When you consider the places they go, the things they do, and the hard-charging attitude they bring to their work, it's a minor miracle that hunting dogs don't suffer serious injuries more often. Two areas where working dogs are most susceptible to injury, infection, or other problems are their eyes and ears. By taking some relatively simple precautions and learning how to assess and treat various maladies, we can minimize the risks.
Traumatic eye injuries are relatively rare, but irritations, inflammations, and the like come with the territory. They usually can't be avoided, only recognized and managed. And the sooner the better. "We in the veterinary profession have a rule of thumb about eyes: They heal fast—but they also go downhill fast," says Dr. Jackson Walker of Anderson, South Carolina. "So it's really important to address eye issues ASAP to prevent them from becoming more serious."
Every owner of a hunting dog, Walker says, should carry a bottle of off-the-shelf saline solution. "It's the first line of defense against eye problems," he explains. "If you get in the habit of routinely washing out your dog's eyes with saline solution after hunting or training, it will help to alleviate any minor irritation and also flush out seeds and other debris that may have accumulated in the eye."
The next line of defense, he explains, is learning how to raise your dog's nictitating membrane (or third eyelid) with a saline-lubricated cotton swab to inspect for and remove anything that may be lodged there. A high percentage of eye problems in hunting dogs can be traced to this issue. Lubricate the swab with a drop or two of saline, press it gently against the top of the third eyelid, and roll it toward the eye. This will raise the eyelid and allow you to swab out anything you find underneath it. "You can ask your vet to show you how to do it," Walker adds.
"If you see your dog squinting just one eye or if there's any kind of discharge, he needs to be seen by a vet," Walker says. "The vet will apply a stain, and if the stain reveals a scratch, treatment should begin immediately." A scratch that's left untreated can devolve into a "melting ulcer," a nasty condition in which bacteria infect and literally eat away at the corneal tissue. At this point the only recourse, if the eye is to be saved, is surgery.
Ear infections are another concern, especially for dogs that spend their working days in the water. "If there's one thing I wish I could convince hunting dog owners to do," Walker says, "it's to flush their dogs' ears following every 'water event.' It would prevent so many ear problems down the line."
Noting that you can use a commercial ear cleanser or mix your own from equal parts rubbing alcohol and white vinegar, here's how Walker describes the procedure: "Flop the ear flap over, squirt the liquid into the ear canal until you see it coming back, flop the ear flap back down, squeeze it a little bit, and look the other way."
It's important to know what your dog's healthy, normal ear looks like so you have a baseline for evaluation. An ear canal that appears abnormally red can be a symptom of infection, as can a liquid discharge and in some cases an odor. If you see one dog insistently sniffing or even licking the ears of another dog, it's a pretty good bet that the "lickee" has an ear infection.
Most ear infections respond well to antibiotics. But a dog that suffers from recurrent ear infections, which Walker defines as "one or more per year," very likely has an underlying allergy that is impairing the effectiveness of the antibiotics. If your dog falls into this category, it's important to have your vet do a thorough workup, including an ear culture, to determine whether there's an allergy involved. Resolution of the problem can often be achieved simply by changing your dog's diet.