Dogs are our favourite pets, with nearly half of Australian households owning at least one pup.1
But what would happen if your furry best friend needed urgent medical attention? Would you see the signs? Do you know how to prevent certain ailments?
On this page, we outline the most common dog diseases and illnesses pet owners should know about and provide tips for ensuring your canine companion lives a long and healthy life.
Eight common dog diseases and how to avoid them
Transmitted by mosquitos, heartworms are long, parasitic worms that grow inside a dog’s heart and lungs – eventually causing organ failure and death. Symptoms of heartworm include coughing, wheezing, lethargy and weight loss. Jaundice may also be present in cases where the spleen or liver is affected. Some infected animals may require ongoing or lifelong treatment to prevent heart failure. Treatment for heartworm in dogs can be dangerous and costly, so prevention is paramount.2
Prevention: Get your dog an annual heartworm vaccination from the vet or a monthly medication like an oral tablet or chews. The cheaper option will depend on whether your vet charges a consultation fee and the medication brand you use. In addition to medication, it’s wise to keep your dog away from mosquito-infested areas, such as swamps, wetlands, and stagnant water.
2. Fleas and ticks
Fleas are external parasites, living in the dog’s coat and feeding on their blood. Flea bites are irritating and painful for dogs, and they can cause skin conditions, anaemia and infections. Symptoms include scratching, biting and hair loss around the affected area. Treatment for fleas is reasonably priced and available as a shampoo or tablets.
Ticks are much more serious than fleas and can cause blood poisoning, Lyme disease and, in some cases, death. Symptoms include paralysis of the hind legs, lameness, a change in the dog’s bark and vomiting. Treatment ranges from tablets or chews to topical treatments, available from your local pet store or vet.3
Prevention: For fleas, you can use tablets, flea collars and regular bathing and grooming to minimise the risk of infestation. For ticks, there are topical treatments, sprays and tick collars available. It’s also helpful to complete daily checks by running your fingertips or a fine comb through your dog’s coat.
Just like humans, dogs can get cancer. Common types include lymphoma, melanomas in the dog’s mouth, osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and mast cell skin tumours. Cancer symptoms in dogs include lethargy, loss of appetite and weight loss. Dog cancer is treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation – which can cost thousands of dollars. That said, it’s worth noting that some cancer growths are benign and not life-threatening.
Prevention: Like all cancers, catching the symptoms early is important. Watch for unusual lumps and spots on your dog’s mouth, face and body. Also, monitor any changes in appetite or energy.
Another chronic disease dogs can get is diabetes which is caused by either insulin resistance or insulin deficiency. Insulin is a vital hormone that controls how cells and tissues absorb energy and the breakdown of fats and proteins. If a dog doesn’t produce insulin or their body doesn’t metabolise insulin, it may lead to elevated blood sugar levels and result in hyperglycemia which, if left untreated, can cause many complicated health problems like organ failure. Chronic pancreatitis (pancreas inflammation) can also lead to your dog becoming diabetic.4
Prevention: Feeding your furry companion a balanced diet and ensuring enough exercise for their size and breed could help prevent dog diabetes. However, it’s important to note that diabetes isn’t always preventable because age, genetics and other health conditions can be contributing factors.
5. Kennel cough
Kennel cough is a form of bronchitis which causes inflammation in the dog’s windpipe. In human terms, it’s the equivalent of the common cold. Dogs typically pick up kennel cough from cold temperatures, poorly ventilated environments and other infected dogs.
You can spot kennel cough when your dog sounds like they’re choking. Sneezing, coughing, a runny nose and difficulty breathing are common symptoms. Typical treatments include rest, good food and access to plenty of water. Antibiotics are often needed in severe cases.5
Prevention: A highly contagious illness, you can get your dog vaccinated against kennel cough. Also, try and keep your dog away from large groups of dogs or dogs unknown to you.
6. Dog arthritis
Arthritis or osteoarthritis is prevalent among older dogs. If your dog has arthritis, you’ll notice they’re slow to get back up on their feet and less active than they once were. The use of exercise, weight control and medication can ease your beloved dog’s pain. Hip dysplasia (osteoarthritis of the hip) is also common in dogs and especially in large breeds like bulldogs, golden retrievers, Great Danes, Labradors, mastiffs, pugs, Rottweilers and St. Bernards.6
Prevention: You can reduce the chances of dog arthritis through a quality diet, comfortable bedding, weight control, supplementation and deterrence from laying on hard surfaces, such as concrete and floorboards. On the other hand, hip dysplasia is often hereditary but can be alleviated with proper care. Your vet should be able to advise on the best course of action.
7. Skin conditions
Dogs can get contact allergies (contact dermatitis), typically after direct contact with an allergen like certain types of grass or chemicals found in flea prevention collars or products like pyrethrin. Canines can also be prone to skin infections ranging from mild yeast infections and impetigo to alopecia and ringworm. Some dog breeds have a predisposition to skin conditions, such as bulldogs and Shar-Peis. Parasitic mites like scabies and mange are also not uncommon in dogs; you can reduce this risk by keeping your pooch away from wild animals.7
Prevention: You can protect your dog’s skin barrier with regular bathing (use medicated shampoos if needed) and proper parasite control to keep external parasites like fleas and mites at bay. Some skin conditions in dogs are incurable but manageable.
8. Intestinal issues
All dogs can have tummy troubles, but bloat and intestine issues are more common in deep-chested, large breeds like Labradors, Basset Hounds, Irish setters, German shepherds and Great Danes, to name a few. Therefore, some of these dog breeds may be more expensive to insure. Symptoms of dog bloat include abdominal pain or distention and dry heaving. It’s important to keep an eye out for any behavioural change in your dog, like if they position themselves in a downward facing pose (where the dog’s back half is up and upper half is down) or if they’re covering their belly in pain. Dogs can also get intestinal parasites like hookworms and roundworms, which can cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea and anaemia.8
Prevention: Stomach and intestines disorders may not always be preventable as some breeds are predisposed to them. However, you can always help improve their digestion by ensuring they eat smaller meals throughout the day (rather than one big meal), drink plenty of water and exercise before and after meals to help move food along the digestive tract.
Other ailments your dog may encounter
- Infectious/viral diseases. Some common infectious diseases are canine parvovirus (acute gastrointestinal illness), leptospirosis (bacterial infection), bordetella (a respiratory disease) and canine distemper, which affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system. Dogs contract these diseases through contact with an infected dog’s urine or faeces. Luckily, there are vaccines to protect your dog.
- Dog ear infections. When dirt, dust or an object gets lodged inside the dog’s ear canal, it can lead to an infection. This infection is often remedied with antibiotic ear drops from the vet.
- Diarrhoea. Sometimes diarrhoea is a sign of bad food or a minor allergic reaction; other times, it’s a sign of something more sinister. Contact your vet if symptoms persist.
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs). Like humans, dogs, especially female dogs, can also be prone to UTIs. Bacteria causes infection in the urinary tract (this can happen when faeces or debris enter the urethral opening) or if your dog’s immune system is weakened.
- Dog cataracts. Dog breeds with the highest cataract prevalence include terriers and miniature poodles. If left untreated, a cataract can leave your dog blind. A dog cataract can only be removed surgically.
- Broken bones. If your dog is in an accident or falls from a height, they may have broken a bone. Your brave companion will try and hide the pain, so look out for limping or protruding lumps.
Obesity. Overweight dogs are more likely to develop heart disease, kidney disease, arthritis and other debilitating illnesses. To avoid dog obesity, ensure your dog is exercised daily and fed a maximum of only twice per day.
Read more about dog care and disease prevention.
Vaccinations for dogs
In Australia, there are core and non-core vaccines. The core vaccines for dogs are to protect them against (potentially fatal) infectious diseases like canine parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis viruses. These are combined within a single vaccine, commonly known as the ‘C3’ vaccine.9
When your dog is a puppy, their immune system is still developing. Therefore, it’s important to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. The first core vaccine should be given at six or eight weeks, followed by a booster vaccine every two to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age.
Non-core vaccines for kennel cough and heartworm will incur additional costs. Consult your local vet on a vaccination schedule for your furry friend.
Blood tests for dog health
Your vet may recommend a blood test as part of your annual checkup, especially if your pet seems unwell or is getting on in years. Blood screening will become more important as your pet ages, as they tend to develop more health issues in their older years (similar to humans) or before starting any medications or treatment options. Vets will generally ask for a blood test if your dog needs surgery under anaesthetic to ensure they have a complete picture of your pup’s health and predispositions.