The good news– winter is coming! For those whose four-legged friends love winter, it’s also time to consider how to have fun and stay safe in the backcountry. From paws to tails, it is important to prevent, or be able to treat, common injuries and illnesses.
1. Check-up time!
Before starting any adventure, winter or summer, it’s important to ask: Is my dog healthy? Many dogs will follow their owners until they can no longer walk. They are incredibly loyal, trusting creatures. Dogs (like humans) must be fit and ready before tackling the trail. Speak to your vet about your plans, and consider age, breed, size, and fitness level when selecting your next adventure. Overweight animals will put additional wear and tear on joints, as well as overheat more easily during exercise. “Weekend warrior” dogs may be at more risk of tearing their CCL (dog equivalent of the ACL), and some breeds may be more susceptible to frostbite than others. Your once-a-year “well-dog” visit to the vet is a great time to ask these questions.
2. Keep cool (or warm)!
Imagine walking around in a fur coat, with only the surface of your hands, feet, and mouth to dissipate heat. Dogs can only sweat through their paws, or pant to loose heat by evaporation. Even on days that feel cold to us, it is possible that with intense exercise your dog can get very warm. While heat exhaustion and heat stroke are not common winter problems, it is still important to make sure that your dog has access to water (not just snow) to prevent dehydration. Conversely, if you are stopped for a period of time or have a dog with very short, thin hair (i.e. greyhounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and pointers), you should consider how to keep your dog warm. Even Iditarod mushers are careful with their shorter-haired dogs when they stop for the night. Learn what makes your dog comfortable, and be sure to bring water and a dog coat, if needed, on your next adventure. In all cases, your dog is going to be burning a lot of calories to stay warm, so plan accordingly and bring snacks or extra dog food on long trips.
Helpful first-aid additions: Thermometer, insulating layer (especially for the stomach if the dog is going to be laying down), Extra food, and lots of clean water.
3. Watch the feet!
Dogs make contact with the ground with specially designed pads, which can toughen over time if exposed to rough terrain. They also were recently shown to have counter-current blood flow, which keep the feet warm even in very cold weather. However, feet are also some of the more common injuries, and can prevent you from getting back to the trailhead. Watch for things that can puncture pads, and be sure to keep them as free of ice balls as possible. Too-long nails can break at the quick, and can be very painful. Bringing along well-fitted dog boots, like RuffWear TrekBoots or, in winter, musher’s boots, can make a big difference in the health and happiness of your dog. Lastly, skis can slice through a dog’s skin, severing tendons in the lower leg and leading to debilitating, permanent injury. Be very, very cautious and train your dog carefully to avoid this common backcountry ski accident.
Helpful first-aid additions: Boots (well-fitted), tweezers (for removing debris from pads) gauze squares, septic powder (for broken nails), cloth tape, and Vetwrap (the wonder product brought to you by the people that made sticky notes! Find it at the vet, a local Agway, or in the first-aid section. An Ace-bandage for your dog).
Fun tip: One way to prevent ice/snow ball formation on long-haired dogs is to use PAM spray, or ShowSheen (usually for horses, find in a tack store). Musher’s Secret is a specific formula just for feet as well. None work for more than an hour, but it can at least keep the worst fur balls at bay.
4. Dog vs. nature.
Luckily, many of the critters that you might encounter in summer, such as rattlesnakes, porcupines, and stinging insects, are nowhere to be found in winter. With that said, it is still possible for wildlife and terrain to take advantage of your dog’s lust for adventure. Be extra cautious around ice d-over ponds and snow formations that could trap a dog. Any wildlife you come across is already working hard to survive, so make sure your dog has a reliable recall or bring a leash so animals aren’t harassed. Lastly, avalanches are just as deadly for dogs as they are for people. While it may seem like a good idea to attach an old avy beacon to your dog, keep in mind that if there is a burial it is impossible to distinguish your dog buddy’s signal from your human partner’s. The newest Pieps transceivers can be set to two frequencies, and you can purchase a dog signal specific beacon. Perhaps the best alternative, however, is to leave your 4-legged partner behind on higher danger days.
Helpful first aid additions: Beware drowning and suffocation injuries, and only use a dog-specific avalanche beacon (if you use one at all).
Winter is coming, along with special health concerns for outdoor dogs. Have a great, and fun, winter season!