Going Into the Wild — My Vet’s Advice
You'll get the best health advice for taking your dog into the wild from your vet. Read what I learned for taking care of my dog, then start the conversation with your own veterinarian.
No matter how many Google searches I conduct, I won’t reach the level of expertise on my dog’s health that my veterinary doctor has. So when I started taking my dog into the wild, I made sure to visit with our vet, and discuss what risks my dog faced, and what precautions we could take to keep him safe.
The writings in this article are specific to the needs of my dog. My experience is not meant as advice for your dog, rather to serve as a framework for your own conversation with your vet. A dog’s health depends on many factors, and no one will get your dog better than your vet.
I’d like to give special thank you to the excellent and loving team of doctors who answer all of my questions at Murrayhill Veterinary Hospital, in Beaverton, Oregon, where my dog receives his care.
The advice I received from my vet can be grouped into preparation, care, and check-up. Preparing for a trip involves making sure your dog is physically fit for the extra exertion, and protecting them against potential diseases found in the wild. Caring for your dog on a backpacking trip means being familiar with pet first-aid techniques and making sure they get enough extra food and water. Last, adventurous dogs benefit from extra check-ups with their vet, who can make sure their joints, muscles, and paw pads are healthy. My dog also gets blood panels that test for exposure to tick-borne pathogens, and check his liver and kidney function.
Backpacking with dogs always means “hiking your dog’s hike.” How active is your dog? Walks around the block don’t make them ready to climb a mountain, they need the same type of conditioning you’ll want for long trips. This means going on full-day-hikes, mountain bike runs, or other active-life activities regularly. Your dog’s muscles and paw pads need to be trail-conditioned before tackling a long-distance trip.
Keeping “trail-conditioned” fit with a downhill ride.
My vet and I made sure my dog was on medication to protect against worms, fleas, and ticks; especially since he’ll be sniffing the berry-laden piles left by a black bear and walking through low hanging brush. It took me several tries to find a medication I was happy with — spending far too many nights combing through my dog’s double coat, looking for crawling blood-suckers — but in the end, I’ve been very pleased with a combination of Sentinel and Bravecto.
Vaccines work. Period. So of course, my dog as the standard, full vaccine schedule for pets, including rabies, bordetella, and distemper-parvo. Because my dog gets exposure to unfiltered water sources, all sorts of ticks and crawlers, and strange dogs in strange areas, my vet and I consider any vaccine that shows efficacy for diseases he may be exposed to. So, he also gets shots for leptospirosis and canine influenza.
While my constant questioning is surely more obnoxious than the average patient, I think my vet enjoys getting research challenges from me. It’s not often urban veterinary hospitals get asked about rattlesnake venom vaccines here in the Pacific Northwest. By the way, there is one, but it doesn’t show much effectiveness (efficacy).
On a long-distance backpacking trip, my dog and I increase the calories we’re eating. I bring a variety of trail snacks to supplement my dogs meals, and he gets 30–50% more food to cover the 15 miles and two mountain ridges we might hike each day. A benefit of vaccinating my dog is letting him drink from water sources in the wild, but I always carry extra, purified water for him. Dogs lose a lot of moisture while they pant along the trail, and they need extra fresh water to stay cool.
Treating a cut on my dog’s paw.
On my own, I read several dog first-aid books, and got Pet CPR and First-Aid Certified through Pet Emergency Education. I learned a lot of valuable things for taking care of my dog in case of injury, but this is the most important one: first-aid is no substitute for proper medical care. Any injury a dog suffers should be treated by a veterinary doctor.
Returning to “hike your dog’s hike,” my vet brought up paying extra attention to my dog’s behavior during our long days of hiking. As a dog parent, I notice almost every change to my dog immediately. This means ending my days early if he’s showing strain, checking on his enthusiasm, and making sure he gets extra rest if he doesn’t wake up excited to work and play.
After we return from a backpacking excursion into the wild, I check to see if my dog needs a visit to the vet. If he’s sustained any injury beyond a minor scratch, I have my vet ensure he gets a clean bill of health. As I mentioned, my vet also takes care to check my dog for exposure to pathogens. It’s expensive, but for adventurous dogs, a full blood panel workup once per year is crucial to keeping your doctor informed about what your dog may have encountered during the year.
Adventure doggo gets a well-earned nap.
Finally, the best part of caring for my dog after an adventure in the wild is a few days of recovery, snuggling at home. I often say the only way I can tire my aussie out is to take him backpacking for a hundred miles. After that distance, we both need the rest, and he’s super happy sleeping in bed all day.
If you’re planning to take your dog into the wild, check out my other articles, “The 15 Items in My Dog’s Pack,” and “Pack Training with Your Dog.” You can also check back soon for my next article on the dog-specific first-aid items in my backcountry emergency kit. In the meantime, start talking with your vet about what you can do to prepare, care, and check-up on for a trip into the wild with your adventure dog.