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9 Common Health Conditions in Dogs

9 Common Health Conditions in Dogs

The long-term health of our pets always seems to be on our mind, sometimes even before we bring them home to become members of the family. In order to get a full picture of what your dog’s future might hold, it helps to consider possible health issues that can be inherited from parents to offspring or specific wellness concerns that are common in certain breeds. Health conditions that are more common in one breed over another are typically classified as congenital conditions, which refer to health issues that occur before birth, while hereditary (or genetic) conditions, which are issues passed down from one generation to the next. Congenital issues can also be hereditary, but they aren’t always.

Arming yourself with the proper knowledge in regards to your pet’s health and possible hereditary and congenital health issues can allow you to make informed decisions for your pet, keep an eye out for symptoms, take any precautionary steps to help aid a potential problem that may arise and find a pet insurance plan that can help cover the cost of care.

Congenital and hereditary health conditions in dogs (that pet insurance may help with)

Although this is not a comprehensive list, the following are some of the most common hereditary and/or congenital health conditions found in dogs along with additional information regarding symptoms, causes and treatment.

1. Bloat 

Symptoms: Common signs of bloat include:

  • Drooling
  • Frequent retching and attempts to vomit
  • Anxiousness, restlessness and pacing
  • Depression and shock
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing

Causes: While the true cause of bloat is unknown, extreme stress (perhaps brought on by lifestyle changes or circumstances, like when a dog is being boarded or flying) and feeding them immediately before exercising may increase your dog’s chances of bloat, says Dr. Sara Redding Ochoa of Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital. Along with being brought on by a stressful situation, Dr. Ochoa also adds, “It is a lot more likely to occur in dogs with high levels of anxiety.” The type of dog you have and their physical makeup may also increase the likelihood of bloat. “Dogs with deep, narrow chests seem more prone to bloat and Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV).”

Treatment: If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of bloat, take them to their veterinarian (or emergency vet office) immediately, where emergency surgery may be likely, says Dr. Ochoa. “In this surgery, the veterinarian will untwist your dog’s stomach and relieve the air,” she said. “Many dogs who have surgery still carry a 50/50 chance of survival.”

Preventive measures: Dr. Ochoa recommends the following preventative measures when it comes to bloat:

  • Avoid feeding your dog immediately before or after exercise or playtime
  • Avoid situations that may cause extreme stress or anxiety, as these are believed to cause bloat in some cases
  • Raising your dog’s food and water bowls from the ground, or using a slow feeder for their food
  • A minimally invasive surgery known as prophylactic gastropexy may be able to help prevent GDV and bloat in dogs that are prone to suffering from it. You can discuss this option with your veterinarian.

Dog breeds most prone to bloat: The issue of bloat is most frequently seen in large or deep-chested dogs, including:

  • English Bulldogs
  • Great Danes
  • Basset Hounds
  • Saint Bernards
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Weimaraners
  • Old English Sheepdogs
  • Irish Setters
  • German Shorthaired Pointers
  • Gordon Setters
  • Newfoundlands
  • Standard Poodles
  • German Shepherds

2. Allergies (including flea, environmental and food allergies)

Symptoms: Common signs of allergies include:

  • Visible flea bites
  • Itching, scratching and biting
  • Digestive issues like vomiting or diarrhea (for food allergies)

Causes: The causes of allergies are likely to be different depending on the type of allergy your dog  is dealing with. For example:

  • Flea allergies: Flea allergy dermatitis (a hypersensitive reaction to a flea bite) is the most common type of allergy that Dr. Ochoa says she sees.
  • Seasonal allergies: The second most common allergen, environmental allergens, can be caused by things like pollen, mold and spores. This exhibits itself, “much like you and I when we have an upper respiratory allergy or skin allergy that is often caused by something in our environment,” says Dr. Ochoa.
  • Food allergies: Although dogs can be allergic to certain types of ingredients (most commonly a protein source), Dr. Ochoa said this type of allergy typically only accounts for approximately five percent of the allergy cases she normally sees.

Treatment: The allergy treatment for your pet will be dependent on the type of allergy they are dealing with. Year-round flea and tick prevention is important for all pets, but it's especially important for dogs that suffer from flea allergies. Talk to your vet about what product best suits your dog's needs to help reduce the occurrence of an allergic reaction. Treatments for environmental allergies may require antibiotics, antifungals or antihistamines, but you should always consult with your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication. Bathing your dog more frequently may also help. For food allergies, your veterinarian can work with you to determine the specific ingredient that’s causing the issue, which can then be removed for your dog’s diet. Allergies are not always covered under pet health insurance policies because they are often excluded as a pre-existing condition.

Preventive measures: Daily allergy medications can help keep allergy symptoms at bay, as well as a year-round flea control preventive. Dr. Ochoa also recommends medicated baths to help soothe itchy skin.  

Dog breeds most prone to allergies: Any breed of dog can suffer from allergies, although Dr. Ochoa does note that they’re commonly seen in dogs of blue/grey or white color. Other breeds that tend to exhibit allergy issues include:

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • French Bulldogs

3. Condition: Hip or elbow dysplasia

Symptoms: Both hip and elbow dysplasia are common orthopedic problems often seen in large and giant breed dogs. Although dogs with elbow dysplasia may have no outward signs of the issue at first, it can become so severe that the dog avoids putting any weight on their leg at all. Dogs with hip dysplasia will often have trouble walking, which can also put extra stress on their knees and ankles, causing additional orthopedic problems.

Causes: Both of these conditions are usually inherited, says Dr. Ochoa, but it can also be due to poor nutrition, weight issues or inadequate amounts of exercise.

  • Elbow dysplasia, specifically, is usually caused by the abnormal growth development of cartilage and bone in the elbow, which can displace the elbow or leave it out of the socket. This can cause the elbow joint to develop abnormally and lead to inflammation and arthritis.
  • Hip dysplasia, on the other hand, is caused by abnormal development of the hip joints where the socket in the pelvis is not deep enough for the ball of the femur to stay in place. “When the hip joint is shallow, it causes the femur to continually come in and out of place, causing looseness and instability in the hip joint,” says Ochoa. “When the femur rubs on the pelvis while moving in the socket of the pelvis, this causes arthritis.”

Treatment: Depending on the severity of your dog’s issues, surgery may be an option. “You can also give joint supplements and pain and inflammatory drugs as recommended by your vet to help with the pain and inflammation of the joints,” recommends Dr. Ochoa. Consult with your veterinarian to see if specific diets can help, too. It’s important to keep in mind, though, as Ochoa mentions, that “many times these are lifelong issues, and without surgery, they will need constant management.”

Preventive measures: If it’s possible, you may be able to test the parents of your dog to see if they are affected by hip or elbow dysplasia. Additional OFA testing can be done to determine if your puppy may have issues with their hips or elbows, says Dr. Ochoa.

Dog breeds most prone to dysplasia: Large and giant breed dogs are most prone to dysplasia issues. However, there are a few others, including:

  • English Bulldogs
  • French Bulldogs
  • Shih Tzus
  • Golden Retrievers
  • German Shepherds
  • Goldendoodles
  • Labrador Retrievers

4. Condition: Dermatitis

Symptoms: Common symptoms of skin infection can include:

  • Bad smell
  • Excessive itchiness
  • Skin rashes
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Skin inflammation

Causes: Skin conditions in dogs are often caused by food allergies or something in their environment. If your dog is emitting a strong smell from their skin, Ochoa cautions that it “comes from an oily reaction on the skin.” “If the infection is caused by a yeast or bacterial infection, they will have a very distinct smell of corn chips.”

Treatment: Skin infections can usually be cleared up with antibiotics from your veterinarian once the root cause is determined. “Many times, they may recommend a medicated shampoo for you to bathe your pet in to help with the infection.”

Preventive measures: Skin infections can usually be prevented through measures like specific diets and/or supplements and shampoos. The severity of your dog’s skin issues will determine the correct course of action for prevention, and you should always discuss any options with your veterinarian before trying something new.

Dog breeds most prone to dermatitis:

  • French Bulldogs
  • English Bulldogs

5. Condition: Ear issues (including general ear infections and mites)

Symptoms: Dog ear infection symptoms include:

  • Head shaking and scratching near the ear area
  • Dark discharge from the ear
  • Crusting or scabs in the ear
  • Foul odor
  • Redness and swelling of the ear canal
  • Pain and itchiness
  • Head tilt 

Causes: Ear infections can be caused by a number of issues, including:

  • Allergies: Commonly seen in the early spring to late fall—when new plants are blooming and pollen is in the air—dogs can show signs of seasonal allergies that manifest as ear infections.
  • Bacterial or fungal infections: The inside of your dog’s ear is a great place for bacteria and fungus to grow, particularly in dogs that have long, floppy ears that help trap moisture and dirt.
  • Ear mites: Ear mites are more common in puppies and kittens than their adult counterparts, and cats remain more susceptible than dogs. If you have a new puppy or kitten that is suffering from ear mites, they may pass those along to your dog or cat.

Treatment: If you believe your dog has an ear infection or issue, your veterinarian can take a small sample of debris from your pet’s ear to view under a microscope for signs of infection. Once you have a diagnosis, treatments like ear drops and rinses can usually address most infections. Depending on the severity of the issue, your dog may also need to take oral antibiotics to help clear up the infection. When it comes to ear infections, it’s essential to follow the exact rules of treatment, since missing treatments can lead to a resistant ear infection that’s harder to clear up. Treating with home remedies is always discouraged, says Dr. Ochoa, as they can cause damage to the dog’s eardrum or even lead to deafness.

Preventive measures: Dogs who suffer from multiple ear infections may need a lifelong maintenance routine to help keep their ears clear of hair, dirt and infection. “While sometimes there is no cure for what is causing these ear infections, there are many preventative measures you can take to help keep your dog’s ears healthy,” says Dr. Ochoa. For example, by cleaning their ears at least once a week, or after activities like swimming, you will help prevent building infection. You can also routinely clean their ears with ear wipes and keep their hair cut short around the ears. If allergies are the problem, try giving your dog an approved medication from your vet.  

Dog breeds most prone to ear issues: Dogs with floppy ears or long hair that also grows in their ears are most prone to ear infections. Some breeds prone to ear infections include:

  • Poodles
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers

6. Condition: Eye issues (including retinal atrophy, canine multifocal retinopathy, cataracts and cherry eye)

Symptoms: Symptoms will differ depending on the specific eye issue your pet has, but some common ones manifest as:

  • Rapid blinking
  • Red, swollen and/or irritated eyelids
  • Swollen glands near your dog’s eye
  • Rubbing of the eyes
  • Thick, green mucus on the surface of your dog’s eye
  • A white, milky-like appearance in the eye

Causes: Eye issues can be caused by a number of problems. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Blepharospasm: This occurs when your dog’s eyes blink very rapidly due to involuntary muscle contractions. “Most of the time, this is due to some kind of irritation in your dog’s eye,” mentions Dr. Ochoa. “The most common cause of Blepharospasm is entropion, allergies and infection. Other environmental issues like tobacco smoke or pollen can also cause Blepharospasm.”
  • Cherry eye: This is the layman's term for a swollen third eyelid gland. “This gland in your dog’s third eyelid will become swollen red, looking like a large cherry, thus giving it the name ‘cherry eye,’ says Dr. Ochoa. This is a common genetic abnormality seen in bulldogs and other dogs with short noses and/or flat faces.
  • Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca KCS (or ‘Dry Eye’): ‘Dry eye’ is caused when your dog’s eye does not produce enough tears. “This defect in your dog’s tear duct can lead to severe drying of your dog’s eye and redness,” says Dr. Ochoa.
  • Conjunctivitis (or ‘Pink Eye’): This issue occurs when the tissues around the eye—called conjunctiva—become red and inflamed by infection. The problem is usually caused by an ingrown eyelash, allergies or a viral or bacterial infection.
  • Glaucoma: An increase in the fluid production in the eye or a decrease in fluid drainage from the eye may cause the pressure in your dog’s eye to increase, which is known as Glaucoma.
  • Cataracts: Cataracts occur when the lenses of the eye start to become cloudy, which prevents light from reaching your dog’s eye. This can cause them to have very limited vision and can eventually cause blindness.
  • Corneal Ulcer: Probably the most common eye issue in dogs, a corneal ulcer occurs when something damages the surface of your dog’s eye, which then causes an ulcer to form. “These ulcers can get so big that they cause the eye to rupture,” says Dr. Ochoa.

Treatment: The treatment for your dog’s eye issue will depend on the specific problem. For example:

  • A cherry eye usually requires surgery to fix the issue, says Dr. Ochoa, and it’s rarely corrected on its own. The same is true of cataracts.
  • If ‘Dry Eye’ is suspected, your veterinarian may perform a Schirmer test to determine the number of tears that your dog’s eyes are producing. If they are not producing enough, they will start your dog on medication to increase tear production, says Dr. Ochoa.
  • Blepharospasms and conjunctivitis can usually be helped with a simple saline wash, although medicated eye drops may also be necessary.
  • For a corneal ulcer, your veterinarian can stain your dog’s eye to confirm/find an ulcer. Then, eye drop antibiotics and other eye medications are prescribed to help the ulcer heal. Pain medication may also be prescribed, since corneal ulcers can be very painful.

Preventive measures: Some ways to prevent eye issues from home include:

  • Daily cleaning: Using saline or an eye wipe can help clear your dog’s eyes of the build-up that can occur around the corners of their eyes.
  • Allergy eye drops: If allergies are causing an issue, your veterinarian may recommend allergy eye drops with Naphazoline to help alleviate allergy problems.
  • Eye supplements: Certain eye supplements can help extend your dog’s vision and decrease the development of cataracts. You’ll want to discuss any supplements with your veterinarian before using them on your dog.

Dog breeds most prone to eye issues: Some brachycephalic dogs (those with flat faces) may experience more eye issues. Breeds that often have eye issues include:

  • English Bulldogs
  • French Bulldogs
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Shih-Tzus
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Terriers
  • Chihuahuas
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Goldendoodles

7. Condition: Joint issues (including luxating patella and intervertebral disc disease)

Symptoms: The most common signs for IVDD include an abnormal gait and dragging of the back legs. “You will notice that your dog is walking around like they are drunk,” says Dr. Ochoa. “They may be dragging one or even both legs behind them.” Luxating patella, on the other hand, is a medical term that refers to your dog’s knee cap coming in and out of place. “This can happen as the result of trauma or an accident, but it sometimes just occurs with an awkward step in the right breeds at the right ages,” said Dr. Ochoa. Other joint issues may show up with the following symptoms:

  • Obvious limping
  • Whimpering or whining when moving
  • Visible inflammation and swelling
  • Attempts to avoid all movement
  • Shaky gait
  • Lack of interest in playtime
  • Hiding
  • Avoiding any weight to a specific leg(s)

Causes: IVDD can be caused by a number of different issues, with trauma to their back being a common one. “This may not necessarily need to even be forceful trauma,” says Dr. Ochoa. “Jumping on or off the couch or bed and landing wrong can cause this.” Additional joint problems may be hereditary, be brought on by a large breed’s size or situational from a past injury. However, dogs that are obese can also experience joint issues, due to additional strain from added weight. Older dogs that begin experiencing arthritis can also demonstrate issues with their joints.

Treatment: Surgical procedures, medication and supplements can all help with IVDD, including a new procedure which utilizes a harmonic laser that increases healthy antibodies to reduce inflammation, which can result in a faster recovery, says Dr. Ochoa. Luxating patella can sometimes be easily managed with medicine and supplements, although severe cases may need surgical intervention. For other issues, a pain medication may be prescribed to help your pet move around more comfortably.

Preventive measures: Overweight dogs and dogs of certain breeds are commonly known to suffer from IVDD. If you have a dog that you know is prone to joint issues, keeping them lean and fit will lessen their chances of trauma to the spinal cord, says Dr. Ochoa. Jumping on and off the bed is also a common cause for joint issues. “Use doggy steps or a ramp for your dog to get on and off the bed,” says Dr. Ochoa. “You can also train your dog not to jump on or off furniture.”

Dog breeds most prone to joint issues:

  • Dachshunds
  • Basset Hounds
  • Corgis
  • Yorkshire Terriers
  • French Bulldogs
  • English Bulldogs
  • Chihuahuas
  • Shih Tzus

8. Condition: Cancer (including hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma)

Symptoms: Symptoms of cancer can vary based on the type of cancer your pet is dealing with. Hemangiosarcoma, for example, is a malignant cancer found in a dog’s blood vessels that is aggressive and highly metastatic. Bone cancer (or osteosarcoma), on the other hand, can manifest as swelling near the joints, limping and signs of a very painful leg.

Symptoms for different types of cancer might include:

  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Pale gums
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Decrease in exercise
  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Panting
  • Collapse
  • The appearance of a small red bumps that may bleed easily when touched
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
  • Lameness
  • Unexplained bleeding

Causes: Many cancers have causes that are unknown, although some are thought to be caused by sunlight exposure or genetic predisposition.

Treatment: Different cancers have different treatments. Hemangiosarcoma may be treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy, or even supplements. Treatment for bone cancer often includes amputation of the specific limb, along with chemotherapy.

Preventive measures: Especially for breeds that are predisposed to certain cancers, there is unfortunately not much that can be done by way of prevention. Environmental factors, on the other hand, can sometimes be mitigated. Providing a specially formulated sunscreen for your dog, for example, may help lower their risk for certain cancers.

Dog breeds most prone to cancer: Certain breeds seem to be predisposed to particular types of cancer. Some breeds include:

  • German Shepherds
  • Boxers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Pointers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Shih Tzus

9. Condition: Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)

Symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Snorting
  • Snoring
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Vomiting
  • Episodes of collapsing

Causes: Dogs with short, narrowed nasal cavities and long, soft palates can often have these types of problems. Their long, soft palate can get stuck to their windpipe, which in turn causes them to have issues with breathing.

Treatment: Surgery to shorten a soft palate can help some of these dogs breathe much easier.

Preventive measures: Precautionary breeding measures may help eliminate the issue before birth.

Dog breeds most prone to BOAS: Brachycephalic dogs with short, stubby noses often deal with BOAS. Some of these breeds include:

  • English Bulldogs
  • French Bulldogs
  • Boston Terriers
  • Pugs

It’s also important to note that while the lists above only include purebred dogs, that doesn’t mean that mixed-breed dogs are free and clear of genetic issues. While research has shown that although mixed-breed dogs may be less likely to develop certain recessive disorders when compared to purebred dogs, they may still be carriers who can pass down these genes to their offspring. Additional studies have found that although purebred dogs do carry greater risk of developing certain hereditary disorders, mixed breed dogs are not always healthier than purebreds.

If you have a mixed-breed dog, it might be difficult to determine their various breeds. However, products emerging onto the market like DNA health tests can help screen your dog for certain conditions. While these tests are not always completely accurate, they may help you become aware of symptoms to look out for or conditions to discuss with your veterinarian.

How to prepare

At the end of the day, whether you have a purebred or a mixed-breed pup, your main goal as a pet parent is to keep your dog as healthy and happy as possible. Besides educating yourself on your dog’s breed and their hereditary conditions, pet insurance can be a great way to prepare for your pet’s future health expenses, as it can often help with the costs of treating many of the conditions listed above. Understanding how specific policies work is the best way to pick the right plan for your dog’s specific needs. If you’re in the market for pet insurance, be sure to seek out more information from the pet insurance  provider to make sure that your pet’s particular hereditary or congenital health issues may be covered.