It’s a day for ducks, and that means the weather is bitterly cold with a honking wind and downpouring rain. The pre-dawn excitement in the blind is contagious. Dogs are shaking nervously with anticipation, and counting the seconds until legal shooting time seems like an eternity. Skim ice rims the water’s edge, and boy does that kerosene heater feel good. So does that extra layer of fleece.
Ten minutes after legal time a good flock of mallards dumps. Following the barrage of gunfire, only a few fly away. Names get called in order. “Ray!” A black Lab splashes off the stand and makes a long-distance retrieve on a cripple. “Bo!” A yellow Lab goes next and picks up a duck in the reeds. “Dixie!” Another yellow fetches a greenhead outside the spread. “Rowdy!” A Chessie picks up one in the dekes. It goes on like this all morning, with birds seemingly in the air the whole time. Today is that day to remember until your buddy looks over at Ray and sees he’s shaking uncontrollably. No one noticed, because the blind kept the wind off the hunters’ backs and the heater made things toasty. But it’s different on the stand, and that’s why Ray is shaking. He’s wet and cold.
We all live for fast, late-season gunning, but the weather at that time of year can be brutal on retrievers. The leading injury to dogs is the same one that affects hunters: hypothermia. Russ Kelley, the Science Lead at the Eukanuba Pet Health and Nutrition Center, studies sporting-dog health and nutrition. “It’s really important to be vigilant to hypothermia,” Kelley said. “Hypothermia is an extreme lowering of a dog’s core body temperature. A dog’s normal temperature ranges between 101 and 102.5 degrees. Cold water that comes from retrieves followed by wet dogs that sit on stands for long periods of time cause core temperatures to drop. Dogs become hypothermic when their core temperatures drop below 95 degrees.
“Hunting with a hypothermic dog is a no-win situation. The dog’s low core body temperature causes his heart rate and breathing to slow down. His circulatory, respiratory, nervous and muscular systems slow down accordingly. But then ducks need to be retrieved, and that requires a dog to spring into action. Jumping out of a blind, boat or stand, running along the shoreline, swimming in strong currents all require those slow bodily functions to speed up. The result is that the dog’s body is pushed to the max, and that’s a bad situation. It can be avoided, though, and avoidance comes from early and proper recognition of the symptoms.”
Dr. Ira McCauley, a Eukanuba pro-staffer, veterinarian and avid waterfowler (McCauley created Habitat Flats and MOmarsh), says recognizing hypothermia isn’t always that easy. “Hypothermia can be difficult to identify,” he said, “because some of the common symptoms are really a retriever’s normal behavior. When dogs are hypothermic, they shiver; but they also do this when they’re excited by ducks flying overhead, hunters calling and lots of shooting. That’s what makes careful, discerning observation important. For instance, if you’ve just traded the truck for the blind and your dog is shivering, then the dog is likely excited. If you’re an hour or two into a hunt and your dog has made multiple water retrieves and it’s cold and windy, hypothermia might be setting in. Dogs shaking violently and uncontrollably are almost always hypothermic. Easy-to-recognize symptoms include disorientation, weaving and stumbling while walking; fur and skin that is cold to the touch; pale-blue gums; and a listless and apathetic attitude. If you’re concerned that your dog is in danger, take a temperature reading with a rectal thermometer. Your dog can’t talk, but that reading will speak volumes.”
Once a dog is identified as hypothermic, treatment must begin immediately. Time is of the essence, so start by drying off the dog with a towel. When the dog is dry, move it to a warm—but not hot—spot as quickly as possible. Common places might be near a heater in a blind, under a fleece jacket or in the back seat of a truck with the heater turned on. Be sure the dog is not lying on the wet, cold ground, for any heat gains will be lost immediately.
Other issues accompany hypothermia, so look for those too. Frostbite is common in cold weather. While it doesn’t impact the dog’s internal organs, frostbite does affect a dog’s extremities. Look for pale, gray or blushing skin on a dog’s toes, ears, tail or scrotum. To treat, move the dog to a warm, dry area as soon as possible. Neither hypothermia nor frostbite is something to take lightly, and if there’s any question about either, then head directly to a veterinarian.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. According to McCauley: “Kennel dogs are used to the cold environment. They’ve been outside as summer has moved to fall and fall has become winter. Retrievers that double as pets are most vulnerable to hypothermia. Indoor dogs spend most of their year in a warm, dry environment, but then they suddenly trade the indoors for a cold, wet, windy marsh. A workaround is to acclimate your dog to the cold. As temperatures start to drop, increase the amount of time your dog spends outside. Run some marks, run blinds in cold water for short periods of time, and progressively increase that amount of time until it closely approximates the duration of an actual hunt. Wind is a preventable factor. Keeping dogs out of strong, cold gusts is easily done by bringing them in the blind, packing along a dog blind or by suiting them up in a snug-fitting neoprene vest. Vests shouldn’t be so tight as to reduce circulation or have gaps that hold water. If you’re hunting flooded timber, then use a stand to get your dog out of the water in between retrieves. If you’re hunting from a boat, then add a raised platform to keep your dog from sitting in the hull’s standing water.”
Momma didn’t raise a quitter, and that’s why we head to the duck blinds when the weather turns foul. During these times it’s important to keep retrievers safe. After all, it’s no fun to be sitting in a veterinarian’s office when the mallards are pouring in.