadryl that came in the first aid kit.
According to Veterinary Place (and cross-checked with other sources by me), the usual dosage of Benadryl for treating dogs is 1 mg/lb every 8 hours (three times daily) but can be doubled to 2mg/lb if needed.
Benadryl is handy to have in the pet first aid kit because it has other uses too. I found this helpful infographic on Pinterest (click to enlarge):
I must add that you should never give your pet medication without first checking with your vet. I admit that I had never given it to Chester before so I was taking a risk by doing so but, in this situation, I felt like that potential risks outweighed the potential risk if I didn’t. It was risky nonetheless though.
I don’t know exactly what caused Chester’s reaction. It could have been a bee sting. It also could have been the hoards of mosquitoes at the campsite. At first, I couldn’t imagine that would have been enough to cause such a reaction. The dogs were being swarmed despite the natural repellent I put on them though. They were apparently super potent mosquitoes too because even I, who very rarely has reactions to mosquito bites, was covered in red bumps when I got home.
The situation was scary for us at first. In hindsight, I feel good about making the safest decision for all of us and being able to treat and monitor Chester’s allergic reaction myself. I feel totally prepared if it happens again. If you’ve found this article, my hope is that our experience helps you too.