It’s every dog owner’s priority to ensure their dog is in good health. Most dogs are happy, healthy pups who thrive on the nutrition, exercise, sleep and love they get on a daily basis. However, most dogs will also experience their down days – when they’ve eaten something bad, their ears are painful, or they experience skin problems. Some dogs will develop progressive disease, while others come with a built-in genetic ailment.

Whatever the cause, here are some of the most common dog illnesses that veterinarians are faced with. In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms and explain how these illnesses are diagnosed and treated. If you recognise any of these symptoms in your dog, please make an appointment with the vet to get them checked out as soon as possible.

Most common dog illnesses

Dogs become ill from being exposed to bacteria and viruses, or because of a genetic disease, or because of a decline in their health due to old age. Maybe they are not receiving the best care, or are eating a diet that is deficient in the nutrients they need. Whatever the case, these are some of the most common dog illnesses that veterinarians regularly diagnose:

  • arthritis/degenerative joint disease
  • dental disease
  • diarrhoea & vomiting
  • ear infection
  • kennel cough
  • skin allergies

Let’s briefly unpack them.

Diarrhoea and vomiting in dogs

Vomiting and diarrhoea are general symptoms of many different causes of disease. Gastrointestinal (GI) upset is one of the most common reasons why dog owners bring their four-legged friends to the vet, so the vet will look for other indicators of what could be causing it. Dogs constantly have their mouths and noses in close contact with anything and everything on the ground – sniffing and licking are how they explore their environment. It’s due to this constant curiosity and exploration that they unintentionally pick up parasites, bacteria, viruses and even toxins from plants and poisons. These pathogens as well as stress or food allergies could result in a dog’s upset tummy, as their system tries to eject the pathogen.

One bout of vomiting or diarrhoea is not really a cause for concern, but if your dog has emptied their stomach and is vomiting up bile (greenish-yellow and foamy), or has had multiple bouts of diarrhoea in 24 hours, the problem could be more serious. Err on the side of caution and get your dog to the vet as soon as you can.

Symptoms of GI tract upset

Vomiting and diarrhoea aside, your dog may also have the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • blood in the stool
  • fever
  • dehydration

Diagnosing the cause of vomiting and diarrhoea

Tell the vet about your dog’s behaviour and symptoms, and also what he may have eaten before the vomiting and/or diarrhoea started. Did he start a new type of food, raid the rubbish bin, or was he given table scraps? Have your moved house, boarded your dog or had another stressful event occur? The vet will need to narrow down the causes of the GI upset and rule out what it isn’t before diagnosing what it is. If deemed necessary, the vet will draw blood for testing and may also run faecal tests, urinalysis and/or do an abdominal ultrasound. From parasites to food allergies to an obstruction – the vet will need to consider all possibilities.

Treatment for vomiting and diarrhoea

One of the biggest risks with vomiting and diarrhoea is dehydration. The vet will thus want to rehydrate your dog either with oral rehydration or even IV fluids. Depending on the cause of the GI upset, the vet will prescribe antibiotics (for bacterial infection) and anti-emetics (to stop the vomiting and nausea). The treatment plan as a whole will be based on the underlying cause of the vomiting and diarrhoea – to restore calm to your dog’s system before he can go back to eating and thriving as normal. This may also mean not eating for 12-24 hours before resuming a bland diet (like chicken and rice). Make sure you comply with the vet’s advice and treatment plan so your dog can recuperate without any relapses or complications.

Skin allergies in dogs

Skin allergies (or allergic dermatitis) usually show up as itchy, inflamed, red and painful patches on your dog’s skin. Dogs will scratch this itchy skin, which can lead to hair loss and puncturing the skin. Bacteria can penetrate this broken skin and cause secondary infection, which makes the itching even worse. Allergic dermatitis can have many causes – from food allergies to flea bites to allergens in the environment (grass, pollen, poisons, etc.).

Symptoms of skin allergies

Dogs can experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • itching, scratching and chewing own skin
  • red, inflamed skin
  • licking and rubbing skin
  • hair loss (alopecia)
  • thickening of affected skin
  • warm, red ears/ear infection
  • GI upset (especially when caused by food allergies)

Diagnosing skin allergies

Before your dog’s itching and scratching becomes overwhelming to them (to the point where they injure themselves), take them to the vet. Think about when the itching started – was it with a change of dog food, a visit to an unfamiliar location, or at the turn of the season. The vet may perform blood tests (serum testing) and a skin scrape or intradermal test to try to narrow down the causes of your dog’s dermatitis.

Treating skin allergies

The vet will need to treat your dog symptomatically in order to reduce the redness, inflammation and itching, and to treat any bacterial infection and restore your dog’s skin. If they’ve determined the cause of the dermatitis, that will also need to be treated to prevent the symptoms from returning. If the vet suspects a food allergy, your dog may need a hypoallergenic diet; if it’s a flea bite allergy, the vet will offer a topical treatment and parasite medication. An environmental allergy is more difficult to prevent, but the vet will recommend what to do to limit exposure to the allergen/s.

Dental disease in dogs

Do you brush your dog’s teeth? Well, you should, because up to 80% of dogs develop some kind of dental disease by their second birthday. What starts out as oral bacteria sticking to your dog’s teeth, and dental plaque hardening into tartar, becomes an irritating source of inflammation for their gums (gingivitis). Bacteria and food debris further exacerbate the problem when periodontal pockets form below the gumline, causing the spread of infection, tissue erosion, and damage to teeth and jawbone.

Many symptoms of periodontal disease happen below the gumline, so it’s difficult to see from the outside that there’s a problem. This is a very good reason to follow a dental cleaning routine with your dog, even if his teeth look fine; and to take him for a dental check-up every year, to get the thumbs-up from the vet. Using positive reinforcement, puppies and adult dogs can be conditioned to not only accept, but enjoy toothbrushing, which is the most effective way to maintain their oral health. If you’re unsure of which products to use, ask the vet for some guidance on your dog’s oral health regimen.

Symptoms of dental disease

  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • gum inflammation (gingivitis)
  • bleeding gums
  • receding gums, which indicate a loss of supportive structure around the teeth
  • loose teeth
  • tooth loss
  • reluctance to engage with chew toys
  • different eating behaviours – reluctance to chew kibble or preferring softer foods
  • unable to tolerate teeth being brushed

Periodontal disease not only has implications for your dog’s oral health, but bacteria from dental infection can get into his bloodstream and travel to vital organs like the heart, liver and kidneys. This can lead to heart disease, liver disease, and kidney failure – further emphasising the need for good dental health from the very beginning.

Diagnosing dental disease

When your dog’s permanent dentition has come in, he should have a dental check-up every year. The vet will scale and polish his teeth under anaesthetic, using the opportunity to look for any signs of dental disease, and to treat it if necessary. Aside from red, bleeding gums, and chronic bad breath, the vet can only really look for signs of dental disease below the gumline, which requires the dog to be sedated.

Treating dental disease

Descaling and polishing the teeth are part of the treatment procedure for periodontal disease. If there are loose or damaged teeth, these may need to be extracted. Abscesses will be drained and the vet will prescribe antibiotics to clear any infection. They may recommend a toothbrushing and dental management routine for your dog to keep periodontal disease at bay.

Read more about preventing dental disease in your pets here.

Kennel cough

Canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD) is the medical term for ‘kennel cough’. It can also be called infectious tracheobronchitis. It sounds like a hacking cough, which is caused by inflammation in the trachea. It’s very contagious and usually spreads in an environment where many dogs are gathered or confined – at boarding kennels, animal rescue kennels, at the dog park or at puppy school.

Kennel cough can resolve on its own, but it’s best to take your dog to see the vet to confirm this diagnosis. While your dog is showing these symptoms, keep him away from other pets, as dogs with low immunity can contract CIRD and develop pneumonia.

Symptoms of kennel cough

  • a distinct hacking cough, as though something is stuck in the throat
  • runny nose
  • eye discharge
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • decreased appetite

Diagnosing kennel cough

Diagnosing kennel cough requires a process of elimination. The vet will rule out more serious conditions such as collapsed trachea, heart disease, cancers and upper respiratory diseases. They may treat the condition symptomatically (such as with antibiotics, cough suppressants and anti-inflammatories), but if the dog has not responded to treatment, the vet will perform diagnostic testing to determine whether the kennel cough has progressed to pneumonia.

Treating kennel cough

Kennel cough can resolve on its own in a week or three, but while the dog is recovering, he must be separated from other pets and be made to rest. The best treatment is preventative medicine: keeping your dog’s 5-in-1 vaccination protocol up to date and keeping his immune system healthy and strong.

Ear infection in dogs

There are a number of causes of ear infections in dogs: allergies, a build-up of debris, a moist environment ripe for fungal overgrowth, and even ear mites. Ear polyps, cancer and hypothyroidism are also conditions associated with ear infections. The infection can be located in the inner ear (otitis interna), the middle ear (otitis media) or in the outer ear (otitis externa). Here we’re referring to otitis externa – the part of the ear canal before the ear drum.

Symptoms of ear infection

  • itchiness in the ear canal
  • scratching at the ears and pawing around the face
  • pain and redness in the ear
  • whining if you touch their ears or head
  • heat at the ear
  • yeasty odour
  • dark ear discharge
  • head-shaking
  • head tilt

Diagnosing ear infection

Ear infections don’t just go away on their own and can get very painful. An infection in the outer ear can spread into the deeper parts of the ear canal and even past the eardrum. If your dog’s ears are bothering them, take them to the vet as soon as possible so that the infection can be diagnosed and treated. The vet will use an otoscope to examine the ear canal and take a swab to determine which types of bacteria are present. If the ear infection is very painful, your dog may be placed under anaesthetic before the vet examines him.

Treating ear infection

The vet will drain the ear canal and attempt to remove as much ear wax, debris and other residue as they can. They will flush and clean the ear canal and prescribe an antibiotic to clear the infection. The antibiotic required will depend on the bacteria present in the infected ear canal – this is why a simple at-home cleaning is not enough for a full-blown ear infection. Be sure to follow the vet’s advice regarding the aftercare for your dog’s ear infection.

Arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD)

Many older dogs will develop osteoarthritis (or degenerative joint disease (DJD)) as a symptom of ageing. Their joints will become stiff, inflamed and swollen as a result of the joint cartilage wearing away and no longer cushioning the bones. Their older bodies deteriorate, with the soft tissue progressively degenerating and their bones developing spurs, causing friction and inflammation in the joints. DJD is irreversible, but supplements, weight management and a joint-friendly diet can slow its progression.

Sometimes younger dogs with other predisposing factors can also develop osteoarthritis. These include:

  • large or giant breed dogs
  • athletic dogs who participate in competitive dog sports (with the added risk of stress fractures and damaged ligaments)
  • dogs with hereditary dysplasia
  • dogs that are overweight, who put a lot of stress on their joints

Symptoms of osteoarthritis/DJD

  • joint pain and stiffness
  • joint swelling
  • difficulty getting up
  • plopping down instead of lying down
  • more sleeping
  • reluctance to ascend and descend stairs
  • muscle atrophy
  • flinching at touch or grooming around the affected joints
  • urinating or defecating inside the house

Diagnosing osteoarthritis

As your dog ages, the veterinarian will begin to look for the early signs of osteoarthritis and may suggest using supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM and green-lipped mussel extract to support their joint cartilage. This makes annual vet check-ups a critical opportunity for screening. In older dogs, the vet will look for secondary signs like muscle wasting and swollen joints to diagnose osteoarthritis. 

Treating osteoarthritis

There is no cure for a progressive disease like osteoarthritis, but its progression can be slowed with the use of supplements. Pain management is important to improve your dog’s quality of life, especially if he is also coping with other symptoms of ageing like poor eyesight and deafness. If your dog is overweight, the vet will prescribe a weight management diet to remove any additional pressure off their painful joints. It’s also important that dogs with painful joints get a moderate amount of exercise to keep their lean muscle in good shape and prevent it from atrophying. A good quality dog bed can help to cushion painful joints and keep dogs warm to reduce the pain and stiffness of cold joints.

The outward symptoms of dog diseases are like the warning lights on a dashboard, telling us that something is going on inside and needs to be checked out. Be vigilant about any symptoms your dog may develop – changes in his behaviour and demeanour, eating and eliminating habits, and his general wellbeing. Keep up to date with his vaccinations and tick and flea treatments, and be sure to regularly get your dog checked out at the vet. Just in case.

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