Hiking with dogs is such a fun activity and a great way to tire your dog out! The Pacific Northwest is home to so many hiking trails in some truly gorgeous areas. Hiking is a great way to spend a day but there are some things to keep in mind when on the trails, as there are some possible dangers you can encounter. Here are some things to look out for, especially if you’re with a dog.
Steep Trail Edges
I’m the first to admit that I am a clumsy person with very little spatial awareness and I’ve definitely taken care of a few dogs that also don’t pay close attention to some things. This could be dangerous on trails along cliffs or ones with uneven terrain. Letting dogs off-leash can be a great way to hike but on trails with steep cliff edges, having your dog on a leash could prevent a major disaster.
Extreme Weather (Particularly Heat)
For some, the best times to hike are on sunny days in the spring and summer. Avoiding rain can be a true blessing sometimes but you don’t want to trade it for heat exhaustion. For you and your dog’s safety, avoid hiking on incredibly hot days and try to hike in the mornings, when it’s a bit cooler. Always bring enough water on the hike for you and your dogs, as dehydration is a major issue. If you have a dog with a dark coat, heart condition, or brachycephalic face (like a pug, bulldog, boxer, or Boston terrier), you’ll need to keep a very close eye on them, as these dogs are more prone to overheating.
- The Dog Travel Water Bottle and Packable Dog Bowl from Muttropolis are two great examples of ways you can carry/share water on hikes.
But the opposite weather can also be concerning for you and your pup and taking precauctions against winter dangers can make a big difference. Snowshoeing can be a ton of fun but freezing temperatures can be dangerous for some dogs and snow or ice can hurt their paws. Sweaters can help dogs that are more susceptible to cold weather and booties can protect your dog’s paws from the snow while also keeping them warm.
Contaminated Water and Poisonous Plants
Some dogs have absolutely no filter in regards to what they put in their mouths and this trait, at times, can put them in danger. It might be tempting to let your dog drink water they find along the trail but streams and stagnent water can have parasites or bacteria (like giardia or Leptospirosis) that will make your dog sick. These parasites/bacteria can even be fatal so keep an eye on your dog.
Like the rest of the planet, there are some poisonous and dangerous plants here in the Northwest. It’s best to just stop your dog from munching on things they find along the trail just to make sure they don’t accidentally eat something poisonous. According to the Environmental Services Office of the Washington State Department of Transportation, there are many types of poisonous plants in the state that cause contact dermatitis (skin irritation) in humans. The Washington Poison Center also has two lists, one of common nontoxic plants and another of common toxic plants.
Unsafe plants for humans to have contact with include poison ivy, giant hogweed, poison hemlock, spurges, stinging nettles, and poison oak. These plants can cause skin irritation (particularly when the area is exposed to the sun) but other plants, like climbing nightshade, can be toxic if ingested. For dogs, toxic plants include Angelica trees, rhododendrons, buttercups, coffee trees, climbing nightshade, garlic, chrysanthemums, and skunk cabbage. For the most part, some of these plants are fine for dogs to generally be around. It’s the consumption/ingestion of them that will get your dog into trouble.
But ingestion isn’t the only issue for dogs and plants, as foxtails can cause all sorts of issues by embedding into your dog’s paws, ears, eyes, nose, and other body parts. Foxtail is a broad term that’s used to describe different wild grass species. Seed heads of foxtails will fall off the grass at the beginning of summer and eventually break into tiny segments, which can easily catch on your dog’s fur or accidentally be inhaled. Foxtail symptoms include excessive sneezing (if foxtails are in the nose), head shaking, pawing at the eyes, bacterial infections, and skin issues like painful lumps, discharge from the foxtail’s point of entry, and visible abscesses.
Prevention of foxtails includes keeping your dog away from areas with foxtail grasses and removing foxtail grass from your yard but after every hike, you should check your dog for foxtails and brush your dog’s coat. For foxtails that you can easily get to, use tweezers to carefully remove them. But for ones that are embedded into your dog’s skin, ears, nose, or gums, contact your vet, as foxtails will not come out on their own. Treatment after removing the seeds is relatively easy but if your dog had a bacterial infection or abscess because of the experience, they’ll need antibiotics.
Overheating and overexertion can be dangerous for any dog but especially if they’re brachycephalic (have a short nose), a senior, or have some sort of health problem. If your dog is lagging behind you, limping, or having a really difficult time breathing, take a break so everyone can catch their breath and get some water. During that break, evaluate if you should keep going or turn back. Signs in your dog that you should turn back include rapid heart rate (even after resting), reddened gums, breathing problems, limping, or even licking a specific area (which could indicate a cut or abscess).
It can be disappointing to turn back before getting to the peak or end of a hike but the health of you, your dog, and others you’re hiking with are far more important. Some dogs can be carried (in fact, dog backpacks exist!) but then, you have to factor in carrying your dog for a period of time (or for the rest of the hike).
Puppies are also at risk for overexertion and injury and shouldn’t be on long, strenuous hikes. Doing too much exercise all at once can actually lead to other problems and injuries later in life because a dog’s growth plates are still developing when they’re puppies and too much exercise can damage their developing skeletal systems. A puppy’s growth plates are usually fused/closed when they’re 8-11 months but for some large and giant breeds, it might take 18-20 months for them to close. Make sure to talk with your vet before taking a young dog on a hike!
Most wild animals aren’t particularly fond of domestic dogs or people, especially if the dog starts chasing them. Interactions with wildlife can quickly escalate and lead to injuries so make sure your dog is either on a leash or under voice command even with a distraction. And it’s not just the most obvious animals (like bears or cougars) that pose a threat. There are plenty of toads, snakes, and insects that are not safe for dogs to be around.
Even while just exploring their owner’s property, two dogs in Texas managed to get into a turf war with a porcupine and lost, ending up with hundreds of quills in their faces, legs, and chest. (Just as a warning, that link does share photos of the dogs with the quills still stuck in them.) Unfortunately, porcupine and dog encounters aren’t uncommon, as the North American porcupine can be found in various parts of the US, Canada, and northern Mexico, and because a porcupine has upwards of 30,000 quills, it doesn’t usually end well for dogs.
Sadly, the opposite is also an issue, as dogs are becoming a major threat to wildlife in a myriad of ways. Dogs are omnivores and predators, meaning many are more than able to hunt and kill different wild animals. Some endangered species around the world are actually having a difficult time because of domesticated dogs. And killing isn’t the only way dogs pose a danger to wild animals, as dogs can spread disease through their stool or cause stress by chasing or harassing an animal.
Simply coming across deer can also bring trouble for you and your dog, as deer ticks are just one type of tick that can burrow into you or your dog’s skin. There are at least 15 tick species in the United States and several can cause harm to humans and dogs. Ticks are one of the only transmitters of Lyme disease (and other diseases) and transmission is, unfortunately, most prevalent in the upper midwestern state, Atlantic seaboard, and Pacific coastal states of the US.
Lyme disease is a bacterial illness that can cause recurring inflammation of joints and subsequent lameness in limbs, a fever, and feelings of malaise. Some cases can also result in a lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, enlarged lymph nodes, and kidney damage. Treatment of Lyme disease includes antibiotics like Doxycycline for at least a month and pain relievers if your dog is experiencing any pain or stiffness.
In addition to having a monthly flea and tick repellant and getting your dog vaccinated, you’ll also need to regularly check your dog for any ticks or tick bites, particularly during the summer and after hikes. Get ahead of the problem by safely removing the tick with tweezers or a tick removal hook. Never use your fingers, as doing so is ineffective and can cause further harm.
If you do find and remove a tick, checking with your vet can help you better understand the situation. Your vet will need to confirm that your dog is in fact infected with Lyme disease before treatment can begin but fast treatment can make a big difference, especially since it takes a full month of antibiotics to treat Lyme disease.
Avoiding These Dangers
After listing far too many scary ‘what if’ situations, there is some good news. You can, generally, avoid many dangers through preventative measures. As mentioned, bring plenty of water on the hike and avoid hiking during particularly hot days (or go during cool mornings). Don’t be afraid to take breaks or turn around if you or your dog needs to rest and take the time to slowly build up to longer and more strenuous hikes. You may have been hiking for years but the new dog in your life might not have and needs to slowly work up to more difficult hikes. Drinking water, avoiding the hottest parts of the day, and taking breaks can all help prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Talk to your vet about hiking with your dog before you go, especially if they have certain health problems that could make hiking particularly grueling. Dogs on either end of the age spectrum (puppies and seniors) aren’t going to be able to do long hikes for different reasons and certain health problems, like hip or elbow dysplasia and arthritis, can make hikes difficult or painful. Also, make sure to talk with your vet about tick prevention products and any other tick-borne diseases in your area.
Keeping your dog on a leash can also limit the possibility of them getting injured (whether by a wild animal or uneven terrain) and helps you keep an eye on what they’re putting in their mouth. That doesn’t mean letting them off-leash isn’t an option, especially on trails you’ve taken them on before. But working on training with your dog can help when you’re hiking and need your dog to listen to you.
Lastly, be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes, you can do everything right and something disastrous still happens on a hike. If you want to take your dog on regular hikes in more remote places, consider doing a pet first aid training class and bringing a first aid kit along. Doing first aid can hopefully help your dog long enough for you to get to a vet. Also, know the hours of your vet and keep their phone number and address in your phone. If it’s after hours or the weekend, you’ll need to know the local emergency vet hospital.
- Metro Dog in Seattle, WA works with Walks N Wags in Vancouver, BC to provide a pet first aid class and supplemental ‘Off The Grid’ course. Unfortunately, covid-19 has made in-person classes and travel between the US and Canada not an option but there are some online pet first aid classes (like what the Red Cross offers) that can at least get you started until more comprehensive courses are available.
Hiking can be an incredibly fun activity with your dog and taking certain dangers into account can make sure that you and your dog have a fun time on the trails!