Top diet and sleep means more bark

A nearly five-year study of farm dogs in the South Island has given owners and vets a lot to chew on. Annabelle Latz reports.

In Livestock8 Minutes

The highlighted benefits of a sound night’s sleep and a good diet has put a spotlight on the health and wellbeing of working dogs, just as it has on their human counterparts.

Working hands-on with working dogs across two of the South Island’s regions was the success of TeamMate, a study observing the daily patterns and health of some of the country’s hardest and most loyal workers.

The four-and-a-half year study took place from 2014–2018, a voluntary observational study initiated by Vetlife in collaboration with Massey University, involving 126 owners and 641 full-time working dogs aged 18 months or older.

Taking place in Canterbury and Otago, it has armed both vets and owners with quality information about how to achieve the healthiest team possible.

Vetlife veterinary surgeon Lori Linney, based in Central Otago’s Alexandra, was involved in the study, observing dog health and on-farm management, and in turn collating information for owners to achieve optimal health and performance of what is a major part of a farm’s workforce.

“This study meant we have been able to identify things that would contribute to wellbeing, and what the reasons for retirement are.”

Kenneling methods were part of the TeamMate questionnaire, with working dogs being fitted with activity monitors for 12 months. These tracked scratching, turning and movement within the kennels, and temperature at the body surface.

Linney says there has been a big shift in trends around kenneling since the study, with a lot more insulated kennels, good bedding and the increased use of dog coats.

She says the correlation between body temperature, rest, injury and overall performance has become more realised.

“Once farmers start seeing the good effects of these areas, more get on board. They also realise warm kennels mean less feed cost.”

Observing feeding habits highlighted the need to remind owners of the basic rule for the best working dog health: that sticking to a reputable food brand with high protein and high fat is best, also remembering that dogs are individual animals that can require different diets and quantities.

Linney said keeping an eye on dogs’ condition is essential, and not difficult. It’s about subjectively assessing your dog, running your hands over them and making sure they have good muscle cover.

“Once a day feeding is okay but feeding more often and allowing enough time between feeding and working can be very important.”

She said that gastric trouble is a risk if dogs are run too hard too soon after being fed.

“During lambing dogs may scavenge dead lambs and then their stomach dilates and the gut twists. Gastric torsion can cause death in only a couple of hours.”

Linney said high density foods, like gels for endurance sports for people, would be great for working dogs who are on the hills all day, and this development may not be too far away.

“It’s an area we need to look into.”

The low vaccination rate against common diseases such as parvo and distemper viruses for working dogs was another area TeamMate highlighted. The low rate was simply the result of farmers being busy on the land, and with the huge raft of paperwork and compliance they now deal with daily.

She says basically, working dogs work in closed populations and they’re relatively static, but all it takes is one infected dog and it can run through the whole team.

“Vaccination is not expensive and it’s cheap insurance.”

In addition, the study exposed how misunderstood sheep measles were, despite the information being out there.

The rule of thumb is to work with a three-month cycle, using a broad-spectrum

wormer in the first month, then for the next two months treatment for tapeworm only is required. Correct treatment of meat and offal fed to dogs is also essential.

Good feeding habits and kenneling conditions lessen the likelihood of injury. So does becoming familiar with each working dog’s skeletal structure, and being aware of restricted ranges of motion and degenerative joint change.

“You need to know what normal feels like before you know what abnormal feels like; for example, picking up arthritic change in a two-year-old dog.”

TeamMate picked up that the most common abnormalities were in the teeth and musculoskeletal categories, specifically knees, wrists and hips, which Lori said links to lifestyle and also breeding.

“Most working dogs are bred on ability, but think long and hard when breeding from a dog that has bad hip conformation.”

Bad teeth can be linked to diet and behaviour, with the suggestion to owners to line the kennel if wire chewing is a habit, or putting these dogs on a chain rather than in a dog motel.

Vets usually only see sick animals, so a highlight of the TeamMate study for Linney was getting to work with an essentially healthy group of animals for a significant period of time.

“It was pretty cool to see them and their data every six months, see how any injuries were addressed, how they recovered and how it affected their time in the working team.

She says dogs with restricted range of motion of a joint were three times more likely to be lost to the team at the next visit.

PhD students at Massey University will continue to assess the observations of TeamMate, which over the years will mean more valuable information for medical professionals and owners, and likely lead to more studies.

“The more that people are aware and the more they want to look after their working dogs the better,” Linney says.

“Working dogs are important to their owners, and the more we know about factors that affect their health, well being and longevity the better.”



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