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Busting 5 Common Gun Dog Medical Myths

Many of the most persistent myths related to your dog's health, once birthed as fact, have lingered much longer than anticipated.

Busting 5 Common Gun Dog Medical Myths

There’s a deeply rooted and equally misinformed notion that veterinarians are drawn to working with animals because we don’t want to deal with people.

While it’s true we’d rather spend the workday covered in dog hair amid the stench of anal glands than confirm whether your new, itchy rash is ringworm, veterinary medicine is as much a people profession as any other job involving scrubs or a white coat.

In fact, many veterinarians would argue that a solid foundation in people skills is a prerequisite for success, because our patients can’t verbalize what’s wrong with them. The pet owner, not the patient, often holds the critical information to help their vet crack a medical puzzle.

Many times in practice, myths and misconceptions held by the pet owner form a barrier between our patients and good medicine. While there’s not room on my jacket to embroider “DVM: Healer of Pets, Dispeller of Myths,” I do spend a lot of time in the examination room addressing the latter. The following five seem to crop up regularly and are presented here in order of greatest frequency.

Don’t ever spay or neuter a dog because they’ll lose their hunting drive.

I have a fairly exhaustive list of pros and cons for spaying and neutering that I discuss with bird dog owners, and this first myth is not among them. I love canine reproduction and see a hefty caseload of intact animals for breeding, so I understand and appreciate the role that sex hormones play in all types of physiological processes.

A risk of losing hunting drive though, just doesn’t make that list. There is no reputable scientific evidence, that I’m aware of, to support the idea that the gonads foster a dog’s love of work and birds. While I’m an outlier in my profession in that I routinely encourage my bird dog clients to wait years to spay or neuter (if at all, in some instances), I feel confident that if a need or desire arises to perform these procedures, hunting and training performance shouldn’t be a reason to pass, especially if the surgery is performed after full physical and emotional maturity has taken place.

Professional bird dog trainers are among the most outspoken proponents of the idea that early neutering and spaying nips hunting drive as well as fertility, and while they can’t rely on a large body of scientific research to back up their claim, some emerging science might give credence to what they see in the field.

One recent study looking at vizslas—a breed often thought of as leaning to the more sensitive end of the bird dog personality spectrum—shows a correlation with noise phobias, anxiety, or other undesirable fear-based behaviors when castrated or spayed before sexual and emotional maturity. These are certainly qualities that could significantly impact a gun dog’s utility in the field, trainability, and behavior in the home.

However, the vast majority of my altered bird dog patients underwent surgery later in life after reaching complete physical and emotional maturity. These dogs don’t miss a beat in the field.

Dogs are carnivores, and grains are pet food manufacturers’ way of sneaking in “filler” to save money.

Our canine companions have existed as Mother Nature’s most adaptable, opportunistic, meat-preferring omnivores for as long as humans have been dropping food scraps. Grains have been part of that diet since we started cultivating them, and they can provide an excellent source of predictable carbohydrates and proteins in dog food.

While I’m remorseful that it took a nationwide epidemic of diet-related cardiomyopathy to kickstart a rational conversation about the role of grains in dog food, I’m relieved that the grain-free craze might have finally run its course.

I’m not sure if the collective keto craze and carb phobia is limited to Americans, but our vilification of grains has spilled over into our consumer preferences when buying pet food. Boutique food companies touting grain-free started popping up almost overnight, lining up to tap into this highly profitable commodity and growing market segment.

Somewhere along the way, input from actual veterinary nutritionists became tertiary to consumer demand for grain-free diets, and our pets suffered as a result. If you were seduced by the marketing, you’re not alone. We all want to provide our pets with what we believe is the very best nutrition available, and we made choices (even bad ones) regarding what to feed our pets with the best of intentions.

Keep in mind that grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free or keto, a seemingly obvious point that many clients like to argue in the exam room. These foods contain carb sources that serve to substitute whole grains, and these alternative ingredients lack many essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) critical for proper function of certain muscle types, namely those found in the heart.

After noting a disturbing upward trend in the number of cases involving cardiac issues in dogs fed grain-free diets, the FDA has begun investigating the correlation between this shortage of amino acids and a potentially fatal illness.

A commercially made, feeding trial-tested performance dog food with plenty of meat-based protein sources balanced with appropriate carbohydrates remains my top recommendation for working breeds. This formula has proven effective in the field for decades, and has solid research supporting it.

My dog doesn’t need to be vaccinated because he’s never around other dogs.

This myth is a head-scratcher, especially when it crops up during an appointment where both the dog and the owner are currently in the vet clinic and directly exposed to potential pathogens.

Parvovirus is ubiquitous, meaning that no matter where you’re reading this article, there is live virus all around you. Isolating your bird dog, even if it were practical, will not prevent exposure. That’s where vaccination comes in; its job description entails preventing that exposure from turning into disease.

Occasionally when discussing vaccines, veterinarians receive the very same “look” of disapproval from owners that I give car dealers when they’re pushing to tack on profitable services after the sale. Without a doubt, my motivation to vaccinate your dog does not stem from a desire to line my wallet.

Most vets have seen numerous dogs endure a horrible death from what is essentially a preventable disease. As a professional, we tend to get pushy about preventing suffering and sparing you the same heartache. It’s part of the oath we took when we joined the profession.

Outside of our core vaccinations (parvo, distemper, and rabies), I’m willing to entertain an owner’s preferences for scheduling other types of vaccines (kennel cough, rattlesnake, Lyme, influenza, etc.). I’m happy to help them assess their risk of exposure to these less common pathogens, and make a custom vaccination plan for their bird dog. But when it comes to vaccinating against parvo, I don’t budge.

Cutting the shaft of a porcupine quill makes it easier to remove.

I admit that I’m genuinely intrigued by the pseudo-scientific explanation for this persistent myth. Some of my bird dog clients love sharing it with me in the same way one might bring up an interesting nugget of trivia at a dinner party. Like a good host, I generally nod, smile, and resist the urge to correct them.

black lab with porcupine quills on face

If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing the myth of quill physics, it goes something like this: The porcupine quill is essentially a sharp and hollow modified hair shaft (OK, I’ll buy it). A vacuum is created when the quill enters the face of your dog, locking in the quill (…sounds convincing). Cutting the end causes a pressure change in the shaft, so that the vacuum is broken and the quill is removed more easily.

While I find this deep dive into the physical relationship between a prickly, hollow hair and Fritz von Porcupine-slayer’s sensitive snout incredibly entertaining (and rational), it has no basis in reality when faced with a genuine porky encounter.

In fact, the only thing that makes quills harder to remove (and I’ve pulled thousands) is waiting too long to pull them. I’ve not done my own research here, but I’d wager that inflammation and swelling start to take effect and complicate matters in roughly the same amount of time required to pontificate the science of vacuum busting and trim the ends of 200 porcupine quills with scissors before pulling them.

I’ve tried it both ways just to prove to myself what I believed all along: There’s just no advantage to the extra work involved. In fact, trimming the tip leaves you with less real estate to grab with your hemostats or pliers, increasing the likelihood of breaking off a tip and causing an infection.

When pulling them in the field, keep in mind that it hurts each time you move the quills. If you’re on borrowed time with your bird dog’s patience and compliance, you’re better served touching them only once when you slowly and deliberately pull them out.

If science is your thing, check out some electron micrographs of the rear-facing array of barbs on a quill shaft. It’s the bite of hundreds of microscopic hooks—not a vacuum—that keeps the quill seated in skin and promotes the forward advancement of the tip deeper into flesh.

Ticks are seasonal, so my tick preventive should be, too.

The tick season we commonly reference involves the emergence of the adult stage of the insect’s life cycle. Typically in the spring (or earlier in lower latitudes), the adult females latch on to their hosts with the hope of siphoning off enough blood to turn those hard-earned erythrocytes into tick eggs. At this time of year, adult female ticks are easily spotted. They can be felt latched onto your bird dog or found creepily crawling up the back of your neck in search of a meal.

If the spine-tingling idea of vampirism hasn’t sullied this bug’s reputation enough, they also serve as a vector (mediator) for numerous potentially life-threatening diseases that can be spread to humans as well as our bird dogs. Prevention is far preferred to treatment in these cases, so most of us protect our pets with any one of an array of effective oral or topical medications that kill or repel ticks.

By late summer or early fall, the number of adult tick encounters tapers off, and that’s precisely when many of my clients voluntarily elect to stop treating their pets with preventives. While this approach seems logical, the tick life cycle continues on with other smaller life stages (nymphs), which remain just as dangerous to our pets but markedly harder to spot.

If you subscribe to the seasonal treatment group, I completely understand your perspective. In fact, I would have spent most of my career agreeing with you had this approach not completely backfired. Ignorance or naivete are completely justifiable excuses for clients when they’ve unknowingly put their bird dog in harm’s way. However, a practicing veterinarian that should know better faces a great deal of finger wagging from his colleagues when his own pets suffer from negligence. Learn a lesson from my cautionary tale.

We often hunt chukars in the rocky slopes of the Snake River canyon in Idaho and Washington. Much lower in elevation than the surrounding prairie, this landscape sees an early arrival of spring, and a generally milder winter. With a few frosts behind us by November, I let my dogs’ flea and tick preventive lapse, thinking we’re likely safe rolling the dice until the adult ticks return in late February.

A couple mornings after a particularly productive chukar and Hun outing right before Thanksgiving, I went to fetch my pups from their kennels for breakfast. Shine, my female, wouldn’t move. Having never lost a race to the food bowl in her career, this behavior immediately became a cause for alarm.

Swollen joints and debilitating arthritis, high fever, and small petechiae (spots of hemorrhage) on her gums all pointed to a tick-borne disease—in Idaho, in November no less.

I couldn’t see an adult tick anywhere on her body, but clearly some iteration of the parasite’s life cycle had left its mark.

I immediately recognized and treated Shine for Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and she recovered quickly—far faster than my professional ego. I’m willing to accept the risk of embarrassment by sharing this story, if it spares you and your beloved bird dogs the same fate.

No Judgment Here

We bird dog folks are an opinionated, and occasionally, stubborn bunch. We’re prone to holding our ground even if science has crumbled the foundation of our position. If you’re a bird dog owner that prescribes to one of these myths, you’ll find no judgment here. I have a few of my own that I still cling to tightly, despite growing evidence to the contrary. It’s human nature, and I’m as guilty as anyone else. Besides, many of the most persistent myths were once birthed as fact, but like the permeating smell of fried bacon, they linger much longer than anticipated.

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