How to help prevent most common hunting dog injuries
By Seth Bynum, DVM
The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure certainly rings true when it comes to hunting dogs and injuries in the field. While it may be impractical to sketch out a prevention plan for every hazard your companion could encounter, I’d wager that most injuries we treat in the clinic might have been avoided altogether by putting a few modest safeguards in place before and after the hunt. Here are a few tips to keep your dog going strong all season long.
Healthy Weight and Conditioning
Obesity is the most common disease affecting all breeds, and our hunting dogs - particularly our retrieving breeds - are not immune. Many incidents of orthopedic injury and arthritis in our canine companions can be directly linked to the completely preventable condition of allowing dogs to pack on superfluous pounds. While a lifestyle change for you and your dog lacks the flash and instant gratification of picking up some new blaze orange protective gear for the field, keeping your dog lean and active could spare them the discomfort of a debilitating sports injury or help keep them in the field for more seasons than their overweight counterparts.
In addition to maintaining a lean physique in our dogs, pre-season conditioning can help prevent a host of serious field injuries. None of us would spontaneously run a marathon after a months-long hiatus from physical activity, nor should we expect our canine athletes to safely tear up the field on opening day without prepping their bodies for that level of exertion. Off season activity doesn’t have to be extreme to be effective, just a consistent and deliberate program to keep their muscles toned, joints limber and feet tough and pliable.
Feet and pad care
Few injuries can cut a hunt short faster than a damaged pad or broken nail. If it’s not already, foot care should be part of your pre-hunt regimen. Nails should be trimmed short consistently, particularly if you hunt in rocky or snowy terrain. Nearly every split or torn nail I’ve treated in practice belonged to a hunting dog whose nails were allowed to grow long and unruly.
Admittedly, it’s a challenge to implement nail care in older dogs or in those who have been successful at training you to avoid this bit of husbandry through some degree of resistance or outright protest. Start with short sessions and subtle clips, and mix in lots of treats and praise. If you’re inexperienced, have a groomer or veterinary technician show you the proper technique for trimming nails.
Dog boots can be a great way to protect pads and nails as well. They could be a lifesaver for tender-footed dogs or long-haired breeds prone to accumulating ice or mud between the toes or along the feathering of the lower leg. That said, I’ve never seen a pair that I felt functioned flawlessly or fit every dog foot perfectly, so you may need to try a few different pairs on your pup before settling on a winner. If your dog is new to boots, expect an awkward or chilly reception of this new accessory. While it’s fine to try them on at home to assess fit, my advice is to put them on and hit the field immediately. Most dogs will dispense with the comical high stepping and get down to the business of finding birds within a few minutes.
Always inspect your dog’s feet after a hunt with boots. While they may decrease the risk of some foot-related injuries, I’ve seen them cause abrasions on the tops and sides of feet as well.
Tailgate check after the hunt
Many huge problems we encounter in our hunting dogs began as small issues that simply went unnoticed. Dogs are tough, and many hard-charging field dogs are stoic in the face of discomfort, particularly when prey drive and adrenaline are running high. After the hunt, take time to implement a thorough tailgate check for your hunting dog. This makeshift table helps bring the dog to eye level and provides an easier angle for viewing the belly and legs than what we typically see towering above them in the field.
Start with the eyes and ears, and scan for any evidence of seeds or other foreign bodies that may have taken up residence there. These pesky hitchhikers are best dealt with now before they’re allowed to burrow or fester. Examine the belly, armpits and groin for abrasions, and pay special attention to the front of the elbows and shoulders, as these are common spots for cuts and scrapes from debris and barbed wire. Check for grass awns between the toes as well, and examine the pad and nails for damage. Lastly, take a peek at the genitals, particularly in females, as this area is prone to collecting awns and other debris that can cause issues if left unaddressed.
While a lean and fit dog is your biggest insurance policy against serious injury, taking a few extra steps before and after the hunt is an easy way to help prevent small issues from becoming larger ones. While there are well designed boots and vests on the market that offer added protection in the field, your dog’s biggest asset for injury prevention is you. Help them keep their nails short and give them a thorough once over on the tailgate after each hunt. A little time and prevention will help keep them tuned up all year.
Proudly brought to you in collaboration with Purina Pro Plan, Ask A Vet is a twelve-part series featuring Dr. RuthAnn Lobos and Dr. Seth Bynum, answering YOUR questions about your four-legged friend. Come back next month for Episode #4, and check out Episode #1 and Episode #2!