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A look at farm dogs

There’s no welcome like it. The moment you turn into a farmyard, your

arrival is heralded by a frenzy of wagging tails and yammering yelps of


Seconds after the vehicle stops, the tread on each tire is inspected

and generally approved.

Dogs are an important member of the family on most farms. A family

photo commonly features a barn in the background and a canine in front.

Some are working dogs, others are trained for protection and security.

Some are simply a warm body to curl up with while watching television.

Dogs are said to be man’s best friend. But are their human caretakers

doing their part to earn this unconditional love?

Dog owners are becoming more alert and sensitive to the physical health

of their pets, says Susan Robertson, veterinarian at McDougall Animal

Hospital in Yorkton, Sask.

“They’re aware if the dog isn’t eating the same or is acting strange.”

Yet Robertson still sees dogs in her clinic

suffering from common but fatal viral diseases like distemper and


“Its so preventable, it’s heartbreaking. But many owners don’t realize

an animal requires multiple vaccinations. And there are always 101

excuses why they don’t get around to it.”

Anne Struthers, vet at Deep South Animal Clinic, said people will go to

surprising lengths to bring their ailing dog back to heath.

“Some farmers have working dogs and a little dog inside for

companionship. They are very attached. And in some cases, if it’s a

working dog, it’s very valuable.”

In her area near Ogema in south-central Saskatchewan, she said there

are an increasing number of farmers raising

sheep, so large working dogs are becoming common.

She sees plenty of quill dogs – curious canines that have had

face-to-face encounters with porcupines.

A dog owner can try to remove the quills but she said it is often

better to have a vet tranquilize the animal to avoid a broken quill

that may result in an abscess.

Dewey Stickney of Manning, Alta., said some people take good care of

their animals but there are always those who don’t, and perpetuate

diseases that could be stopped with immunizations.

In his practice, covering northern Alberta and the Northwest

Territories, Stickney also sees quill dogs. But more common are beaver


“In this part of the world they are worse than ever before, with

trapping down. Beavers can do serious damage to an aspen and even more

to a canine.”

Like many rural vets, he treats working dogs that zigged when they

should have zagged and an eye meets a hoof.

Stickney also sees dogs suffering from “dog-in-the-back-of-the-truck

syndrome” – broken bones and sore limbs.

He said many dogs in the north are valuable working dogs and owners

practise safe transportation methods. But there are always

some who don’t.

“People are unaware of the dangers. You wouldn’t put a young child in

the back to fly around. And here it is trying to hold on to a metal

surface with its toe nails.”

Robertson also treats animals that have gone for a truck ride and ended

up being dragged because it was tethered incorrectly.

“There are broken necks, abrasions, lots of nasty things. They are

roped in and jump out and end up strangling themselves.”

Farm dogs are often brought to clinics suffering from chemical


usually rat poison.

Meg Smart, veterinarian with the University of Saskatchewan, said pet

owners on farms have to be responsible with poisons, chemicals and


“There is always something a farm dog can get into.”

Dogs often have free run and can get into rat poison, treated grain and

even pig feed. Although dogs may like pig feed, she said it can contain

a high level of copper and fats that are harmful to canines.

Robertson is concerned about new regulations that may allow emergency

registration of stronger strychnine products to combat an

overpopulation of gophers.

She is bracing for the worst.

“You can have strychnine on the farm or you can have pets. Not both.

And these farms have kids. The regulations really worry me.”

Most farm dogs, however, meet an early demise through encounters with

vehicles – jumping off moving machinery or getting hit by a grain truck.

Those that survive suffer arthritis in later years.

“It’s a rough life,” said Robertson. “They’ve got knocked around so

many times, but not quite killed.”

Drugs to treat arthritis are constantly improving and people are

willing to spend more money on medical care, she said.

“We ourselves are getting older and we know how painful things can be.

They realize their dog feels like they do and they don’t like to see it


While owners don’t like to see their pet in pain, giving a dog medicine

meant for humans can make matters worse, warned Stickney.

“Giving a cat or dog Tylenol can be dangerous or even fatal.”

Smart said many dog owners have invested in training a working dog and

are willing to spend more on medical care.

“They realize a dog is cheaper than a hired hand.”

But she said the health care system, in which patients are not made

aware of costs for services rendered, is a problem.

“People don’t know the medical costs, so when they get a bill for their

pet, they are horrified.”

Robertson said pet owners are also willing to pay more for a

nutritious, balanced diet for their four-legged friends.

“People are more aware that proper nutrition affects the animals’

quality of life. They are doing it for themselves – substituting butter

for margarine and eating more fibre – and carrying it over to their


While Rover may be like a member of the family, treating a dog to a

fudge brownie is not wise, said Stickney.

“Chocolate can be fatal to dogs. There is a component in chocolate they

can’t tolerate.”

Smart said farm dogs are able to get a balanced diet living on table


bones, vegetables and the occasional wild animal. While dogs can

digest raw bones, cooked bones become brittle and sharp edges can get

lodged in gums and digestive tracts.

“Farm dogs can get in the compost bin and garbage and get into small

rib bones,” Smart warned.

Shadow, a Bernese Mountain Dog owned by Donna Rudd of Ponoka, Alta.,

gets a commercial dog food, table scraps and “plenty of treats for

taking care of the grandchildren” by keeping them from roaming into the


“And she loves her bucket of rolled oats,” said Rudd.

Shadow provides company on walks and guards Rudd’s peacocks, cattle,

chickens and llamas from foxes and coyotes. She said her dog is devoted

and likes people.

“I wanted a quiet, peaceful companion.”

She went a few years without a dog

before getting Shadow, but she missed the excitement when she drove down

the lane.

“There’s nothing like coming home and having a dog sitting there

waiting – ready to lick my face all over.”

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