When Your Dog’s Face Puffs Up at 3:30 am

Friday morning around 3:30 Rufus began moving all over the bedroom. I heard feet scratching the walls, and rolling on the carpet. He even got on the bed and tried snuggling before jumping off. Something was up. I figured it was his delicate GI tract so I got up to let him out.

He ran down the stairs like a madman. Such a sudden burst of energy at this time of morning was out of character. He normally was a heavy sleeper. Once downstairs he ran directly into his crate instead of towards the back door. This was also odd. He normally runs directly to the door when he needs to pee. The kitchen was dark, however, so I couldn’t really see what the real issue was. In my blurry eyed stare, I could only see his outline. Then I turned on the light and did not recognize this dog.


Half of his face had puffed up.

It bothered him like crazy. He pawed at it and tried rubbing it against chairs or his dog bed. Had he been bitten? Had he eaten something that did this to him? Did the cause even matter right now?

I had never seen this before. I had never heard my friends discuss this before. I am happy that I kept it together at this weird happening. If you find yourself at in this same situation, here is my advisory list of what to do in case your dog turns into a puffer fish:

  1. Do not freak out. Your dog is already frightened and itchy and is looking to you for help. Getting upset only adds to his woes. (“Great. My face exploded and now I have to take care you too? Thanks, lady.”) My brain works remarkably slow in the wee hours of the morning and it failed to send a “PANIC” message to my nervous system. I remained calm while I checked him out.
  2. Inspect the affected area. Many people asked me if this was a snake bite. It was possible. I have two dogs who go after critters if they find them, and I do live in an area where there are poisonous snakes. I did not relish the idea of looking for snakes in my yard but if it meant saving my pups then yes, I’d take a machete out in the back. (Disclaimer: I don’t actually own a machete. A shovel would have to suffice if it came to that.) I looked for puncture wounds and found none. Snake bites are fairly sizable and draw blood. Only half of his face had puffed up and not his throat, fortunately and he did not show any difficulty breathing. The snout was the most seriously affected area with the swelling extending up to below his eye, forcing it shut. A little bit under his ear felt swollen but not terribly so. Most likely he chomped on a wasp or a spider and the bug fought back. The other side of his snout showed a tiny bit of swelling.)
  3. Give the dog Benadryl. The active ingredient that you want is diphenhydramine. This is perfectly safe for dogs. 1 mg for every pound of dog. For Rufus who weighs 72 pounds, this meant three tablets of regular store-bought Benadryl (75 mgs total). Of course this is more than the recommended dosage for adult humans, but dogs metabolize it differently. As it happened, I did not have any Benadryl in the house. I had to get dressed, load Rufus into the Subaru and drive to the nearest 24-hour Walgreens. The two closest to me – literally a mile in one direction and half a mile in the other – were closed. Google told me to drive four miles south on Colorado Boulevard which, fortunately at 4 am, is a breeze. Relieved I did not have to drive to my old sketchy neighborhood with the even sketchier 24-hour Walgreens -where I’d long ago experienced harassment in normal daylight hours by creepers and tweakers, we made it to the well-lit parking lot.
    Avoid 24 Hour Drug Stores with guys like this lurking about

    A perfectly non-stoned clerk rang up my purchase and I went back to the car to administer Rufus his dosage. I had brought some kibble in a treat bag for him but he struggled to swallow the Benadryl due to his mouth puffiness. The best option was getting the pill as far back in his mouth as he’d let me, and then rubbing his throat. This took more time than you might think, but patience is the key. **Even if this had been a snake bite, Benadryl would have been appropriate to give until getting him to a vet**

  4. Go To The Animal ER if conditions worsen.  If you do not have an ER for animals, call your vet and find out who is on call. I am lucky that Denver has a 24-hour Emergency Vet because I have noticed that my dogs only have emergencies during holidays or off-hours. Funny how it works that way. Since Rufus and I were already in the car, I thought we may as well head to the ER. It was a ten minute drive. I drove slowly since I did not want my car-sick-prone dog vomiting up his Benadryl in a fit of dizziness and anxiety. Once at the vet, we waited. And waited. Rufus’ face did not get any worse.
    Hanging out, 5 am. The other eye was wide open.

    He did not develop any new symptoms. He remained alert. Considering his extreme vet anxiety, I chose not to go in. I knew our regular vet would open in a few hours so I decided to hang out there for forty-five minutes or so. I saw no changes in his physical symptoms or in his behavior, so we headed home around six.

  5. Look for behavior changes. Once in the house, Rufus ran to the back door to try and play with Sophie. He tore around the back yard and came back in where he plopped himself down on the dog bed and rolled on his back. He was being Rufus. No sickness, no lethargy, no obvious pain. The swelling remained, but I figured we would bide our time with some food. His appetite remained strong as did his attitude. I figure the Benadryl took some of the itching away; now we could deal with the swelling in an hour or so. Still, I am very happy that I had this as an option.
  6. Go to your regular vet. Again, I’m lucky that my vet is a five-minute drive from the house. As I’ve reported earlier, Rufus does not love this place. Fortunately he has started to see that the staff there does not have it in for him so he’s inching towards acceptance. We arrived before their official business hours but miraculously their doors were open. They welcomed us and like the true pros they are, took one look at Rufus’ half-swollen face and calmly got us a room. This was all the more incredible considering that they were actually busy at that time and had only one vet working for those early hours. We lucked out, however, because that one vet came in and unironically said, “I LOVE allergic reactions!”
    Finally in the examination room, pre-injection and pre-coffee

    I took this to mean that  puffy dog faces are in her wheelhouse. She agreed that this was most likely a wasp or a spider and not a snake. On the one hand, whew. No machete wielding for me just yet. But on the other hand, crap. The back yard has plenty of wasps and spiders. They build nests in hidden spots all the time. I actively look for them, armed with either or hose or a can of Raid. But they are sneaky and continuously rebuild. I would have to be even more vigilant. In the meantime, Rufus got two injections while I loaded up on coffee. Hooray for Keurigs! Fastest cup of coffee ever. Returning to the exam room I saw that Rufus had peed out of fear. But having gotten that out of his system, he was now lying down (in a clean spot) looking relaxed. I’ll take it. He had to wear a soft muzzle but he seemed to realize that the worst was over.

  7. Wait and Observe. The vet told me to call that afternoon if his facial swelling had not decreased by at least 50%. I had hoped for a faster decrease but that was foolish optimism. These things take time. The swelling decreased by a fair amount while Rufus slept the entire day, zonked out for several hours straight. I moved around like an utter zombie, unable to sleep or do anything remotely productive. How did I survive college where I averaged about four hours or fewer per night? I wrote undergrad essays linking Shakespeare to Pink Floyd on two hours sleep and earned A-minuses on them (you need to be awake to proofread and earn the solid A).
    zombie scholar
    My College Graduation Photo

    I have zero clue how that happened. The next morning the swelling was almost completely gone. The vet called us to see how Rufus was doing, and I happily reported good news. They told me they had seen a lot of these reactions this summer. They said that waiting a few hours after giving Benadryl was OK on my part, but not to wait too much longer than that. The reaction can be even worse if it is not tended to.

At present, all is well. Rufus has forgotten the entire episode and is back to trying to bite flies. I don’t know when common sense will kick in – will it ever? I’d like at least another year before any more emergencies.

The next morning: back to normal, more or less

I am now prepared for battle against insects like one of Jon Snow’s crew on their inexplicably stupid journey to capture a wight. (Apologies to non Game of Thrones viewers). I also found a gift my dad sent me a few years ago: an anti-bug jacket. Maybe I’ll convert it for Rufus.

Ready to hit the clubs.
My Valerian Steel fly swatter.



18 Thoughts

  1. I love your Valerian steel, I’m sure it will do the great! On a more serious note, I’m so glad that Rufus is okay. Waking up like that to an emergency is scary. I’ve done it with kids and dogs. It never gets easier. But it’s very true, panicking is the last thing you should do and I commend you for it. So glad he is feeling better.


  2. That sounds like an interesting morning to be sure! Way to take care of business in a rational way, these tips are great! Years of kids and dogs almost remove surprise, I expect something crazy when I roll out of bed now days 😂


  3. Aw poor Rufus! Why is it that things like this always happen when the regular vet is closed? I’ve had a similar experience with one of my dogs a few times before. He has really severe food allergies. We’re careful about what we feed him, of course, but we live in the city and once in a blue moon he’ll eat something outside that he reacts too. His face and…other parts of him…swell up and he get hives. Not fun, for sure, but luckily once we start treatment he goes back to normal pretty quickly.


  4. You have such a strong presence of mind, I would have freaked out completely! I did not know that Benadryl can be administered as an antidote, thanks for this very valuable tip!


  5. Wow! I bet you were happy when Rufus was back to normal and you were able to finally get some sleep. What an adventure! This exactly thing happened to our Labrador, Burton, with a bee sting. It is scary how quickly they can swell up like this. I always keep a bottle of benedryl on hand for us or our dogs. You just never know. Love the suit at the end! Hysterical! My husband has the full bee suit since in AZ we have killer bees that regularly try to make their home in our trees. It’s so funny to think of my dogs wearing that!


  6. Oh my goodness! All I can say is that you were so much calmer than I would have been! I have been so worried this summer as there have been so many more wasps in my garden and my dog likes to snap at them if they bother her. I’m happy that Rufus is feeling better.


  7. Facial swelling can be scary. Glad you were able to get Benedryl (diphenhydramine) into Rufus and that it didn’t develop any further. I normally try to keep an emergency stash of Benedryl in the house just for those crazy after-hour issues – I have had more than one episode of a swollen dog face after hiking. Especially after she gets lots of mosquitoe bites. However, I don’t think her face has ever gotten quite as puffy as Rufus’ looks in the pictures above. Glad he is feeling better now!


  8. Poor Rufus! I’m glad to see he’s doing better. Buster also tends to have ~1 similar episode once/year or once every couple years in the fall. It’s always just a mysterious swelling, but clearly it has to be some sort of environmental allergy or insect bite. It always happens at a horrible time of day too! I think the last time Buster had that happen it was almost midnight. Here’s to hoping Rufus won’t have to deal with that for awhile!


  9. Happy to hear Rufus is okay and that it wasn’t a snake. I get worried when a wasp gets into my house and the girls begin chasing it. They are so fast and I’m afraid they’ll get stung. You were a lot calmer than I would have been. I probably would have rushed to the emergency hospital and spent a fortune!


  10. I am impressed that you didn’t go into Panic mode! I’m glad that Rufus is okay. I think converting the bug suit into something for Rufus may be a stroke of genius.


  11. Poor Rufus – so glad things turned out well, and you handled it all so seamlessly! Emergencies are always just that, emergencies – so having information prior to an event is so helpful and this is exactly what your post does. I appreciate this because I’ve had this experience myself (with a wasp) and I would be scrambling to figure out what to do if it would have happened to one of our pups!


  12. I’m glad Rufus is fine a day later. I haven’t thought about keeping Benadryl in the house, but I should get some – good reminder. I haven’t had this happen to my dogs yet, but you never know. Usually they wake me up with the runs.


  13. Oh, wow, so scary when it happens in the middle of the night like that with no clue what the heck caused it. Poor baby. Any chance it could have been a spider of sorts? I hate when my dog’s face swells up when I do know what caused it. Never mind being in the dark about the cause. Ouch.


  14. Wow, that’s really scary. Not panicking would be the hardest part for me, but I agree it only makes things worse and your pup needs you to stay calm. We have thankfully had not anything like this happen to any of our pets. Glad the swelling went down by the following day!


  15. Using Benadryl for facial swelling does help! Yes, it will put your pup to sleep for 5 hours straight and wake up a little wobbly, but will soon get back to his ole self in no time!


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