Hunting involves a lot of preparation. Bird hunters are busy trading stories about where upland game bird and pheasant populations have been sighted, servicing vehicles so they are ready for weekend excursions and checking and repairing gear.
One bird hunter’s tool that might get overlooked is the family dog, if he or she doubles as a bird hunting dog.
Dr. Jennifer Rockwell, of Montana Veterinary Services and General Care in Helena, recently met with the Helena Valley Gun Dog Club to talk about conditioning and field first aid for hunting dogs.
“Dogs need regular exercise year round just like people to prevent significant fluctuations in body tone,” Rockwell said. “If they are not in top condition there may be some obvious indications they are not ready to hunt such as lameness, stiffness, or reluctance to exercise. Or, there may be no obvious signs of trouble until the hunting begins.”
Heed any early warning signs, identify the underlying causes and remedy them before working a dog.
“I also don’t like to see a dog’s weight vary by more than five or ten percent over the course of a year,” she said. Though this is a general guideline that depends on the breed and what constitutes a healthy base weight, Rockwell said a dog that gains or loses significant weight for no obvious reason should be checked by a vet. A dog that gains significant weight in the off season and that is hunted heavily could develop a variety of fairly serious health issues including joint and muscle problems.
Rockwell said most hunting dogs benefit from higher quantities of protein and fat in their food during the hunting season if they are heavily worked. During the actual hunt, offer small amounts of water and feed a very small meal every few hours to prevent dehydration and hypoglycemia.
When the dog’s exercise level decreases in the off season, the owner can either decrease the quantity of food or switch to a lower fat food for those less active periods.
The period directly after a hunt is a time that should be managed attentively by the dog owner, Rockwell said.
“After a hunt, the dog needs to rest until its heart and respiration rates decrease,” Rockwell said. “Allow it to drink small amounts of water. After the first hour and when the dog is calm, allow it to eat a small portion of food, but never a full-sized meal.”
Over feeding or watering dogs with deep chests following heavy exertion can sometimes contribute to bloat and stomach torsion or twisting. A canine stomach greatly enlarged that is hollow sounding and accompanied by non-productive retching should be considered a medical emergency that requires immediate attention from a vet, Rockwell said.
“Stomach bloating can lead to torsion, or twisting of the stomach on its axis which cuts off circulation to the spleen and stomach. This is a life-threatening situation,” she said. Some owners of pointers, German shepherds, Great Danes, mastiffs and other deep-chested breeds opt for a preventive gastropexy, a surgery that attaches the stomach to the abdominal wall to prevent torsion.
Rockwell encourages dog owners to remember that their hunting companion will benefit physically from a warm up, just like people do, and from an orderly cool down period including running, walking and resting phases.
Even with proper canine care and handling, emergencies occur. That is when a well stocked first aid kit comes into play. The kit contents Rockwell recommends are everyday items, but they can be critically important when a hunter is in the field with their dog and at some distance from emergency veterinary service.