Outdoor Adventures With Your Pets

Teddy the cat wears a harness and leash to hike Shenandoah National Park.

BY: Randy Young
The majority of us working at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 6 offices have chosen this career path because we have managed to turn our interest in protecting New York’s environment into a meaningful career. Our days off are often spent outdoors, and many times, our canine friends join us.

    This month, I’d like to share some of our experiences hiking with dogs (and even a cat) and offer some professional advice from Dr. Lucia Roberts, DVM, that will hopefully ensure you have a lifetime of adventures with your pet. 

    Before hitting the trail, Dr. Roberts first recommends making sure your pet is up to date on its vaccinations, including Rabies, Lyme disease, and Leptospirosis. My dog Ruby had Lyme, and I know from personal experience that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I also encourage you to protect your pets with veterinarian-recommended tick products. Based on your dog’s breed, age, and current health status, your veterinarian can give you guidelines and point out specific precautions to take when hiking. 

    The most common types of injuries Dr. Roberts has seen in dogs are corneal eye ulcers, insect sting reactions, joint/ligament/tendon injuries, and lacerations to the feet or the skin. “These injuries are preventable by keeping your dog on a six-foot leash. A properly fitted harness is better than attaching to a collar. A leash provides the best opportunity to avoid sharp rocks or plants that could penetrate the skin, feet, eyes, and head,” said Dr. Roberts. 

    Michael Carroll, a land surveyor in Herkimer, takes his dog Connemara on backcountry hikes. “Because of salt in the winter, I use a rub product on her feet called Musher’s Secret. It’s thick and greasy like ChapStick for your dog’s feet,” said Carroll, who also carries a small dish and water when hiking with his dog. “I usually don’t feed her when we hike, but I bring extra dog food in case of the unforeseen. Of course, if there’s any cheese in my pack she would be truly offended if I didn’t share her favorite food.” 

    Carroll doesn’t require her to wear booties or footwear when she hikes. Dr. Roberts says the terrain, length of the hike, and the individual dog are factors when deciding on when to use footwear. To determine if your pet is able to wear a doggie backpack, the dog should weigh over 30 pounds and the weight in the pack should be distributed evenly. “Check for chafing and correct fit several times throughout the hike. The filled pack weight should be less than 10 percent of the dog’s lean body weight. Gradually get your dog used to using it before the hike,” she said. 

    Emily Doores, a conservation easement technician in Potsdam, has taken her cat Teddy on the trail. She says he adjusted to the harness and leash quickly. “One advantage to taking Teddy hiking is progress is slow. I notice the nature around me, such as the birds and plants more than if I were going at my typical hiking pace. I think with regular hikes and walks and training, a cat can be a good casual hiking companion,” said Doores. 

    Thomas Godfrey, land surveyor in Watertown, has conditioned his dog Khloe to hike in the snow. Khloe wears a jacket with a harness sewn in. He uses a retractable leash and connects it to a carabiner clip to a belt he wears. “She insists upon leading and exploring until the snow is to her chin then she is willing to follow with occasional steps upon the tails of my snowshoes,” said Godfrey. Khloe also has a sleeping bag for snow camping. “It’s complete with a zipper and drawstring. A moisture barrier and foam pad under her bag and she is good for the night.” 

    Weather is another important factor when hiking. Dogs will overexert themselves from excitement and wanting to keep up with you. “Always know your dog’s limitations. Most people are unable to recognize signs of pain in their dogs and can push them beyond a healthy level. Take time to rest frequently and provide water and snacks,” said Dr. Roberts. She adds that young puppies should not go on hikes because the growth plate at the ends of the bones, near the joints, are very susceptible to injury and permanent damage. Wait until your dog is a year to 18 months old before heading out for a hike and ease them into it with regular walks and eventually a longer hike. 

    Finally, make sure your dog is wearing some form of identification, carry a basic first aid kit, and pack out what your pet is putting down. Dogs are great companion hikers. Their heightened sense of smell and hearing will catch things you may otherwise miss.