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October 11, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Vet Q&A: Health and safety issues in parks and off-leash areas

Guerra.jpgDr. Beth Guerra, an emergency veterinarian at Animal Critical Care and Emergency Services (ACCES) hospital in Renton, talks about health and safety issues in the last of a three-part series on taking dogs to public and off-leash parks

Seattle is a very dog friendly city. Not only are dogs allowed in most parks and campsites around the state, there also are designated off-leash dog parks where you and your companion can visit with relatively few hazards.

Any time you plan a trip with your dog, you should take time to know your surroundings and make sure your pet is healthy enough for the adventure.

Dog parks can be like day care; there are a lot of animals and diseases that are easily transmitted:

-- Fleas can be passed from dog to dog in this environment.

-- The eggs of intestinal parasites are shed in the feces of infected dogs and can contaminate the soil.

-- There are several viruses, like coronavirus and parvovirus, that can survive in the ground even through harsh weather and can be picked up by dogs.

-- Animals with 'kennel cough' can transmit the disease through respiratory secretions when coughing.

-- Some pets may carry resistant bacteria such as MRSA or fungal organisms on their skin that can cause opportunistic infection when in contact with an open wound or compromised skin in another dog.

Public parks and campsites usually require all dogs be on a leash at all times. This is for the safety of your pet as well as other visitors.

If you are exploring a public park with your unleashed pet, be aware of the surroundings, including the possibility of topographic hazards.

We have seen injuries at our clinic ranging from minor lacerations to fractures or internal injuries from dogs that have fallen from cliffs or off high switchbacks.

Allowing your dog to roam out of your sight can also be dangerous, as they may venture onto unexplored or unmaintained trails. Wildlife encounters with bears, cougars, deer, or other dogs or people on the trail could result in injury.

If there is an ocean, lake or river nearby, you should always supervise your pet. Even the strongest swimmers can become tired or succumb to strong ocean currents.

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon-poisoning disease, which is caused by an infected fluke within a salmon, is common in dogs ingesting raw salmon near coastal waters.

Dogs that swim frequently also can be prone to ear and skin infections, especially those breeds with long, heavy ears or dense hair coats.

When visiting public parks, you also should be prepared to pick up after your pet, because fecal material is not only unsightly, but it can introduce pathogens and parasites into the environment that are transmissible to other dogs as well as humans.
Plan to bring water for your dog if you are expecting an extended stay and are not sure of potential potable water sources.

Off-leash dog parks are becoming more and more popular. These parks are usually fenced in and away from busy roads or traffic, and offer amenities such as shade areas, water stations, obstacles, or "small dog" play areas for small or shy breeds.

Larger parks may even have lakes or rivers and plenty of acreage for a canine to explore.

If you are new to a park, take some time to explore the area with your dog on a leash. Note any areas that you may not want your pet to visit, and make sure there aren't any open garbage containers or visible trash on the ground that may be tempting for your dog to ingest.

Most parks have regular canine visitors, so after a while you can get an idea about the breeds and dispositions of the dogs that you will encounter. Allow your dog to approach other dogs when ready; do not force any encounters. If your dog is shy or aggressive, an off-leash dog park may not be the best option.

The most common park-related emergencies seen at our clinic are bite wounds resulting from dog fights, or lacerations from hazards like buried bits of metal or fences in disrepair.
Other emergencies have included tremorgenic toxicity, from ingesting rotting garbage, near drowning, bee stings, or orthopedic injuries from rough play or falls.

During warm days, we also see some dogs that stayed too long or exercised longer than they were used to that developed heat stroke, which can be deadly if left untreated.

Before visiting an off leash dog park, or heading on a hike or camping trip with your dog, visit your veterinarian for a general physical exam.

Your pet should be up to date on yearly vaccinations including rabies (required by law) and distemper/parvovirus (known as DHLPP), and every six months on Bordatella (kennel cough).

Vaccination for Leptospirosis is recommended in the fall; the number of dogs infected with the bacteria is on the rise in Western Washington.

Your pet should be on a monthly flea preventive that also covers ticks and intestinal parasites. Most of those products are available through your veterinarian. Flea/tick collars and flea dips are generally not recommended for flea prevention.

Puppies under four months of age should avoid off-leash parks, because the animals are usually not fully vaccinated until this age and are thus more susceptible to easily transmitted diseases such as parvovirus.

If your pet is older, has an underlying health problem or disability, such as a chronic lameness, discuss with your veterinarian any activities that should be avoided or limited.

With foresight and preparation, your dog should be able to enjoy the great outdoors with you and your family.

For information on camping/hiking with dogs in state parks/forest preserves, visit here.

For more information of off leash dog parks, visit here.

Dr. Beth Guerra

Guerra is a graduate of the veterinary college at the University of Illinois in 2001. She worked in day practice in Chicago before moving to Seattle in 2003. She joined the ACCES staff in 2007 and works in the Renton hospital. Guerra enjoys treating trauma patients and exotic animals.

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Do you have a question about veterinary health or pet behavior? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local trainer in an upcoming post.

Read earlier Q&A columns here.

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