Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To Hell and Back on the High Plains, Part Two

In my previous post, I alluded to another disaster that befell us on our trip, but this one was more insidious, and requires a bit of background. But it's a cautionary tale that every hunting dog owner should heed. This is a long post, but I encourage every sporting dog owner to read it to the end.

Jon and I picked up three "mercenary dogs" in northeast Colorado from Scott, a hunting buddy and pheasant guide. We had hunted with two of them before -- an aptly-named shorthair named Rebel and a loveable Vizsla named Scar (named for a "war wound" he got on his noggin at birth).

The third dog was a year-and-a-half-old male pointer named Tick. He was a stylish and alert dog, and Scott had worked with him to hold steady to wing and shot. It would be fun to run him, I thought -- he reminded me of Stony, a tough but sweet pointer who died when he was about 10 years old of mysterious causes.

Another reason Tick reminded me of Stony was his frame. Both dogs were lean -- very lean. To those unfamiliar with hunting dogs in general and English pointers in particular, they generally have very little, if any, body fat. Typically, they're run daily, and take on the look of serious marathoners. So we loaded up the pooches and set off for Big Sky Country.

Tick didn't eat the first day, and we assumed it was just the nerves of a young dog -- after all, he was away from his master, in an unfamiliar trailer that had taken him to an unfamiliar place. We supplemented the dry Pro Plan with some Alpo, but he still wouldn't eat.

He ate little if anything the following day, and by the third day, we boiled some boneless, skinless chicken thighs for him (I think the higher fat content in thigh meat is beneficial to working dogs, and I salted it to encourage palatability and fluid intake). He eagerly ate two, and eventually ate a third, plus a bit of kibble.

Jon and I continued to observe the dog and make sure all of the obvious indicators were normal, including: a gum check; skin pull dehydration check; abdominal check for any obvious lumps, and a stool check. All seemed normal -- no vomiting, and his stool was compact and not visibly bloody (sorry if you were planning on one of my foodie posts today, folks). We did note however that he appeared listless at times, sometimes not wanting to even come out of the trailer.

The following day was our other major tragedy of the trip, where we learned another valuable and unexpected lesson: country vets don't necessarily have the equipment or skillset to appropriately evaluate hunting dogs. While I was searching for Folsom, Jon helped drive the injured Ruby to two separate small-town vets, and he reported that both were woefully unprepared to handle serious dog trauma -- one had no x-ray machine, and the other was older than either of us. The facilities were generally run-down and the doctors displayed less than a sense of urgency.

At first, this came as a shock to me, but as Jon pointed out, the horse is king in the country -- and dogs are somewhat of an afterthought. That's exactly opposite of my suburban mentality, and I suspect I'm not alone among hunters.

Anyway, I suppose that's a big part of the reason why we didn't take Tick to the vet. I have no doubt that there are very capable canine veterinarians throughout rural America, but don't automatically assume (like we did) that they all are.

We ran Tick the following day on a huge, open piece of state land -- and boy did he ever run. After quartering nicely for five minutes at about 250 yards, the Astro indicated he was at 350 yards, and gaining another 100 yards every five seconds. The whistle and ecollar eventually turned him around, but not before he was more than 3/4 of a mile away. He certainly didn't seem like a dog that was sickly!

That would be Tick's last run. He made it back home to Scott, skinnier than before, and didn't eat much even in familiar surroundings. The next morning, Scott called to say he had put Tick down. Scott took him to his vet, who diagnosed the dog with accute intussusception -- a phenomenon in which the intestine telescopes into another portion of itself. The vet explained to Scott that it had probably been occurring for quite some time, and that surgeries were very expensive, not always successful, and that a recurrence could likely happen.

I, for one, feel badly that we weren't able to save Tick, or get him to proper medical care. But after doing some research and talking to vets on my own, it's unlikely the outcome would have changed. Even so, the feeling Jon and I have isn't much fun, and I'm sure Scott is ailing even more.

Here's what I've learned from these two tragic events:

--While most diagnoses say that dogs suffering from intussusception display vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, pain, and bulging abdomens, Tick displayed none of these symptoms.

--Don't always assume small-town vets will have the facilities or canine expertise that you're accustomed to. This is not a criticism of veterinarians, but it's a reality.

--I've read about carrying "lost dog" pre-made flyers on long hunting trips, but in the era of the Astro, I always scoffed at it. No more. I'll be printing out copies and sticking them in my dog bag today.

Sorry for these downer posts... I'll turn to the positive in the future.  In the meantime, be safe out there, everyone.


  1. Man that is rough. I have been complaining here about the hard weather. Sorry

  2. It's sad to learn things like this the hard way. And while this is little consolation, friends lost their 8yr dog who after a day of hunting didn't want to eat, was whining at 2am, and was dead by 8am due to a ruptured splenic tumor. Between 2am and 8am they had her at a true veterinary ER... I should also add that one of the dog's owners is also a vet. This is just to say that sometimes we can do everything we know how to and it's just the dog's time.

    But your recommendations about knowing exactly where and what kind of vet facilities are available in a new hunting territory are right on. We used to live in Maine and were spoiled to live relatively near one of the two 24hr vet ERs in the entire State. Hunting in the western part of the state, it's two hours to the nearest one of those.

    I also make sure I always have a 'If found, call for reward' collar on each of the dogs with my cell-phone number on it.


  3. Sounds like Montana really was the trip from hell this year! This is my first time on your blog. It's great!