by Dr. Casey Cleveland, BSc, BVMS

QUESTION: I love to hike with my dog, but I don’t know what trails are safe for her, or how far of a distance she can handle. Can you help me?

There are several things to take into consideration in this scenario, which involve breed, age, location of trails, weather, and previous and current medical conditions. All of these must be exercised in concert. We will explore each factor to make sure your fur baby is all set for her adventure.

Breed: Some breeds are made for strenuous exercise and some are not. For example, a Lab is more likely to want to go hiking than a toy poodle. Of course, there are plenty of toy breeds out there who will prove me wrong, but the majority of toys prefer a human’s lap over a romp through the woods. Additionally, there are certain breeds who should not be put in a position where they need to exert intense amounts of energy. An example would be a bulldog or any other brachycephalic [having a broad, short skull] breed, as they are at risk for respiratory issues.

Age: Most people would only think to take age into consideration if the dog was a geriatric. This is inaccurate. Of course a geriatric dog should not be going for long hikes, but there are some older dogs who have been hiking their whole lives, and they can still handle it. On the other hand, young dogs should be limited when it comes to strenuous activity. It is better and healthier to wait until after their growth plates have closed; for most dogs, this occurs around 18 months of age. Demanding too much prior to this will predispose them to joint problems, arthritis, and hip dysplasia.

Location of trails: Consider where you are hiking and know what to look out for in that particular area. Things to be aware of include snakes native to that region, spiders, ticks, and other forms of wildlife, all of which can have an impact on your pup. Also consider the type of trail; if there is a path you can stick to, then definitely do this so you can avoid the possibility of coming into contact with the previously mentioned species, as well as avoid potential injury (e.g., walking on rocks for a long time can hurt your pup’s feet and cause injury, such as a cut on the paw pads).

Weather: The most ideal time to go hiking would be in the fall or spring, when the weather is mild. Most dogs are already wearing a winter coat, even if it is 100 degrees outside, and this can predispose them to heat stroke, which is life-threatening. On the other hand, pets can also suffer from frostbite to the paw pads and other extremities if they are exposed to frigid temperatures.

Previous and current medical conditions: When you’re planning a hike with your fur baby, consider her medical history in the same manner as you would for your human children, or for yourself. Some of the most important medical conditions to consider include heart disease, arthritis, hip dysplasia, respiratory disease, and recent surgeries. It is important to discuss your plans with your veterinarian prior to new activities, as your veterinarian may advise against this, based on medical conditions.

There are many medical issues to consider prior to your dog’s hiking adventure. It is important to cover all your bases and discuss everything with your veterinarian. If she agrees that your canine can handle an outdoor trip, remember to start out with short distances and work your way up to a longer goal over time. ND

Dr. Casey Cleveland, BSc, BVMS, has worked in the veterinary field for 20 years—first as a nurse, then as a veterinarian. She graduated from Murdoch University School of Veterinary & BioMedical Science in Perth, Western Australia in 2015 and is now a vet at Inwood Animal Center in Inwood, WV. She has two dogs, Sydney and Darwin, plus four cats—Jackson, Murray, Nikki, and Bo.