Taking your dogs on adventures is so much fun, both for you and your pup. But it’s not without its perils, and a little preparation can go a long way. Here are the most common problems that occur when exploring the great outdoors with your dog.
The old saying “no hoof, no horse” can pretty equally be translated to “no paw, no puppy.” Luckily with canids, their smaller size means that they have a much better chance at recovering and are far more comfortable walking three legged; but it’s a good saying for remembering the importance of proper paw care.
Paw injuries are overwhelmingly the most common problems we run into on the trail. They can be lacerations of the paw pad or interdigital skin, torn nails, worn/blistered paw pads, or interdigital skin infections (the ‘webbing’ between the pads).
While these injuries occur often, the important thing to remember is that they are rarely serious and oftentimes can be appropriately treated in the field. Having additions to your first aid kit that include antiseptics, sturdy wrap material, and a dog booty will help prevent these injuries from getting worse; but the more important thing is knowing how to use them.
Bandaging paws is a bit of an art form. If you bandage too loose, the whole thing slides off and you’ve wasted the materials; if you bandage too tight, the paw or leg will swell and you can be worse off than you were before. Proper bandaging technique could eat up an entire article itself, so I’ll just leave you with the most important tip: practice at home!
Once cleaned and bandaged, contain your dog so they aren’t running about wearing down the bandage and causing more harm to the paw.
Prevent what you can. Some accidents will happen regardless of proper care, but keeping your dogs’ paws healthy will reduce the likelihood of many of these injuries. Keep nails trimmed short, check between paw pads early and often for irritation, injuries, or foreign objects like grass seeds, and strengthen paw pads’ durability by gradually increasing time spent walking on tough terrain.
2. Stings and Bites
Mosquitos, wasps, hornets, ticks, caterpillars, spiders, snakes, there are a lot of little critters out there that dogs regret visiting with. Luckily, most of these bites are more of an annoyance than a true risk, but we’ll discuss the breadth of what can occur.
When an animal is bit or stung there is typically deposition of some protein from saliva or venom that causes the body to respond. Usually this causes a local histamine reaction which results in vasodilation, swelling, redness, pain, or itchiness in the area. When this is localized, it can be uncomfortable, but rarely is it life threatening. The exception is if it occurs around an unprotected airway, which can affect breathing. Keep in mind dogs have two means of respiration: nasal and oral, so if a nose gets bit and swollen they can still pant just fine, or vice versa. However, if the offending muncher/ stinger is swallowed by a dog, histamine reactions in the laryngopharynx (think throat area) can cause swelling that could result in airway restriction.
A common treatment for these histamine reactions is giving the antihistamine diphenhydramine (brand name of Benadryl) by mouth. It has very low risk for creating complications and can help reduce the histamine reaction dramatically. Specific dosing information should be discussed with your veterinarian.
Some spider or snake bites are different. The venom deposited in these cases causes more than just a histamine response; they can have different toxins that affect the blood, tissues, and nerves. These can be far more dangerous and even lethal. In the event of a suspected or known venomous spider or snake bite, you should calmly contain your pet and evacuate to the nearest veterinary facility.
There are no practical effective field treatments to counteract or reduce the effects of these toxins; staying calm and keeping your animal calm is the best you can do in this situation. Staying calm means your dog’s blood pressure, heart rate, and respirations are as normal as possible, which will reduce the rate at which the toxins spread. This means if you have a 90 lb dog, please don’t try to force carry him/her; most large dogs are far more stressed being carried than walking on their own accord. Veterinary emergency centers will have antivenom for snake bites in areas they are common. This is the best and most effective treatment for these injuries.
One last note, on rare occasions, even a ‘plain’ histamine reaction can become a dangerous situation. Usually these are only local, but they have a potential to cause a full systemic shock event. If your dog is suddenly vomiting uncontrollably, acting dazed and confused, or collapses after a bite or sting, they need immediate medical attention. Because of these potential reactions, each bite/ sting event should be carefully monitored and judged accordingly.
3. Musculoskeletal Injuries
In general, most severe skeletal injuries are fairly obvious; if your dog cannot put weight on a limb or is extremely ginger about putting weight on a limb (ie toe touching only enough to move other limbs forward) then s/he likely has a fracture or severely torn tendon/ ligament and should be evacuated immediately.
Unfortunately, it’s the milder injuries, ones that can still cause long-term damage that can really sneak in there. As a vet that sees TONS of torn CCL’s (the doggy equivalent to a human’s ACL) and knows that the typical surgery repair here in Alaska is around $3,000-$4,000, I am far more conservative about musculoskeletal injuries than the average person. However, it can be sometimes hard to determine when lameness is due to soreness and arthritis, or a recent injury.
In general, soreness from extra miles on the trail and arthritis are something that improve as you warm up and get moving; while injuries or strains that are more severe and damage-causing tend to get worse with movement.
Age should also be considered here. So if your 8 year old dog is acting a little stiff and limping the morning you wake up in camp but starts moving better once you are on the trail for the day, you are probably OK to keep going. If your 3 year old knucklehead, hyperactive dog that was zooming around nonstop yesterday wakes up limping and it doesn’t improve with movement or even gets worse, time to evacuate.
Dogs don’t limp for attention, lameness is a sign of pain. An injury doesn’t necessarily mean your 3 year old dog will be moving any slower or whining or yelping, but if they are consistently limping or lame on a limb, that limb is causing discomfort and needs to be protected and eventually examined.
Lastly, please for the love of dog, evacuate with your dog on a leash. If you suspect a musculoskeletal injury and are evacuating 3 miles, your off leash dog is likely running 6-9 miles. This will not be doing them any favors for their injured limb. Leash them up, go slow, and prevent them from tearing off after some squirrel or deer and further injuring themselves.
Insert joke about naked dogs here. OK, now that that’s out of our system (and no, your dog shouldn’t be naked when hiking, s/he should have a collar or harness with proper identification in case of getting lost) we’ll be talking about heat and cold exposure. Luckily most dogs, even very short haired dogs, tend to do pretty well in the cold as long as they are permitted to move around enough to keep warm. Shaking, shivering, or paw dancing are all signs of dogs getting too cold and the obvious thing to do is warm them up. Dry them off, stuff them in a jacket, put booties on, get them moving faster, etc. to generate body heat.
However, the other side of the temperature spectrum isn’t so nice (also I’m Alaskan so I hate intense heat ... ). Heat exhaustion is a very serious and common issue for dogs. The big takeaway here is: dogs don’t know when to stop. They want to please, they want to stay with you, they want to keep chasing that ball and darned if a little heat is going to stop them. It’s a management issue, as an owner, caretaker, guardian, pet parent, whatever you call yourself, YOU have to ensure that your dog isn’t overdoing it and overheating. The early signs of heat exhaustion are excessive panting, drooling, bright or brick red gums, incoordination (tripping more often on rocks or roots), and poor recovery time. This means if you have been resting in the shade for 10 minutes or so and your dog’s symptoms aren’t normalizing, s/he is likely entering heat exhaustion.
When heat exhaustion progresses, we can start to see vomiting, diarrhea, reduced mentation (acting dazed and confused), and collapse. At this stage immediate evacuation is paramount and it is very likely you will have to be carrying your dog out. Water or other liquids should be applied to the paws, belly/chest, and face/ear flaps, if possible, and seek veterinary attention immediately. The big thing to remember with this is it doesn’t happen instantly or without cause. If you pay attention, this can be the easiest disease to prevent.
The Bottom Line
While these are some of the most common issues I see in active dogs, this discussion is just the tip of the iceberg. Every dog is different, and not just because they are special to you; physically there are different breeds and conformations, coats, and facial structures. All of these differences change how your dog will do in an active outdoor setting. When you add in preexisting health conditions, old injuries, behavioral responses, etc. predicting what can be the greatest risk to your dogs’ health in the outdoors is hard. Because of this, the BEST source of information for your dogs’ health should be a discussion you have with their veterinarian.
If you missed it, be sure to check out the previous article written by Dr. Julie: 4 Unfabulous Things to Consider Before Adventuring with Your Dog!
Dr. Julie Stafford is a veterinarian with a passion for the outdoors. After spending 5 years in a clinical veterinary setting, she decided to take her skills to the road and now owns and operates 2 Tails Veterinary Services out of a sprinter van that travels a 12,000 sq mile swath across Alaska. As a vet she focuses on education and preventive health, believing that teaching clients animal wellness is the best antidote to illness.
Both a veterinarian, and a certified Wilderness First Responder, Dr. Julie realized there is a severe lack of resources available regarding wilderness medicine for animals. She created K9 Wild Med to educate and empower people to safely recreate with their four legged family members. Tag along with the vet-van life @2tailsvet and follow @k9wildmed for more canine wilderness safety.
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My dog has done hundreds of trail miles… Border Collie/Spaniel mix. She often has problems with her foot pads— at night, she will spend time licking her pads. I just assumed she was foot sore, but upon closer examination, I have learned that she appears to get blisters under the pads, and the pads start to fall off or peel back. This leaves very raw flesh exposed to the trail, etc. On our last trip. I had to carry her (all 40 pounds) for a full day because all of her pads on all four feet were gone (this section of the PCT had lots of volcanic rock that appeared to be quite abrasive). We often average 20 miles per day, and that may just be too much for a dog. But I am planning to use soft leather booties for our next long-distance trek…. the standard nylon/rubber booties cause injuries, but I have heard of a company on the internet that makes leather booties that, purportedly, prevent loss of toe pads.