Safety Tips For Hiking With Your Dog!
Taking your dog hiking can be an amazing experience that creates and deep bond between human and canine. When we take our four-legged friends with us on a hike, we need to keep their safety in mind. As a veterinarian, my dogs’ safety and health is always a top priority for me. Here are some important safety considerations before hitting the trail with your furry friend.
Is Your Dog Healthy Enough To Hike?
Hiking is strenuous work! Our dogs love us, want to be with us, and want to please us. They will push themselves to keep up and they will likely not complain about it. It is our job to make sure they are in good enough physical condition for the hike we choose.
Go to your vet! No surprise here, but a physical exam by your friendly neighborhood veterinarian is the first step to see if your pet is healthy enough to start hiking! Your vet should do a full physical exam, a range of motion of all joints, and possibly even bloodwork if you have a senior pet.
No matter how active your pet is, it is always a good idea to ease into a new activity. Just like us, dogs need to be conditioned for new exercises. Start with shorter hikes to get your pet’s feet and muscles up to par.
Consider your pet’s body condition score(BCS), which is basically BMI for animals. Americans are used to seeing overweight dogs. I cannot tell you how many times a client has asked me if their beautiful perfectly toned dog is too thin! Even my own parents have yelled at me that my dogs are too thin! We are so used to seeing heavy dogs, that dogs with a good BCS look thin too us! An overweight dog will have a harder time with a strenuous hike. They will have more stress on their joints, their cardiovascular system, and they will overheat easier.
Like people, dogs breeds have different frames and carry weight differently. An English Lab with a perfect body condition score will look different than a perfect Greyhound. There are a few universal things you should look for when assessing if your dog is too heavy.
When you look at your dog from the side, you should see a nice tuck up near his waist area. When you look from the top, you should see a waist! Some breeds have more than others, but it should be there!
When you brush your hands against your dogs’ ribs you should just be able to feel them. You should also be able to feel the top of their spine as you pet along their top line! If you are not sure if they are the right weight, ask your vet!
Age should be a consideration. A large breed dog is considered a senior dog at the age of seven. I know, so young! At this point, you may want to consider less strenuous hikes for them in general. Also, switching to a senior dog food with fewer calories and joint supplements is a good idea! Senior bloodwork is a great idea before embarking on any kind of strenuous hiking or training program. It will asses your dogs’ internal organ function, blood count, thyroid function, etc.
Pick Your Hike With Your Dog in Mind:
Terrain needs to be considered. A very rocky or steep hike may not be a good idea. Dogs don’t wear shoes and I have done my fair share of laceration repairs on paw pads (they take FOREVER to heal) and broken nails. Make sure your pet’s nails are trimmed to avoid this! Conditioning your pet’s feet by training for a hike will help. Their pads will get harder and more calloused with training.
I bring booties on long hikes in case I notice abrasions or signs of stress on the pads. Things like redness or irritation. I also check their feet several times a day when hiking long distances to make sure they are doing OK. There are products like Musher’s Secret that sled dogs use that also may help, but I do not have personal experience with them.
Avoid hikes with a lot of scrambling or rock climbing as your pets may not be able to keep up, or may freak out when you try to carry them!
Avoid the Heat and Bring Lots of Food and Water!
Dogs do not sweat. They cool down by panting and they are less efficient at it than humans. I recommend you avoid hiking in the heat of the day with your dog.
Bring a lot of water and a collapsible water bowl for your dog on every hike. I trained Quinn to drink directly from a water bottle, which has been helpful. Stop frequently and offer your pet water. They may be too excited to ask for it, so we need to offer it to them!
Increase their calories for the day. Hiking burns energy, so bring high-quality snacks that your dog is used to with you. Offer them small amounts of food frequently! Try not to introduce new or rich snacks for the first time on the trial as this can lead to GI upset!
Watch for signs of heat stress, such as excessive rapid panting, seeking shade, trying to stop or lay down, moving slowly, or acting confused or lethargic. If your pet wants to stop hiking, please listen to them. Do not force them to go on. Seek shade and offer them water.
If I can, I try to only do hikes that have streams, ponds, or lakes in the summer so the pups can cool down easily when they need to.
Most states and parks have strict leash laws (six feet or less). Some places allow pets off leash but under strict voice control. Research your park and know the law! Also, know your pet. If they do not easily come when called or if you have a hound/hound mix, then off leash hiking may not be a great idea. Even if your pet is friendly, they may run up to an unfriendly dog that is on a leash!
I have to put a blurb in here about retractable leads. I hate them! I think all veterinary professionals and likely all runners hate them. Pets on retractable leads are not under good control. They are too far from their owners to be reigned in if something happens. The leashes themselves can cause burns and get pets tangled up. Use a quality six-foot leash to hike your pet. Make sure your dog comes when called if your pet is going to be off leash!
Flea and Tick Control:
Ticks are out there people! They carry diseases that can affect both you and your dog. Lyme disease, Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to name a few. When I started out in veterinary medicine in upstate NY seeing a Lyme positive dog was rare. Now we see several positive snap testes a week!
The best line of defense is a high-quality flea and tick preventative. Use what your veterinarian recommends. There are a lot of products on the market but some are better than others. Currently, I use the Seresto Collar on my dogs and have been very happy with it. Talk to your veterinarian and find out what works for your pet. There are topical products, oral products, and the Seresto Collar. I also recommend you buy these products from your vet and not offline. Often the offline products are often not backed up by the manufacturer!
Check your pet after each hike for ticks. Getting ticks off quickly is one of the best things you can do to prevent the spread of disease. Make sure to check in their ears and between their toes! bringing a tick remover and flea comb on hikes is a great idea.
There is also a number of Lyme vaccines available talk to your veterinarian to see if they are right for your pet.
Nothing is 100% effective so yearly Lyme testing is recommended. I will likely write a more detailed Lyme disease and your dog post in the near future!
Let people know where you are going and be “on call” in case you or your pet get into trouble! Hiking with dogs is the best, but it can be unpredictable! For a good example of this, read my post about my 42 miles on the Appalachian trail with Quinn and the SIX bears we saw! We had an exit plan and ultimately needed it!
Adventure on, people!