Part III - Canine Hypoglycemia
Canine Hypo-what? For a lot of folks this one may be a very foreign concept. And it was to me as well until last duck season when my three-year-old lab Mackinaw suffered from a bout of it. As a coach of both track and basketball I’ve seen this in humans quite often and know how to both diagnose and treat it but when my best hunting partner came down with it I neither recognized it nor knew what to do. After it was all said and done, my wife was relieved, I was a bit shaken and we both now know more about this surprisingly common condition. So, let’s jump right in and examine this topic.
First of all, this one is not exclusive to the late season or the cold although it most commonly occurs when a dog is wet and cold. Canine Hypoglycemia in layman’s terms is when a dog’s blood sugar or glycogen stores reach a point so low that the dog’s body begins to shut down and go into survival mode. It is not necessarily linked to diabetes but of course can be and most commonly occurs in dogs younger than five years old and is often outgrown as the animal matures.
What happens is that a working dog’s body is burning so much energy, especially during the rigors of late season, that the animal burns through all of the stored energy (calories) in its system whether that system be the gastro-intestinal or the liver. Each of these systems provide energy in different ways; gastro-intestinal through food and the liver through glycogen. These stores are depleted by design through exertion and through keeping warm. When hunting dogs are exposed to extreme conditions coupled with strenuous activity; repeated retrieves in icy water with long sits in cold air often in the snow or long periods at rest in cold wind after getting wet, their bodies burn through energy stores at a wild-fire rate. When not supplemented with outside energy sources such as food, dogs quickly reach a point where they have nothing left in the tank and subsequently, crash.
This is very similar to athletes “bonking” after a bout of extremely strenuous prolonged activity in adverse conditions. The difference is a human athlete can tell us what is going on and we can easily fix it. Dogs cannot tell us with words how they are feeling and most have more heart than brains so keep pushing even when they feel like quitting.
The scary thing with Canine Hypoglycemia is how fast the onset occurs and how quickly a dog can succumb to it. However, most dogs do not succumb from an event of Hypoglycemia and recover fully in a short period of time when properly treated. That being said, there are cases every year that result in the death of the animal. As with Hypothermia the stages of Hypoglycemia are tiered and if an animal succumbs it underwent a series of worsening stages most likely ending in a comatose state before expiration. This is good for the waterfowler because it means that the condition is both observable and treatable through intervention. But, what does that intervention look like? Well, let me tell you how I got Mackinaw back into shipshape.
Let me begin by saying that once again, I was being a little macho and stupid with my dog. There were four of us that early January day last year and we had three dogs, plenty, right? Yes, until you consider how cold the water was, the number of retrieves each dog made, the conditions those retrieves were made under and how long the hunt lasted. We had shelf ice to contend with but had made sure the dogs were working under safe conditions, the water was cold but the day was quite mild with little wind.
We began at first light and quickly started to pile up birds, ultimately looking for a four-man limit of both ducks and geese. In the end, we got it but all three dogs were spent in the process. Mackinaw was the youngest dog of the bunch at three and by far the leanest of the pack and he was also the only one to suffer from more than simple exhaustion banished with food and rest in a warm dry place.
The dogs toiled hard all day, valiantly retrieving birds from both river and land, running and swimming down cripples and wrestling geese weighing as much as ten percent or more of their body weights through brush and across ice to our waiting hands.
All this was done while being wet to the skin with low 30-degree water, over and over and over with no food to replenish what was burned. Now I know what some of you are thinking, the old adage, “the hungry dog hunts hardest.” That may be true for some dogs and is definitely true for dry, warm, land based hunts where feeding a well cooled down dog no sooner than an hour after hunting is not only common but wise practice. I must say that in my experience with hunting the late season where extreme conditions dominate that rule just doesn’t apply. Now, I’m not proposing feeding a dog large quantities of food while in the field and I’ll talk more about this later but for now let us return to our narrative at hand.
On the final retrieve of the day Mackinaw was up. Someone, probably me with my shooting being suspect that day, had sailed a goose up river to the next bend where it expired and lay eddied out in a large pool next to the opposite bank. I walked Mack up to the bend anticipating an easy retrieve. Well, he was very hesitant to go in the water. I thought he was simply tired from the long day and reinforced my command more sternly. He capitulated and made the retrieve but once back on my side of the river had extreme difficulty climbing the bank. A feat he’d done numerous times with ease.
Keep in mind he is an extremely athletic lab and so this was my first red flag of concern. Upon delivering the goose he hunched up and began looking for a place to lie down. Now I was really worried. Fearing Hypothermia despite the mild temps I raced him back to the truck trying to warm him up, wrong move! He made it but couldn’t jump into the cab. Again, my suspicion was Hypothermia but something wasn’t quite right, as his belly was not cold to the touch. I left him in the warming rig as we gathered our gear and packed up.
My father was with me this day and when we got in the pickup to head for home he looked in the backseat and told me to put a rush on it as my dog was now having mini-seizures. Needless to say, I dialed up my veterinarian immediately and was prepared to rush my dog to the clinic.
After a quick consultation, my vet reassured me that Mackinaw was suffering from a mild case of Canine Hypoglycemia… he called it, Hunting Dog Hypoglycemia. He explained what was going on and told me to feed my dog a couple small Snickers bars as soon as possible, instantly reassuring me that “milk chocolate will not hurt your lab.” Long story short, four “fun size” Snickers later and Mackinaw was right as rain, as if nothing had happened.
After some time to reflect I realized that my dog had “told” me he wasn’t good to go just like a couple of my athletes have over the years but he couldn’t use words. It was his hesitance to make a seemingly simple retrieve telling me he was spent but with my ego and arrogance I sent him anyway when I could have crossed the river a few hundred yards downstream and walked up and gotten the goose myself or “shamefully” admitted my dog was done and asked for one of the other dogs to perform the task. Once again, the truth arises, know your dog and what he is capable of and not capable of. Asking too much of them is not only cruel but dangerous as well.
So, what then is the fix for Hunting Dog Hypoglycemia? After much digging and talking at greater length with my vet, my fix are those tasty little Snickers bars. Not only do I love them but Mackinaw gobbles them right down and they give him a nice little sugary boost to keep him firing on all cylinders. After all, “you’re not you, when you’re hungry.” In all seriousness, the hunting dog industry has supplements to prevent and counteract this exact problem. They work too, I’ve tried several of them, rather Mack has but the plain truth for me is that they are darn expensive and the cost prohibits me from buying them.
Since our incident I’ve spoken with dog men and women of every shade from pig dog guys and houndsmen to bird dog aficionados and duck dog gurus. All agree that a supplement can help a dog reach and maintain his highest level of performance and many carry everything from dog food kibble to Karo syrup in a small squeeze bottle. The point is, when the extreme conditions of the late season are mated with high levels of exertion and exposure your dog will suffer the effects. While he or she may not ever experience a Hypoglycemic state being prepared for one in the field can be as simple as a few candy bars in your blind bag. Now I’m sure I’ll get argued with over that statement and to that I say, then do what works for you and your dog but by all means be vigilant of your retriever’s condition and be prepared to give them a little quick calorie boost when needed.
Please understand that my discussion of Canine Hypoglycemia is by no means intended to provide the reader with either a complete veterinary medical study or to be the definitive source on treatment and prevention. I simply want my fellow Wingmen to be educated on the existence of this possibility in their dogs. I wholeheartedly encourage you to do research on the topic and speak with your vet about concerns and or treatment of an incident.
In the fourth and final installment of this series I discuss other late season hazards our hunting dogs may face while in the field.