Responsible ownership of farm working dogs

There are many health and legal issues that owners of farm working dogs must be aware of.

Health care for working dogs

Working dog rounding up sheep

Historically the health and welfare of farm working dogs has been overlooked, yet they are an integral part of the working staff in the farm workplace.

Your farm working dog contributes many hours of labour so make sure your dog can work to the best of its ability.

Farm working dogs require the same routine care as other dogs, including:

  • adequate nutrition
  • vaccinations
  • regular worm control (including heartworm prevention)
  • control of fleas
  • desexing if they are not intended to be used for breeding.

These issues are discussed in further detail in the following sections.

1. Vaccination

Vaccination is the only prevention for dogs against fatal diseases such as:

  • parvovirus
  • distemper
  • hepatitis.

Dogs can be vaccinated from 6 weeks of age. Talk to your vet regarding appropriate vaccination schedules. As a minimum guideline, all farm working dogs should visit your local vet once a year and the appropriate vaccine cover can be selected during a routine health check.

Viruses can spread within the dog population as quickly as the human cold spreads from person to person. Wild dogs and foxes can spread viruses to your farm working dog. Isolation on the farm is no protection. Viruses can be spread by:

  • flies
  • car tyres or
  • the clothes and shoes of people.

Some fatal viruses persist in the environment for many years.

For more information about vaccinations, visit our dog healthcare page.

2. Parasite protection

All farm working dogs should visit your local vet once a year and worming can be planned for the year along with other parasite protection.

Worming for hydatids tapeworm

Hydatid tapeworms pose a serious health risk to humans.

Hydatid cysts can grow inside humans who accidentally swallow hydatid worm eggs from an infected dog’s coat. Avoid situations that threaten to infect your farm working dogs with this tapeworm.

  • Hydatid tapeworms are found in all areas of Australia where sheep, kangaroos or wild pigs (which all act as intermediate hosts) are in contact with dogs. While rodents and rabbits can act as intermediate hosts too, they are more important as intermediate hosts for other tapeworms that are likely to infect dogs ingesting them.
  • After eating hydatid eggs from pastures contaminated by infected dogs, intermediate hosts can develop hydatid cysts. Farm working dogs become infected with the hydatid tapeworms after eating hydatid cysts from infected intermediate hosts (infected offal from sheep). For this reason, dogs should NOT be fed raw offal. Ensure offal is disposed of in an area where it can not be scavenged by dogs.
  • Dogs can also become infected with hydatids if they eat infected carcasses (sheep and kangaroo in particular) while scavenging on the farm. Ensure that all carcasses are picked up from paddocks.
  • Alternatively, keep dogs securely housed when they are not working. This will prevent dogs from hunting rodents and rabbits, which again can act as intermediate hydatids hosts. Use other methods for vermin control (rat and mice bait, rabbit poison).
  • Base your farm working dog's diet on quality pet food.
  • Dogs in hydatids tapeworm areas should be tapeworm treated every 6 weeks.

Worming for roundworm, whipworm, hookworm and common flea tapeworm

Around 80% of Australian dogs carry intestinal worms. This is not surprising because some adult worms can produce 20,000 eggs a day and some eggs can survive up to 5 years on the ground. Dogs are infected from uncooked meat, rodents and also through the skin, from larvae on grass (whipworm) or from fleas.

Even ingestion of material in contact with the ground can be enough to cause infection. Intestinal worms can infest people too, particularly children in close contact with dogs.

Dogs with worms may show tell-tale signs:

  • poor or dull coat
  • anaemia (pale gums)
  • diarrhoea
  • pot-bellied appearance
  • weight loss
  • tail skidding.

You may see white segments or worms in the droppings.

Fortunately, you can stop worms cycling in your dogs with regular worm treatments.

To keep worm burdens down in your farm working dogs:

  • control fleas – veterinary 'spot on' prevention in summer is the most effective – see the following section
  • clean kennels and sleeping areas regularly
  • control intermediate hosts of worms such as mice and rats
  • remove faeces from dog yards and around kennel areas
  • worm and flea-treat farm cats
  • wash hands before eating — especially after touching farm dogs and cats
  • feed dogs and cats quality pet foods and do not rely on hunting and vermin for nutrition.

In summary, all farm working dogs need regular worming. Pups should be wormed according to their bodyweight every 2 weeks from birth. Then, from 3 months of age, monthly worming is advised until the pup is 6 months old.

All dogs older than 6 months of age require 3-monthly worming with a product that removes all worms, including the hydatid tapeworm.

Consult your vet for advice on:

  • product
  • dog weight
  • worming intervals.

Flea control

Although fleas breed rapidly in warmer months, fleas on farm working dogs can be a problem all year. Farm working dogs can commonly get allergic skin disease from fleas.

Fleas can be killed and reinfestation prevented for a month with 'spot on' treatments that are applied to all farm working dogs, pet dogs and cats on the property. Fleas are a continual threat so continuous control measures are necessary.

Vets can help you with effective, safe and affordable flea control programs.

Ticks

The paralysis tick is found on the eastern seaboard reaching from north Queensland to northern Victoria (Bairnsdale and the coastal East Gippsland region). It can live on a wide range of animals, including humans and dogs. Native animals cause spread of different life stages of the ticks, as can any people travelling to the area during the mid-summer tick peak.

The paralysis tick is grey in appearance like the common bush tick. It affects the dog by injecting a deadly toxin that:

  • causes paralysis of the legs (weakness and losing strength in the hind limbs)
  • eventually progresses to respiratory and heart failure.

Signs of paralysis are seen from 3 to 6 days after the tick has attached itself to the dog.

Recovery rates depend on how quickly you recognise the signs of tick paralysis displayed by your dog and seek veterinary help. Symptoms to watch out for are:

  • loss of coordination of the hind limbs (drunken appearance)
  • change in voice or sound of bark
  • retching
  • coughing
  • vomiting
  • difficulty breathing.

Progressive paralysis spreads to the forelegs. Some dogs can die very early in the progress of paralysis — so get veterinary help early.

  • Help prevent ticks attaching to your dog by using veterinary insecticidal washes weekly, tick-collars, 'spot on' treatments, sprays and tablets. These may be used in combination under veterinary advice. No single prevention is 100% effective and there is no substitute for regularly examining your dogs at risk.
  • Avoid taking your dogs to the tick habitat during the tick season.
  • In areas of tick infestation at the height of the summer tick season, dogs should be checked for new ticks at least every day, by looking in the ears, under the collar and around the lower neck area, between the dog’s toes and around the tail.
  • More commonly, ticks are found on the lower areas of the front half of the dog’s body under the forelegs, ears and neck. Ticks can be hard to see, although after 2 to 3 days of sucking the dog’s blood, the tick will be about the size of a pea, with a flattened oval shape.
  • Remove ticks immediately once found and save it to show the vet. Ticks do not have a head — only mouth parts and the toxin is contained in the body. To remove the tick, simply scrape the tick off from the skin with a sharp blade. Spraying a tick (with methylated spirits) before attempting removal may make the process easier but is not essential and causes delays.
  • Alternatively, you could use a loop of cotton pulled tight around the tick at skin level, and flick the tick out with a sudden movement. It's only essential to remove the body of the tick (the source of the paralysis). Leaving the mouthparts in the dog only acts as a splinter — nothing more.
  • Immediate veterinary attention will be required if the dog has difficulty standing. Do not wait to 'see how it goes' as your dog will not recover without treatment if the toxins have damaged the dog's heart. Do not offer food or water as your pet may not swallow properly. Seek vet help urgently. Paralysis tick antiserums are available.

Mange

This is a skin disease caused by tiny parasitic mites, and can be common in farm working dogs. There are 2 forms of mange:

  • sarcoptic mange (also known as 'scabies')
  • demodectic mange.

Sarcoptic mites are transmitted by dogs coming into close contact with infected dogs or wild animals such as foxes and wombats. They can also be transferred to humans. Mites prefer to live on lightly haired areas such as:

  • around the dog's face
  • around the elbow
  • under the armpits
  • in the groin area.

The mites burrow into the skin and cause an intense itch. Dogs will scratch and rub the infected skin until it becomes red and hair falls out. Continued scratching will cause skin to become thickened and crusty.

Consult your vet regarding treatment with insecticides and treat all dogs on the property at the same time to prevent reinfection. Simple topical 'spot on' parasite control can be applied to eliminate this parasite.

Demodectic mites are found living inside the hair follicles of dogs. The skin of infected dogs will not be intensely itchy. There will be few signs of infection other than hair loss resulting in large bald patches all over the dog. Veterinarians can provide appropriate 'spot on' treatment that is highly effective in controlling this parasite and allows the hair to regrow. Mild cases will generally clear up within 4 to 6 weeks. However, in the event of secondary bacterial or fungal infection, further veterinary treatment will be required.

Heartworm

Heartworm is a very different disease from intestinal worms and is poorly understood by dog owners. Mosquitoes spread this blood-borne parasite so a dog can be infected without leaving the property. Heartworm is a parasite that attaches itself to arteries in the heart. It causes heart and lung disease and, eventually, death.

Heartworm is difficult and costly to treat. Wherever there are mosquitos, there exists the possibility of heartworm disease for your dog. There are many different types of heartworm preventions ranging from daily tablets to monthly tablets or 'spot ons' and yearly injections. Your local veterinarian will offer the most appropriate treatment for this parasite for dogs living in your region.

3. Grass seeds

 Dog working with sheep on the farm

Grass seeds can cause problems by:

  • going down the dog's ear canal
  • going up the nose
  • penetrating through the skin (particularly between the toes).

Grass seeds can also lodge below an eyelid or in hair mats on the coat (particularly in the groin and armpit areas). Seeds such as barley grass and spear grass (which have awns) cause the most problems.

A dog with a grass seed in its ear will shake its head, scratch its ear and often walk with its head tilted to the side. Seek prompt vet treatment in such situations.

The dog ear canal is shaped as a downwards oriented hollow tube that is several centimetres long so a seed can become well embedded inside the dog's head and the dog may need sedation or general anaesthesia to retrieve it.

To reduce problems caused by grass seeds, dogs with floppy ears should have the hair clipped short on the inside of the ear flap and at the entrance to the ear canal.

Dogs with grass seeds up their nose will have persistent sneezing, and the best treatment in this case is to get veterinary help to flush the seed into the back of the mouth where it will be swallowed or spat out.

Grass seeds through the skin often lodge between the toes, and are a particular problem for long haired dogs. During spring and summer, the hair on the paws should be clipped short to reduce the chance of grass seeds lodging there. Grass seeds beneath the skin must always be removed (this may have to be done by a vet) and the dog may also require treatment with antibiotics if the area becomes infected.

Grass seeds ignored in the feet can be a permanent cause of lameness in the dog as they can embed deeply into the feet sinews and remain as an annoying, painful foreign body — much like a large annoying splinter.

4. Heat stroke

Heat stroke occurs when a dog's temperature rises out of control, because it cannot get rid of body heat fast enough. Dogs pant to reduce their body temperature so a dog puffing heavily in the heat is seriously working to reduce his core body temperature. Overheating usually happens on days over 35°C — especially when dogs are locked in vehicles or tied up in an area with limited shade and no water.

Farm working dogs can also suffer heat stroke if already carrying a high body temperature (when unwell or carrying an infected wound).

Initial warning signs involve the dog panting rapidly with its mouth open and tongue hanging out, often with the dog reluctant to move or work. As the dog's body temperature rises, the dog will become weak, listless, and may have difficulty in breathing. Dogs with heat stroke can drool excessively and may vomit or fit. If untreated, the dog will eventually collapse and die.

Dogs showing signs of heat stroke require urgent veterinary treatment. Immediate first aid involves wetting the dog all over (bucket or hose down) with water and moving the dog in distress to a well ventilated shady place with plenty of good quality drinking water.

Dogs with heat stroke may require urgent vet attention.

To prevent heat stroke:

  • make sure dogs always have access to water
  • never leave them tied up in the sun, or in a vehicle (even when windows are wound down)
  • limit work
  • allow regular rest and swim breaks during extreme temperatures.

If it is too hot for you to go out, do not send the dog.

5. Arthritis

Dogs age faster than people. With the increased workload of farm working dogs causing joint wear and tear, working dogs in particular tend to suffer in silence. 'Arthritis' of old age is seen as limping on and off with reduced activity and 'stiffening up' in the farm working dog.

Arthritis is manageable and many farm working dogs can return to full function with affordable vet treatments. Many are added to your dog's daily meal.

6. Snake bites

Australia is home to many highly dangerous snakes. Dogs bitten by venomous snakes will initially:

  • be hyper-excitable
  • may have dilated pupils
  • develop muscle twitches.

They may also:

  • stagger
  • salivate
  • vomit.

Symptoms change quickly as the poisoning progresses so with known or suspected snake bite cases your dog should be taken immediately to your vet. Snake anti-venoms are available.

7. Poisoning

Farm working dogs can be accidentally poisoned. Dogs are particularly susceptible to 1080 poisoning (that no treatment exists for).

Extra care should be taken to confine dogs and keep them away from areas where poisoning programs for pest animals are occurring.

Other poisonings include:

  • sprays being applied to pasture
  • insect infestations
  • sheep jetting insecticide fluids and dips.

Also of danger are snail poisons and mice or rat poisons. Proper separation of the latter from dogs is essential.

8. Raising and training young dogs

Before entering your farm, new pups on the property need a full program of:

  • vaccination
  • worming
  • parasite control.

Contact your veterinarian before this new employee starts.

Young dogs need 'puppy' formula food designed for optimum bone growth, fed to them exclusively until they stop growing (between 6 and 12 months of age). Supermarkets, veterinarians and farm trade stores can supply specially formulated puppy food in bulk for on-farm convenience.

Daily food needs to be split into 2 meals until the pup is 6 months old.

Adult farm working dogs should be fed a good quality, commercially prepared dog food.

Only cooked or frozen meats can be safely fed to adult dogs. Raw meat or offal (especially kangaroo or deer) can be full of parasites. Feeding of these raw meats and offal to dogs can pass diseases like toxoplasmosis or hydatids on to humans on the farm.

Exercise must be restricted as the young dog's bones are forming. Too much farm work (including jumping onto and off the ute tray) before the bones stop growing at one year of age can lead to poor conformation. Poor conformation can lead to early onset arthritis in farm working dogs and potentially limit their active working life.

Training needs to begin early in small regular short bursts. Positive reinforcement training will encourage the pup to cooperate and learn.

Food treats, verbal rewards and training with a more experienced older dog encourages desired learning over and above outcomes that are negative and result in some form of punishment.

Dogs less than one year of age can have permanent imprinting from bad experiences. Socialise pups on the farm by allowing them to mix well with tolerant older dogs.

Teaching the pups to accept tethering on run leads and penning at an early age will result in better farm routines and dog management practices from the start of the dog's career.

9. Bushfires and emergency evacuations

It is important to plan ahead for taking care of dogs during bushfires or other emergencies. Make sure that:

  • all dogs are identified with a collar or tag as well as a microchip
  • your details are correct in the microchip database
  • your dogs' vaccinations are up to date.

Prepare a dog emergency and disaster kit and place it in a prominent place. Include:

  • food
  • water
  • bowls
  • leads
  • blankets or bedding
  • medication
  • a labelled travel cage (where necessary).

Identify where you will evacuate your dogs to. Check with your local council about evacuation options.

If your plan is to evacuate, do so early on the morning of Severe or Extreme fire danger days, or the night before a Code Red day.

If you are unable to evacuate, determine the safest area for your animals on your property to shelter from the fire front. Move them there early.

More information about planning for your animals during the fire season.

Page last updated: 06 Jul 2021