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June 12, 2007 > Danger on the trail

Danger on the trail

By Nancy Lyon

As cooler spring weather gives way to the warm summer months, the call of the open trail may speak to both you and your dog. Exploring the natural wonders we are so fortunate to have in our area can be some of the greatest times you will share together.

But before you hit the trail, it's important that you look at those golden hills and fields with an educated eye. This time of year, much of the grasses covering the area are comprised of dangerous foxtails, ticks lurk in bushes and tall grass, and that inviting cool stream often abounds with Giardia, a harmful parasite that can infect your dog and possibly you.

Many people are unfamiliar with hazards to their dog from foxtails. If you've ever hiked in the summer months, you've probably pulled a few of these nasty critters from your socks They are the wheat-like seeds of drying or dried grasses that detach from the plant and stick to a person's clothes or an animal's hair. They can easily become lodged in between a dog's toes, in his ears, and in his eyes. Since the seeds are barbed like a fish hook, they can be very difficult to remove. Once embedded, foxtail seeds cause severe infections and abscesses.

Depending on the location of the seed or seeds, symptoms can include persistent sneezing or coughing, headshaking, or compulsive licking and biting at a paw or around the groin or rectal area or whining and crying with no obvious or acute injury. In addition to causing pain and localized infections, foxtail seeds can migrate and lodge in the spine, in the lungs and in other internal organs. They enter through the nose, ears, paws, eyes, and urethra or just through the skin and travel through the body. The seeds are very small, making locating them a painful, difficult and expensive procedure. Depending on where a foxtail seed has traveled inside a dog, it can even be life threatening and require prompt surgical removal.

Giardia can infect a dog that drinks from a stream where feces from cattle or wild animals come to drink. A dog becomes infected by eating or drinking the cyst form of the parasite. In the small intestine, the cyst opens and releases an active form that attaches itself to the intestinal wall and reproduces by dividing. After an unknown number of divisions, at some stage, this form develops a wall around itself (encysts) and is passed in the feces. Giardia in the feces can contaminate the environment and water, infecting other animals and people.

Often Giardia infections show no symptoms but when it does, the usual sign is diarrhea. The diarrhea may be acute, intermittent, or chronic. Usually infected animals will not lose their appetite, but they may lose weight. Feces are often abnormal, being pale, having a bad odor, and appear greasy. In the intestine, Giardia prevents proper absorption of nutrients, damages the delicate intestinal lining, and interferes with digestion; it can be very resistant to treatment. Basically, it is not a fun thing for your dog or you.

Ticks must be one of Nature's bad jokes. They are disease-carrying critters that hide out in grass and attach themselves to the unsuspecting passerby. Crawling up to bare skin or digging for it, if on a dog, the tick will bury its head under the skin layer and proceed to drink all the blood it can get.

We live in tick-country so during the summer season, a body check after a walk is essential. Rub your hands all over your dog's body, and your fingers through his fur, applying pressure, enough that you can feel any abnormalities in the skin. If you feel a small lump, pull the fur apart to investigate it further. An embedded tick will look like a small black or brown pimple, sometimes flat-ish, depending on location, and sometimes legs are visible. Check with your veterinarian beforehand on the method of proper removal. It's a good to check yourself out too; ticks can carry Lyme disease, a serious health threat that can infect dogs and humans alike.

Consider the temperature before you set out. A warm morning means that it will be a trek back in the hotter part of the day. Never walk or hike with your dog mid-day when the weather is warm, keep to early morning for any kind of exercise. Carry enough fresh water, rest frequently, and make sure there is shade along the way for a rest stop.

Remember that snub-nosed dogs like Pugs have difficulty breathing in warm weather, and older, over-weight, or heavy coated dogs are more subject to heat exhaustion. Don't set out on a long hike if your dog isn't physically able to handle the distance - work up to longer walks. Out of loyalty, dogs will over-extend themselves to keep up with their human so it's up to you to give careful consideration to their well-being. Don't be so taken with the scenery that you forget that half your journey is the trip back and it's going to be hotter.

People don't often give much thought to the fact that our four-legged companions can also get sun-burned. White and lightly colored animals can suffer sunburn from too much exposure to the sun and long-term sun exposure can lead to skin damage and in some cases, skin cancers. There are sun blockers that are suitable for animals but check the labels carefully to be sure.

Many of our parks have cattle grazing. For the safety of your dog and out of respect for the cattle and wildlife - leash your dog when you encounter them.

The basics for safe hiking:

Make sure your dog has a complete health check at the beginning of the year.
Where possible avoid walking through tall dry grasses.
Check thoroughly for ticks and foxtails immediately after your hike.
Carry enough fresh water for you and your dog. Avoid streams.
Prevent heat stroke by leaving and returning early
Don't ask your dog to over extend himself.
Leash your dog when encountering cattle or wildlife.

Happy Hiking!

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