Often times they suffer in silence, unable to tell us if their tummy hurts or what aches. As pet owners, we try to good care of our pups, but it can be hard when they can’t tell us what’s wrong.
This article highlights potential health problems and their risk factors so you can prevent them altogether. We’ll review the most common yet preventable dog diseases, along with expert advice from California veterinarian Dr. Nicole Eckholm of the Pet Emergency and Specialty Center of Marin.
1. Canine Parvovirus a.k.a. Parvo
The parvo vaccine is one of the core vaccines every puppy should receive—which means most dogs should not actually get this preventable viral disease that attacks their intestines and heart.
Puppies in breeding facilities or shelters are most at risk of coming in contact with an infected dog. Most dogs contract parvo by coming into direct contact with an infected dog’s poop.
Symptoms include severe diarrhea and weight loss, vomiting, and lethargy. Damage to the immune system and intestines can lead to septic shock. The chance of survival is not great—more than half the dogs that get parvo will die.
“Puppies with parvo can survive but survival depends on the severity of the illness, age of the puppy, and swift medical treatment,” Dr. Eckholm says.
“Parvo is treated with supportive care, which can be very costly.”
But again, parvo is largely preventable by vaccine, much like several other highly deadly diseases part of the core vaccinations—canine distemper, hepatitis, and rabies.
“It’s very important to get your dog the core vaccines as soon as possible,” Dr. Eckholm says. “Making sure your dog or puppy is vaccinated will help prevent widespread outbreaks.”
2. Gastric Torsion a.k.a. Bloat
Does your dog wolf his food down in a blink of an eye? Then he may be at risk of bloat, which is basically an enlarged stomach—this can become even more complicated if the stomach also turns. This prevents fluid and air from escaping the stomach, which prevents the dog from belching or vomiting.
Symptoms are sudden but noticeable:
- Retching and the inability to vomit
- Enlarged stomach area
Bloat can affect any dog at any age but there are breeds more susceptible to it: usually large breed, deep-chested dogs like Great Danes, German shepherds, boxers, Labrador retrievers, bloodhounds, and Weimaraners. Mid-size and smaller dogs aren’t much at risk, with the exception of basset hounds and dachshunds, who also have long, broad chests.
“Have your dog eat slowly,” Dr. Eckholm says. “I recommend putting food in Kong toys to make the dog dig around for it. This will prevent him from inhaling it and decrease the risk of bloat.”
3. Kidney Disease a.k.a. Renal Failure
Kidney disease usually develops gradually and is most often seen in older dogs, but it can also arise as a complication from medications or other infectious diseases (like Lyme disease).
Unfortunately, kidney disease that develops over a pet’s lifetime—a.k.a. chronic kidney disease—is not preventable most of the time. Dogs with a genetic predisposition to kidney failure are most at risk.
However, there is one cause of chronic kidney disease that is preventable: dental disease. In the advanced stages of dental disease, bacteria from the dog’s gums can enter the bloodstream and damage vital organs, like the kidneys.
So keep those chompers clean! Brush regularly throughout your dog’s lifetime—meaning at least once a week—offer bully sticks or other hard chew toys to remove plaque, or get a professional teeth cleaning done at your vet’s office, which requires anesthesia but is quite effective.
On the other hand, acute kidney disease is largely preventable. Acute kidney disease is caused by a number of issues: poisoning, infection, or complication from medicines, to name a few. Symptoms are sudden and severe and can include fever, vomiting, change in water intake, change in appetite, and change in the amount of urination.
To avoid acute kidney disease, keep human medications away from your dog unless advised otherwise by your vet. Also, keep antifreeze away from dogs—they like the taste but it’s quite poisonous, even in low doses. There are various ways dogs can get their paws on antifreeze, including licking it off the garage floor or getting it from winterized pipes.
4. Lyme Disease
This tick-borne illness is another highly preventable disease. It is caused by a bacteria transmitted by slow-feeding deer ticks that have been attached to the dog for at least 18 hours. It’s the most common of tick-related illnesses.
The number-one symptom is lameness in limbs that can shift from leg to leg over a period of time. Stiffness and decrease in appetite also can occur.
If not caught, Lyme disease can lead to kidney problems—even kidney failure.
Treatment is through antibiotics and although symptoms are usually resolved in four weeks, they may not always fully go away.
Keeping your dog away from tick-prone areas and checking your dog for ticks are always good ideas, but preventative tick medicines are the most effective way to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
There are topical medicines to repel and kill ticks you put directly on your dog’s fur, like Frontline and K9 Advantix. There are also pills, like Capstar, and even collars your dog can wear, like Preventic. Just keep in mind the effectiveness of topical medicines decreases through the month, especially if your dog goes swimming or has a bath. Year-round prevention is best.
5. Heartworm Disease
Would you rather pay for heartworm medication now or costly and painful treatment later? Unfortunately, most people choose the latter, even though preventative meds are fairly inexpensive.
All it takes for your dog to get heartworm is a single bite from an infected mosquito.
“If you live in a heartworm endemic area, which is an area with mosquitoes, heartworm prevention is a must,” Dr. Eckholm says. “There are parts of the country where mosquitoes aren’t prevalent and therefore heartworm prevention isn’t used as frequently.”
It used to be dry climates were considered safe from heartworm, but this heart disease has been reported in all 50 states. Better to be safe than sorry, especially considering the involved treatment.
“Heartworm disease is treatable with an [arsenic-based] intramuscular injection given multiple times,” Dr. Eckholm says. “It is painful but effective in most cases.”
“Dogs with severe cases will not always survive.”
So what is a severe case? How about up to 250 worms living in your dog for several years! Better to just get the more cost-effective heartworm medication; there are pills, topicals, and injections, some of which also prevent other types of worms.
Consult your vet to see which is best for your dog, who will have to be tested before you can give the preventative medication to make sure he doesn’t already have heartworm.
Dogs and cats are susceptible to heartworm, so if you have a cat, all the more reason to give your dog preventative medicine. There’s no treatment for cats with heartworm and your dog can contract it from other infected animals.
6. Chocolate Poisoning
Pretty much everyone knows dogs can’t eat chocolate. But surprisingly, a good number of dogs still manage to get their paws on it, and it remains one of the most common causes of poisoning in dogs.
The amount your dog eats and the type of chocolate are the two main issues.
“One piece can affect a small dog,” Dr. Eckholm explains. “And dark chocolate is much worse than milk chocolate.”
Symptoms of chocolate poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, pacing, panting, and shaking. More serious cases could cause an irregular heartbeat, seizures, heart attack, or even death. If you think your dog has eaten any chocolate, do not wait to take him to the doctor.
“Your dog should be seen immediately,” Dr. Eckholm says. “Do not try to induce vomiting at home.”
Chocolate poisoning symptoms can last up to 72 hours. PetMD offers this chocolate toxicity meter to gauge your dog’s level of poisoning, but it’s still best to see a vet right away. For a true life story, read our post, My Dog Ate Chocolate. Here’s What Happened Next.
There are all types of canine cancers, and they seem to be on the rise. A staggering 50 percent of dogs aged ten and older will develop some form of cancer, and it’s the leading cause of death of dogs in this age group.
The faster you find and treat cancer, the better the chance of survival. If you notice a change in your dog’s behavior or habits, mention it to your vet right away.
“Know what’s normal and what’s not with your pet to get cancer diagnosed as quickly as possible,” Dr. Eckholm says.
Some signs of cancer include unusual odors, hair loss, swollen lymph nodes, lumps on the skin, weight loss, change in appetite, and lethargy.
So which cancer is the most treatable?
“Lymphoma, which are low-grade mast tumors of the skin, is very treatable,” Dr. Eckholm says.
Lymphoma also happens to be one of the most common forms of canine cancer, so make sure your dog has regular check-ups to prevent it, especially as he gets older.
Genetics and environmental factors also play a role in cancer development. Some credit the uptick in canine cancer rates to dogs simply living longer with better health care options. Others blame dog “junk” food for the rise, with brand-name foods using ingredients thought to cause cancer. Check the labels and avoid BHT, BHA, and ethoxyquin.
8. Fungal Diseases
Fungi live in soil and are usually transmitted by airborne spores. So if your dog inhales contaminated soil, he can contract a fungal disease.
Some fungi are worse than others—there are diseases that only affect the skin and there are diseases that affect the entire body (the liver, lungs, and brain). The latter is much worse and can be deadly.
The four fungal diseases that attack the entire body are blastomycosis, histoplasmosis, valley fever, and cryptococcosis, all affecting dogs in different regions of the United States.
Valley Fever is the most serious and life-threatening of the group, mainly impacting hot, dry, dusty desert areas of California, Arizona, and Texas. The fungi are usually buried in the soil but can be displaced a number of ways—earthquakes, construction, rain—and released into the air where dogs can inhale it. If your dog develops respiratory symptoms, the disease can be deadly.
Blastomycosis is another very serious fungal disease that affects dogs near the Great Lakes region and other Eastern U.S. river basins. The fungus lives in soil sheltered from the sun, mainly along riverbanks, lakes, and swamps. Most dogs who get it live within 400 meters of a body of water. Large breed male dogs are most at risk and symptoms typically include difficulty breathing, skin lesions, and loss of appetite.
What makes blasto so dangerous? It’s commonly misdiagnosed, which can lead to serious permanent damage or even death.
Sadly, that was the case for newly-rescued dog Chase, an avid digger and adventurous three-year-old with two lakes in his backyard but an uncertain medical past from being a shelter dog.
Chase was an energetic and playful dog but his life was cut tragically short by a commonly misdiagnosed fungal disease.
“Chase has no known medical history, so everything was on the table, and that was a problem,” owner Scott Picken said. “It wasn’t until the fourth vet visit that a blasto test was done and by the time it came back positive, he was pretty sick.”
Picken calls it a “perfect, awful storm” for Chase—all the risk factors were there yet even the vet didn’t consider it until it was too late.
“Be aware of it and insist that a blasto test be done early,” Picken says. “It’s a small price to pay to eliminate the possibility of a tragic outcome. I found the perfect rescue dog and was ecstatic about the thought of having so many good years with him. To go from that to the heartbreak of losing him so quickly is a pretty steep fall.”
9. Kennel Cough
For dogs who frequent places with lots of other dogs like dog parks or dog kennels, kennel cough is a real threat. It’s a highly contagious respiratory disease that can be spread through the air or through touch. Any dog can contract kennel cough, but puppies are especially susceptible as their immune systems aren’t as strong. Symptoms include:
- A strong cough with a distinctive “honking” sound
- Runny nose
- Loss of appetite
- Low fever
While kennel cough isn’t life-threatening, it’s symptoms are very similar to other more serious diseases like canine distemper, so it’s important to alert your veterinarian as soon as you notice symptoms.
Kennel cough can be prevented with a vaccine. Dogs who are regularly exposed to large groups of dogs are most at risk of contracting kennel cough and would benefit most from the vaccine.
The Bottom Line
There are plenty of dangers lurking out there for your dog, but by arming yourself with the knowledge of the most common and preventable deadly diseases, you can keep him safer.
Top image via Flickr/Yoel Ben-Avraham