*Note: Some of these tips are specific to northern California, while others may apply throughout the West and other parts of the US. Wherever you're hiking, it's important to be aware of regional weather, trail conditions, and possible hazards and do your part to keep yourself and your dog safe.
Here in northern California, spring is in full bloom! Winter and spring are probably my favorite seasons for hiking here in the Bay Area. The hills are still green, wildflowers are blooming, birds are singing, and the weather is mild. We haven't entered fire season yet, so the air feels fresh, and while the rainy season is winding down, there's still water in many of the seasonal creeks.
While it's a glorious time of year to take a hike with your dog, there are several things to keep in mind as we round the bend from spring into summer. While it may seem like we're focusing on just the hazards of spring hiking, I firmly believe that awareness and preparation are what allow us to fully enjoy ourselves out there! Safety always comes first - with fun following close behind.
Ticks: Ticks seem to be more prevalent during winter and early spring, but they are still out and about, especially in areas with tall grass. Ticks in California CAN carry Lyme disease, so it's important to take precautions both for yourself and for your dog. I recommend wearing long sleeves, socks, and close toed shoes. Make sure your dog is on a flea/tick preventative, and make sure to check them over frequently both during and after hiking. Ticks especially like to burrow in moist crevices like the groin/ears/armpits, and under the collar. If you find a tick imbedded in your dog, use a pair of fine point tweezers or a tick removal tool, grasp as far down on the tick as possible, and pull upwards, gently and steadily to remove as much of the tick as you can (do not twist - just pull up gently and steadily). Clean the area with alcohol and watch for any signs of infection. It's best to keep the tick in alcohol for a few days to show your vet in case infection or any worrying symptoms do occur.
Foxtails are an exotic grass that grow in urban areas, along roadsides, around trailheads and open fields - all over! Their seed heads are barbed and if ingested or imbedded into the skin, can burrow their way into your dogs body and cause serious internal injury. Most of the foxtail grasses here in northern California are still green but soon they will dry up, harden, and scatter all over the ground, making them even more dangerous. It’s extremely important to watch for foxtails when you’re out hiking, and to keep your dog from sniffing or rolling in them! It's also important to do a thorough check of your dog after they have been hiking. Check through the fur, between the toes, and around the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. This is especially important if you have a long haired or curly coat dog. For these dogs, short haircuts, especially on the feet, are a great idea. Signs of foxtail entry or ingestion can be coughing/wheezing/gagging, pawing at eyes, shaking head or pawing at ears, or licking between toes (look between toes for redness, swelling, and especially for a pinhole sized hole when a foxtail may have imbedded). If you suspect a foxtail issue, it's best to contact your vet ASAP as you will want to have it removed promptly.
You may also consider an OutFox if you spend time hiking in open, grassy areas. The OutFox is a mesh hood that goes over your dog's head and can protect against foxtails in the ears, eyes, nose, etc. You may even consider booties for your pup to prevent grasses from imbedding between their toes. RuffWear and Muttluks both have great options.
Check out this great article from Preventive Vet for more info about foxtails.
The dreaded foxtail
Poison Oak is unfortunately extremely abundant along the California coast and all the way to about 4,000 feet in elevation. Because they are covered in fur, your dog is not likely to have a reaction to the oils in poison oak. It is possible, though, that oils from your dog brushing against the plant can transfer to your skin and cause a reaction, especially if you are extremely allergic. If you are concerned about this, you may consider applying TecNu and then bathing your dog after romping in poison oak - or better yet - avoid poison oak entirely by having your dog stick to the trail or sidewalk. At the very least, it's a good idea to avoid burying your face in your dog's fur after an off leash hike.
Rattlesnakes: Warmer weather in California means the possibility of encountering a rattlesnake. It's best to do some research before hiking or traveling to find out if rattlesnakes may be seen. Rattlesnake safety and dogs is a big topic, but as a basic precaution, have the number of the closest emergency vet programmed into your phone in case of emergency (and confirm with that vet that they do carry rattlesnake antivenom, as not all do). Keep your dog close while hiking, and if you're going to hike with your dog off leash, make sure that they have a solid recall, and/or use a long line as a safety backup.
Water-Borne Illness: As creeks and puddles dry up and water temperatures increase, there is a higher likelihood of stagnant water where your pup could contract a water-borne illness like Giardia or Leptospirosis. Another concern in some areas is toxic algae, which can be fatal to dogs. Please check posted signs around where you are hiking, and if the water looks questionable, avoid it. It's especially important that your dog not drink from stagnant water bodies, especially in heavily traveled areas. We recommend against having your dog drink from a communal water bowl at the dog park or trailhead as well. Instead, bring plenty of fresh water on your hike and offer it to your dog often so they're not tempted to drink from a puddle or stream. I love the PupFlask. Another option is to carry a silicone bread pan as a portable water dish for your pup - they're lightweight, cheap, durable, quick drying, and collapsible. Ask your vet about the Leptospirosis vaccination (it is recommended in some areas), and if your dog has diarrhea, vomiting, or bloody stools, contact your vet right away (these can be signs of giardia). It's extremely important that your dog avoid contact with other dogs while being treated with giardia, as it can be contagious.
More warm weather tips to come as summer approaches - but with the days heating up, be mindful of leaving your dog in the car, and make sure to test asphalt surfaces on a hot day before walking. If it's too hot for your hand, it's too hot for your dog's paws. If you're hiking on a hot day, make sure to bring plenty of water and take breaks. Despite all these considerations, it's an absolutely gorgeous time of year to hike with your pup. Enjoy!
Read more about recall in our blog post "The Rules of Recall"