Let’s just say that you have already decided your dog is going with you on a long-distance hike with you, despite reading “Long Distance Hiking With a Dog: Don’t Do It!”, if you are going to do it, let’s just make sure you are not going to be an asshole and get your dog hurt. Of course, if you are reading this, you are intending on getting all the info that is out there and taking the best care of your pooch, and you are probably not going to be an asshole. Good. Now we can move on. Sorry I may have implied you might be an asshole. I am sure you are a good person.
Here are some medical considerations for before you hit the trail (start some of these 2+ months before your departure date). In a future post, I will discuss on-trail first aid in the sad and scary event your dog tears a pad, gets quilled by a porcupine, gets a water-borne illness, or gets bitten by a rattlesnake.
Pre-Hike Vaccines and Preventives
On top of the routine vaccinations your dog gets, consider what etiologic agents are of concern in the backcountry where you are going out, as well as the types of bugs and snakes you could encounter in that area. Especially know/ask about the serious ones: lyme disease, heartworm, leptospirosis, rattlesnakes, etc. If you do decide to get new vaccines, make sure you get them boostered (if they require one) well before you go out so that your dog has time to build immunity before you hit the trail. Also, make sure you do not get them at the same time as other vaccines, if possible. Not only does that let your dog’s immune system work more efficiently on the antibodies for that particular agent, but if there is any type of vaccine reaction, you will know which vaccine your dog is reacting to.
Leptospirosis,”lepto” is a very serious bacterial illness that your dog can acquire by drinking untreated backcountry water and can be transmitted to you from your dog (http://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/). I, personally recommend getting your dog vaccinated for it, since your dog will most likely be drinking lots of untreated water and because this illness can be fatal. Again, make sure your dog gets the last injection (if he/she hasn’t gotten it before, you usually have to get 2 injections) at least 2 weeks before you leave. Try and find a vet who stocks the lepto vax as a lone vaccine, not as a combination, unless you have had the combination done on your dog in the past. Ask your vet where on your dog the injection was given and watch the injection site, as well as your dog, closely for any reaction. Reactions to lepto vaccine are more common than many other canine vaccines.
If you are going somewhere that has rattlesnakes, you might consider rattlesnake aversion training (I have heard really good things about this but haven’t done it) and/or the rattlesnake vaccine. The vaccine is a series, so make sure you start them well in advance of your trip. They will not protect your dog 100% from rattlesnake bites, but they will buy you some time to get to a vet if he/she does get bit.
Lyme Disease is a big deal in many parts of the U.S. and acquired by the bite of an infected tick. (http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/stats/maps/interactivemaps.html) Know if you are going into those areas and consider the vaccine for your dog if you don’t already get this vaccination. You should also consider flea/tick preventive in these areas. I have used Vectra 3D and Parastar Plus on my dog. It can be applied to your dog and will be good for up to a month. I prefer the ones that you get at your vet because they are guaranteed by the drug company for efficacy and in case of reactions. They do kinda stink, so I only recommend it if you are going somewhere where the risks of getting the disease is high, vs. the small risk of dousing your dog with chemicals (who is snuggling in your sleeping bag with you). Apply it several days before you go to let the odor/greasiness dissipate.
Heartworms are life-threatening to your dog. They are actual worms that invade the dog’s heart, and the disease is acquired from infected mosquitoes. If you don’t already do a year-round heartworm preventive, check whether you are going into an area where heartworms are common (https://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/incidence-maps). Chances are if you are hiking a long distance, you will go into an area where it occurs, as experts are saying that it is spreading contry-wide in the U.S. If you don’t usually do the annual heartworm preventive, make sure that you have your dog tested for heartworm before starting him/her on the preventive. It’s important to test her/him before, because if your dog is already infected and you start him/her on the preventive, it can make him/her very sick. The preventive is in a tablet form and you give it monthly. Again, you can get it from your vet.
The cost is already adding up. Are you changing your mind about bringing your dog yet? No? Okay, read on.
If you are going out for several months, don’t forget to stock up and carry or mail the monthly preventives in your bounce box or resupply boxes. Your vet will prescribe you several months’ worth, but if you are far away from home and you run out, you may have to pay for an exam before another vet will prescribe them. It will cost you more in the long run.
Also, before you head out to an area, consider looking up the phone numbers and addresses of the veterinary clinics and emergency vet clinics in the towns you will be passing by and enter them into your phone or keep them written down.
Probably the most common injury to backpacking dogs are injured paw pads and torn toenails. Both can bring your hike to a halt. Before your hike, make sure to toughen up his/her pads and cut his/her nails. Sage plays a lot of fetch, and we ramp it up even more before a long hike. Because of this, he has never ripped a pad, not even while walking on cinder, granite, or obsidian. His nails also continue to grow on trail, despite the mileage. So, I cut them right before we go, and then usually have to send his nail trimmers in a box about a month later. It also helps to protect the tent floor when they are shorter.