December 05, 2023
I saw the warning sign just after I told my buddy that his Lab, Bo, had earned an extra cup of chow and some beef broth for supper. Bo had been in and out of the layouts all morning, making retrieves on eiders in calm water at slack low and in heavy current when the tide rolled in.
When Bo wasn’t dodging ice flows, he made retrieve after retrieve in the frigid, slushy slop. In case you were wondering, saltwater freezes at 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Bo was curled up on the deck and shivering. I pulled out the thermometer and it spoke loud and clear: 98 degrees. We picked up our blocks and headed in. Bo was too cold.
We all live for fast-paced late-season gunning action, but the weather this time of year can be brutal on dogs. According to Russ Kelley, Eukanuba Scientific Services Nutritionist, hypothermia is the leading injury to dogs hunting in the cold, late season.
"It's really important to be vigilant about hypothermia—an extreme lowering of a dog’s core body temperature," he says. "A dog's normal temperature ranges between 101 and 102.5 degrees. Making retrieves in cold water, followed by sitting wet for long periods of time, causes core temperatures to drop. Dogs become hypothermic when their core temperatures drop below 95 degrees."
There are a few leading causes of hypothermia. Wet retrievers that are exposed to cold temperatures or stiff winds are impacted most. Wet bird dogs that sit in uninsulated kennels in the back of a breezy truck bed can suffer, too. Snow stuck in paw pads can lower a dog’s core body temperature, just as snowballs that gather and sit against the skin of long-haired dogs can literally chill them to the bone.
"A dog's low core body temperature causes its heart rate and breathing to slow down," says Kelley. "As a result, its circulatory, respiratory, nervous and muscular systems slow down, too. Then, when the dog is suddenly commanded to jump out of a boat to make a retrieve or gets pulled from its kennel to run a covert, that activity of running, jumping or swimming forces its slow bodily functions to speed up. Friction comes when the dog’s body is pushed to the max, and it can create a really bad situation."
KNOW THE SIGNS
Recognizing hypothermia isn’t always easy, but there are a few indicators to keep an eye out for.
- Dogs shiver when they’re excited just as they do when they’re cold. You’ll need to cross-reference your dog’s normal excited behavior to know if he’s cold. One way to do so is by time. If you’re 15 minutes into the hunt, your dog is probably shivering from excitement. If you’re a few hours into a hunt and your dog has made multiple water retrieves and he’s shivering, the excitement has likely worn off and he’s probably cold.
- Violent, uncontrollable shaking is almost always an indicator of hypothermia.
- Disorientation, weaving and stumbling while walking are symptoms of hypothermia. Fur and skin that is cold to the touch and pale-blue gums are others. When these are combined with a listless and apathetic attitude, it’s time to get your dog some help.
WHAT TO DO
If you're concerned that your dog is in danger, take a reading with a rectal thermometer. Once a dog is identified as hypothermic, treatment must begin immediately. Time is of the essence, so start by drying off the dog with a towel. When the dog is dry, move him to a warm (but not hot) spot as quickly as possible. Common areas might be near a heater in a blind, under a fleece jacket or in the back seat of a truck with the heater turned on. Be sure the dog is not lying on wet, cold ground, as any heat gains will be immediately lost.
Other issues accompany hypothermia, too. Frostbite is one, and though it doesn’t impact the dog's internal organs, it does affect its extremities. Look for pale, gray or blushing skin on a dog's toes, ears, tail and scrotum. To treat frostbite, move your dog to a warm, dry area as soon as possible. Neither hypothermia nor frostbite is something to take lightly, and if you're in question about either, head directly to a veterinarian.
Transition indoor dogs to the cold, late-season weather gradually. Outdoor-kennel dogs have been outside as the summer transitioned to fall and then winter. They're used to the cold. Indoor dogs that live in warm, dry places and then are called into action for a weekend hunt are most likely to suffer. A workaround is to get them ready to hunt. As temperatures drop, work your dog in the colder temperatures. Make some retrieves in cold water for short periods of time. Progressively increase that amount of time until it approximates the duration of an actual hunt. Dry off bird dogs before loading them up, and make sure their kennels are insulated. A pad serves as a buffer between the truck bed and their body. A kennel lined with hay works, too.
We don't stop hunting because it’s cold outside, but just as we layer up to stay warm, we've got to keep our eyes on our dogs. They can't tell us they're freezing, so it’s up to us to keep them safe.
- Products to keep dogs safe in cold weather.
- Neoprene Vest: When properly fit, a neoprene vest adds insulation and blocks the wind. Make sure the vest isn't too loose; a loose vest can hold cold water, which is worse for the dog.
- Musher's Secret: Coat a bird dog’s paw pads with Musher’s Secret. It’s a wax used on sled dogs that keeps balls of snow and ice out of the dog's pads.
- Dog Blind: A blind does more than conceal a retriever from inbound ducks. It keeps the wind off him, too.
- Stand: If you're hunting flooded timber, a stand mounted to a tree will keep your dog above the water line between retrieves.