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June 8, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: The hills are alive...

Ohlone Humane Society: The hills are alive...

By Nancy Lyon

This year's unpredictable and prolonged "off-again, on-again" spring weather has the hills and fields gloriously blooming with what must be every plant in the area. And beautiful though it may now be, the tall green grasses and other plants will soon dry out and become a danger to the unwary hiker and in particular their four-legged trail buddies.

The lure to tramp through the open spaces will invite a lot of dog folks, and exploring the natural wonders we are so fortunate to have in our area can be a great experience to share with your dog. Unfortunately, while out there enjoying nature myself, I've seen dogs unthinkingly allowed by their guardians to behave in ways that put them at serious risk.

So before you hit the trail, it's important that you look at those golden hills and fields with an educated and wary eye. Soon, much of the grasses covering the area will be comprised of dangerous foxtails, with ticks lurking 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, not to mention messy digestive tract results and pricey vet bills to correct the problem.

Trail Basics 101 -

Foxtails - Many people are unfamiliar with hazards to their dog from these opportunistic seeds. But if you've ever hiked during the dry season months, you've probably pulled a few of these nasty critters from your socks They are the wheat-like seeds of the drying or dried grasses that detach from the plant and stick to a person's clothes or an animal's coat. They can easily become lodged in between a dog's toes, in his ears, and in his eyes. Since the seeds or awns are barbed like a fish hook, they can be very difficult to remove. Once embedded, they can travel through their body causing severe pain, infection and abscesses, even puncturing an eye or ear drum... and, again, expensive vets costs to remove them before they cause greater damage.

Depending on the location of the sharp pointed awns, symptoms can include persistent sneezing or coughing, headshaking, or compulsive licking and biting at a paw or around the groin or tail 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 small, making locating them difficult and the procedure expensive. Depending on where a foxtail seed has traveled to inside a dog, it can even be life threatening, requiring prompt surgical removal.

Stream water hazards - Giardia can infect a dog that drinks from a stream where feces from cattle or wild animals have 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 (cysts) and is passed in the feces. The Giardia in the feces can contaminate the environment and water and infect other animals and people.

Often Giardia infections show no symptoms but when it does the usual sign is diarrhea. Diarrhea may be acute, intermittent, or chronic. Usually the infected animals will not lose their appetite, but they may lose weight. Feces are often abnormal, being pale, having a bad odor, and appearing 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, not a fun thing for your dog or you.

Blood sucking critters - Ticks - must be one of Nature's bad jokes. They are disease carrying parasites 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 flattish, depending on location, and sometimes legs are visible. Check with your veterinarian beforehand on the method of proper removal. It's good to check yourself out too; ticks carry Lyme disease, a serious health threat that can infect dogs and humans alike.

Weather dangers - 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 blocks that are suitable for animals but check the labels carefully to be sure.

Many of our parks have cattle/wildlife grazing. For the safety of your dog and out of respect for the cattle and wildlife - leash your dog when you encounter them. You are a visitor in their home.

Safe hiking tips summary:

* 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 overextend himself.
* Leash your dog when encountering cattle or wildlife.

Happy Hiking!

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