New study sheds light on plight of New Zealand's working farm dogs

Owners of farm dogs are being urged to make sure their animals have warm sleeping conditions and are prevented from jumping from heights, if they want them to have a long working career.

Those were among the findings of a new study of working farm dogs released this month.

The study was conducted over four years and involved 641 working farm dogs based in Otago and Canterbury and 126 owners.

It collected data on all aspects of working dog life - from feeding and housing, to training, injuries, and career duration.

Dr Lori Linney, lead study veterinarian, said one of the major findings was that working dogs are vulnerable to musculoskeletal injury or illness, with owners being encouraged to take steps to prevent the onset and severity of these injuries if they want their dog's career to last longer.

These included preventing dogs from jumping from heights where possible, building up the animal's strength over time while they are young and - like human athletes - allowing for the dogs' muscles to warm up and cool down before and after work.

Owners were also advised to make sure to keep their dogs warm in winter, "to reduce excess energy being redirected from healing and recovery to keeping warm" and to make sure the animals are well-fed and given plenty of time to rest.

"Even if they do show signs of musculoskeletal injury or disease, there are many things your

veterinarian can do to make them more comfortable and keep working," Dr Linney said on Friday. 

"We also recommend that owner take care when buying working dogs that they consider

conformation and existing conditions that may limit their working future. A dog should be

carefully examined before purchase."

Lead study veterinarian Dr Lori Linney.
Lead study veterinarian Dr Lori Linney. Photo credit: Supplied

The study also found the average working dog career lasts until age seven, with the potential 

of early retirement occurring due to injury.

Vets gave the dogs six-monthly check ups over the study period, finding clinical abnormalities in 74 percent of the animals.

The most common abnormalities were musculoskeletal system (43 percent) including arthritis, skin (including scars and callouses; 42 percent), and oral cavity (including worn and broken teeth; percent).

The study highlighted the fact that improved sleeping conditions for working dogs could positively impact their health and wellbeing.

It found 86 percent of dogs were housed in uninsulated kennels, 44 percent had kennel bedding and 52 percent were not given a coat at any stage.

"The recommended housing temperature to house a healthy dog is 20-26C and temperatures in the South Island regularly drop below 0C in winter. With low levels of body fat, working dogs are susceptible to cold stress," the study found.Sixteen percent of dogs studied had some form of pressure callous, caused by lying on hard surfaces.

The study was carried out by vets from Vetlife, one of the South Island's largest veterinary organisations, and Massey University.