Animal Health Matters: Health care for your farm hand

Jennifer L. Stevens, DVM
Special to the Farm Forum
Jennifer L. Stevens, DVM

Growing up, our Border Collie Molly kept everyone on our farm in line. From herding lambs to helping load market pigs to making sure the humans were in check, she was an amazing farm hand. My parents would tell you that she was the best farm hand they had; she far exceeded their three children!

In today’s world of labor shortage, our animal farm hands play an even bigger role on our farms and ranches. Ensuring their health is critical to their continued service. Preventive care can go a long way in keeping them healthy.

An annual check-up allows your veterinarian to not only update vaccines but also give your farm hand a good exam. In that exam, your veterinarian can find unhealthy teeth, ear infections, skin infections, new lumps, pain and other little things that may impact the ability of your hand to do the job. This exam also allows your veterinarian to perform tests, such as a bloodwork, radiographs (X-rays) or a urinalysis, if needed.

As for vaccines, rabies is the vaccine that comes to mind, as the virus is lethal and zoonotic. However, we still see cases of parvovirus and distemper virus in dogs in the upper Midwest.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that farmers and ranchers know, and there is a vaccine to protect dogs from this devastating disease. Even though leptospirosis generally affects the liver or kidneys of dogs, it has been called the great imitator, as it can look like many other diseases making our dogs ill.

Kennel cough is another vaccine to consider if your farm hand is the social butterfly of the community and likes to attend social gatherings where other dogs may also be attending.

While we have a low prevalence of heartworm disease in the upper Midwest, the risk for the disease is not zero, and there are cases every year. This disease can be prevented, and your veterinarian can help you decide the right preventive medication for your farm hand.

The bonus to using a heartworm preventive is that they also have intestinal parasite control. Our farms and ranches have intestinal parasite eggs, and our farm hands are exposed just by doing their jobs (and probably eating some things that they shouldn’t). Some heartworm preventive medications have broader intestinal parasite control then others, so having that conversation with your veterinarian will ensure you are using the best product for your helper.

Fleas and ticks are plentiful this time of year! The general rule is that ticks come out when the trees start to bud, so it is time to start your flea/tick preventive. From oral chews to topical liquids, there are many good flea/tick preventives on the market, so your veterinarian can help you find the right preventive.

We all know that life on the farm and ranch can be dangerous. Injuries happen. Dogs can have soft tissue injuries and broken bones. There are surgical options for repairing torn ligaments and broken bones. Arthritis can also develop. An assessment by your veterinarian can help create a plan to alleviate the pain and inflammation, but please do not give any over-the-counter human medications without first visiting with your veterinarian. Some medications that humans take are not safe for dogs.

Molly loved pig starter and lamb creep feed, so managing her weight was always a challenge. Dogs will eat things that are outside of our control, but keeping our farm hands at a healthy weight can decrease their risks for arthritis, diabetes, ligament injuries, slipped discs in their backs plus heart and breathing issues.

Using a complete and balanced commercial dog food is the first step to ensuring they get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrition needed to maintain their health. Recent reports of diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy (dogs developing big, flabby hearts) have placed a spotlight on dog nutrition. Selecting a brand of dog food with a veterinary nutritionist on staff is a good place to start, and your veterinarian can help you with the search to find a good food.

So much goes into maintaining the health of our animals, and the critical role that our dogs play on our farms and ranches only makes our attention to preventing health concerns and keeping them healthy that much more important. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and for our farm hands, that ounce of prevention pays huge dividends in the operation and safety on our farms and ranches.

Dr. Stevens is a veterinarian at Horizon Pet Care in Brandon, South Dakota.