The sound of crinkling leaves underfoot signals the start of upland bird hunting and fall field trials, a favorite time of year for many sporting dog enthusiasts. Lurking in the grouse woods or along the edges of a prairie where bobwhite quail can be found are unseen dangers to dogs.

“Subtle little things can cause disaster for dogs,” says veterinarian and hunting enthusiast Joe Spoo of Sioux Falls, S.D. “Lacerations and puncture wounds from hidden dangers such as barbed wire fences are the leading cause of injuries that we see. A dog running through the woods or a field also is at risk for a stick, cattail, corn stalk or similar object to become impaled in his body.”

There are other subtle dangers that are not easily recognized but can be potentially life-threatening. These include leptospirosis, a zoonotic bacterial infection spread by the urine of an infected animal; ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne illness similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever; and grass awn migration disease, also known as mean seed disease.


Active dogs that spend time outdoors, especially in areas with high annual rainfall and warm climates, are at increased risk for leptospirosis, commonly known as lepto disease. Lepto is spread through the urine of infected animals, getting into water or soil where it can survive for weeks, even months.

The Leptospira spp. bacteria can cause kidney or liver failure, the eye disorder uveitis and hemorrhage of the lung. Signs include fever, lethargy and vomiting. Diagnosing leptospirosis early before a dog goes into renal failure and treating with fluids and anti­biotics are key to a positive outcome. Dialysis may be necessary later, reducing the chances of a successful outcome.

Although there is a vaccine to protect dogs from leptospirosis, it is not a core vaccine and is not widely used.


A disease that is believed to be increasing, especially in the Southeastern United States, ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne illness caused by different species of Ehrlichia bacteria.

Affected dogs can develop chronic inflammatory disease, bleeding problems and kidney damage. Owners may notice their dogs having fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss, and abnormal bleeding. Antibiotic treatment can be successful, though reinfection may occur because immunity is not long-lasting.

If you find a tick on yourself, odds are there is at least one on your dog.  Veterinarians suggest storing removed ticks in a plastic bag in your freezer with the date and location where you were. If signs of ehrlichiosis develop within two weeks, knowing the species of tick may help with the diagnosis.

Mean Seed Disease

Bacteria-carrying barbed grass seeds can potentially cause a life-threatening condition in sporting dogs known as grass awn migration disease.

The disease occurs when harmful grass seeds enter through a dog’s nose or mouth or snag the coat and burrow through the skin. These seeds can migrate through the soft tissues of the body, leaving infection behind. Mean seed disease is challenging to treat partly because a dog often does not show signs until the disease is advanced.

Enthusiasts can help make their fall hunting season a rewarding and enjoyable experience by being cautious of potential dangers. Taking time to check your dog for ticks and grass awn seeds for quick removal will go a long way toward this end.

Practicing Safety in the Field

Sporting dog enthusiasts should take steps to help ensure they have a safe hunting or field trial experience with their canine companion. Importantly, know your dog well and be able to readily recognize signs of something wrong. Here are helpful tips from Joe Spoo, D.V.M., CCRT, a resident of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and a gundog enthusiast from Sioux Falls, N.D.

  • A preseason wellness examination will help to establish your dog’s health and physical condition.
  • Take it nice and easy at the beginning of the season. Don’t expect an unconditioned dog to be capable of hunting all day.
  • Be aware of your dog’s body temperature tolerance to avoid heat stroke.
  • Feed a quality, nutritious performance dog food year-round, reducing the amount fed in the off season.
  • Hydration is vitally important in the field for helping dogs cool down. You should bring your own water to help prevent intestinal upset.
  • Carry a first-aid kit to treat minor injuries and be prepared to take your dog to a veterinarian for more serious injuries.