by Seth Bynum, DVM
My lifelong love of summer started to fade when bird dogs became part of my life. The once intense and pining anticipation of summer break or dry fly season now feels supplanted by a longing for crisp air and the flush of wings.
Most summer training articles focus on hydration and heat, two areas where a healthy dose of common sense can help avoid most life-threatening complications. But other, more common summer ailments from Mother Nature’s arsenal are statistically more likely to leave you with preseason headaches and veterinary bills, particularly when unnoticed or left unaddressed.
Throughout much of the country, particularly in the northern latitudes, swimsuit season has become synonymous with grass awn season. Many training grounds, dog parks and other unfarmed landscapes become littered with a variety of pokey, opportunistic awn-bearing species that have evolved over millennia to grab hold of animal fur and hang on for dear life. As a young vet building my skills along the cheatgrass-choked slopes of the Snake River, we more than earned our modest salaries each summer chasing down that ambitious seed from every imaginable orifice of the canine anatomy.
Most awns have a small barb where they attach to the parent plant. When unsheathed and exposed, this structure willingly embeds in the hair (often between the dog’s toes) and slowly shimmies closer to the skin, boring into the flesh in one direction. At this stage, this seed begins to wreak havoc in our bird dogs. Organic material and bacteria are pulled under the skin by the migrating awn, which crawls forward relentlessly with each movement from its canine host, sowing localized pain and significant infection in its path. Awns that are inadvertently inhaled, swallowed or bore in the chest skin and find their way to the thorax, cause potentially life-threatening lung infections. More commonly, dogs present with swelling and draining between the toes a day or so after a romp in grass awn country.
While most dogs recover well once the prickly perpetrator is found and removed, prevention is by far the most productive approach. These awns start loosely attached to the hair, so early detection will undoubtedly save you a headache and an equally painful veterinary bill. I’m a huge proponent of the tailgate check, particularly for fuzzy-faced dogs or breeds with a long or wiry coat. Look under the ear flaps, between all the toes, armpits and groin for rogue awns. Don’t neglect to inspect the external genital area, especially in females or younger males that squat to urinate.
Other than adoration by a handful of entomologists, disdain for ticks runs universally in the bird dog world and beyond and for good reason. While we could devote an entire issue to ticks and tick-borne diseases that span different regions of the country, the most common questions I receive from dog owners regarding these pesky bloodsuckers revolve around my preventive of choice. The answer I give factors in a hunter’s preference for convenience, budget and perceived efficacy of oral-versus-topical administration.
For my dogs, I Iean towards the convenience and simplicity of three-month dosing of oral Bravecto. Like the vast majority of my patients, my food-motivated team takes the flavored chew without question. The ingredient in the tasty morsel does its job well. As our spring and early summer activities draw us outdoors, we find an occasional embedded (but dead) tick in their fur. I consider this a minor inconvenience since I usually remove a few dozen from my clothing after the same outing.
I chose the oral route for two significant reasons. First, I don’t enjoy the greasy smear of topical medications on my dogs. While cosmetics are a poor justification for tinkering with a summertime necessity, I don’t want the oily base smeared on my clothing or hands when I’m training or giving them affection. As an added annoyance, tick season overlaps swimming and training seasons where I live, and I’m not willing to keep my team out of the water when I rely on swimming for duck searches and cool-down breaks.
While not a significant benefit, the convenience of three-month dosing does spare me the inconvenience of extra labor when my hunting and training schedules already compete with the limited free time left after I leave the clinic.
Those of us who spend time in snake country openly debate the pros and cons of the rattlesnake vaccine. As a veterinarian who hunts and previously practiced in the heart of rattler country, clients routinely inquire about my views on this controversial immunization. First, understand that the vaccine purportedly offers protection against multiple strains of pit viper venom. It works by providing a low-dose introduction to the venom, allowing the dog’s immune system the opportunity to prepare an effective and reasonable response in the event of an actual envenomation. I’ve seen strikes cause life-threatening illness when the dog’s immune response to the venom – not the venom itself – triggers a scorched-earth-type reaction.
Support for the vaccine among veterinarians seems to vary by region of the country, and by extension, the endemic pit vipers found in those areas. In central Idaho, we felt as if the vaccine helped make bite reactions less severe overall and routinely administered it for bird dogs and other breeds that spent time in snake country. I’ve interviewed colleagues in South Dakota who agreed with that assessment of the vaccine’s utility, while others in the snakey Southwest felt the vaccine did more harm than good.
Regardless of the veterinarian’s perspective, it’s hard to ignore that the supporting research into the vaccine is weak at best. Anecdotal experiences, not rock-solid science, drive the recommendation from your vet and keep the tailgate debate over its use going strong. I don’t vaccinate my dogs against rattlers, but instead, I rely on avoidance during active times. My own phobia (based on past traumatic encounters) for encountering spicy buzztails keeps me out of snake territory until they’ve denned up for the winter.
While my mind now exists in myopic fixation on September despite the summer heat, my dogs live permanently in the here-and-now and harbor no qualms about letting me know they love and need work year-round. With these strategies in your tool kit, you can safely squeeze the most out of those last summer tune-up sessions before we hit the grouse woods again in fall.