Feet, Don't Fail Me Now

Hunters checking dogs fur
Hunters should get in the habit of checking their dogs’ pads at the end of every hunt and cleaning out any debris that has collected in them.

More years ago than I like to remember, a friend and I made the long drive from snowy Wisconsin to West Texas for a few days of January quail hunting. The usual MO in that part of the world is to follow a brace of big-running pointers in a tricked-out vehicle known as a “quail buggy”—but that didn’t fly with our host. When you hunted quail with him, you walked: long, hard and at a brisk pace. This was a man who, when his dogs retrieved the birds, would deposit them in his vest without breaking stride.

I managed to keep up pretty well, but by the middle of the second day my friend was laboring. Not because he wasn’t in shape, but because he was wearing brand-new—as in not-broken-in—boots. His feet had begun to blister, and by day three he was in agony, continually falling behind and at times not able to get to a point in time to shoot. Our host, who showed him no sympathy, cut him no slack either.

There are at least a couple of painfully obvious lessons here. But the point I really want to make is that whether you stand on two legs or four (or three; I’ve known several dogs that had lost a leg and still hunted remarkably well), few things will put you out of commission faster than a foot injury. And a foot injury to a hunting dog—because of the stresses that compensating for it puts on the joints, muscles and connective tissues—can lead to other problems that are even more difficult to resolve.

Dr. Jennell Appel, who tours the Southeast attending field trials, hunt tests, agility competitions and other events in her fully equipped SportVet mobile clinic, has dealt with every type of foot injury imaginable. “If your dog has a problem with a foot,” she said, “don’t pass it off as ‘just’ a foot issue. A problem with gait, whether it’s associated with the foot or somewhere farther up the leg, always needs to be addressed. That’s why we who work in canine rehabilitation and sports medicine like to say there’s no such thing as ‘minor’ lameness.”

The most basic element of canine foot care, says Appel, is simply keeping the toenails properly trimmed—meaning not so long that they touch the floor when the dog’s standing still but long enough so that the dog can use them to “dig in” and get traction when it’s running and hunting.

“It’s important to get a handle on the growth rate of your dog’s nails,” Appel said, “because it’s not ‘one size fits all.’ Some dogs need their nails trimmed no more than once a month, while other dogs’ nails grow like weeds. What I recommend, once you get a feel for the growth rate of your dog’s nails, is to put a ‘check nails’ reminder on your calendar or phone.”

It’s important to understand, too, Appel says, that the “quick”—the living, blood-and-nerve-supplied center of the toenail—grows as the nail’s “shell” does. The longer you allow a nail to grow, the harder it becomes to trim it to the proper length without cutting the quick—which is a bloody experience that, if your dog’s not already averse to having its nails trimmed, is guaranteed to make it that way.

“You really have to stay on top of it,” Appel said. “If the nails get too long, you may have to trim them just a little at a time to get them back to where they need to be. Trimming black nails is more precarious [the quick of a black nail isn’t visible, as it is in a white nail], but the guards on today’s trimmers help you do it without hurting the dog.”

Appel prefers a sturdy scissors-style trimmer and adds that a Dremel grinder or even a good-quality nail file can be used to smooth any rough or sharp edges. She notes that this is especially important with older dogs, whose nails are typically more brittle and, as a result, more prone to cracking and splintering. A nail that splinters all the way to the bed is, in her words, “serious trouble.”

With regard to pad care, the biggest problem Appel sees is associated with hunting in dry environments. “When the ground is hot, dry and cracked,” she said, “the pads become the same way very quickly. The product I love for preventing this is called Musher’s Secret. You rub it into the pads at the end of the day, and it keeps them moist and supple. You should wait to use it, though, until after the pads have ‘roughened up’ a little; you don’t want the pads to become too soft too soon.”

Spray-on pad tougheners can be useful, as well, she says, with the caveat that in really severe environments some kind of boot may be the only realistic pad-protection option. (Note: There are about as many “recipes” for booting dogs as there are recipes for chili, with regional variations based on the nature of the terrain, vegetation, climate and so on. But for a method that works well in a wide variety of situations, google “how to boot a dog rolling plains” and check out the video by renowned Texas sportsman Rick Snipes and Dr. Dale Rollins of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation.)

For treating cuts to the pads, Appel’s “go-to” is a layer of Super Glue applied directly to the wound in the field followed post-hunt by a soak in Epsom salt and warm water. “[The soak] really helps to clean out any debris that may have gotten into the site and also has a pain-relieving effect,” she said. For pads that are scraped or abraded—“run off,” as the old-timers say—Appel recommends a topical antibacterial such as Neosporin in combination with a chlorhexidine-based antiseptic solution. Some period of non-hunting rest may be indicated as well.

In terms of assessing the severity of a pad injury, Appel said, “My rule of thumb is that superficial lacerations—meaning wounds that don’t go all the way through to the ‘meat’ of the pad tissue—are issues you can treat yourself. But if you can see the white tissue beyond the paw pad, you’re looking at something that requires a trip to the veterinarian’s, probably for suturing.”

Appel emphasizes, too, that any inflammation or swelling—between the pads in particular—is something that needs to be addressed immediately. “If you don’t get on top of it,” she said, “it can lead to a bone infection, especially if it doesn’t abscess and continues to fester. You need to have it looked at by a vet and, whatever you do, don’t try to lance it yourself. There are numerous small ligaments and tendons near the toes that are very easy to damage, if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Trimming the foot hair of long-haired dogs, which reduces the risk of foreign matter collecting between the pads and potentially penetrating the skin, is an ounce-of-prevention step Appel strongly recommends. Grass awns—the barbed seed heads of certain grasses, including foxtail and Canada wild rye—are something to be especially alert for, as they can work their way into a dog’s paw, migrate up the leg, and lodge in the chest with devastating results. [See “‘Mean Seeds’ & Bird Dogs,” May/June ’22.]

According to Appel, “You should get in the habit of checking the paw pads at the end of every hunt and cleaning out any debris that’s collected there. It can be a lifesaver.” 

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