Identifying Vet-worthy Dog Health Problems

Visit the “dog question” section of pet websites, and you’ll likely find a long, sad litany of problems that dogs have suffered over the previous several hours: “My 4-year-old Labrador is urinating on everything.” “My dog is acting strange. Could she be depressed?” “My 14-year-old toy poodle is suddenly lethargic. Help!”

Some websites offer expert veterinary advice for a small fee, but even those come with a disclaimer that there’s no substitute for hands-on veterinary care. “For most questions, I advise that the client see their vet because we can only give insight on what they have told me, but I can always miss something without a proper veterinary exam,” says Dr. Loretta Potts, veterinarian and a verified expert at “Many times, I have to tell the client to go straight to the vet or they could lose their animal.”

Vet vs. iVet
What used to be a simple choice -- go to the vet or wait it out -- is now complicated by the scores of websites that offer to help you and your dog.

But when is it appropriate to play doctor at home? Or more importantly, when isn’t it?

Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists, breaks down the typical problems pet owners confront:

  • Swallowing things
    First call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435. (A $65 fee may be applied.) “A lot of stuff isn’t poisonous, and they [ASPCA representatives] can give you advice for what to do at home or how to treat it so that a plan’s in place when you get to the [veterinary hospital] ER,” says Joyce.
  • Blood
    “At the first sight of blood, people freak,” says Joyce. But applying direct pressure can often stop bleeding at home. Common injuries, like torn nails or cut ears, can generate a lot of blood that goes everywhere -- but they’re minor wounds you can handle. However, any bite wound should be inspected by a doctor, since infection could set in. Any bleeding that won’t stop requires veterinary attention too.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
    “In most cases, even with blood, this is not an emergency,” says Joyce. In fact, Joyce usually sends these cases home for a “nothing by mouth” trial. “It’s instinctive for dogs to drink, and instinctive for people to give the dog water,” she says. But you should cease all food and water to see if the vomiting resolves. If it doesn’t, have your dog checked out.
  • Injuries and limping
    Joyce recommends giving leg injuries some time to heal. “A dog’s instinct is to cease weight-bearing immediately after an injury, which scares owners,” she says. “But by the time they get to the ER, the animal is putting pressure on its leg and wagging its tail.” See a doctor the following day, however, especially if the limping persists.
  • Respiratory issues
    Any obvious and unusual increase in effort or breathing rate should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately. Other issues requiring prompt attention include pale or abnormal gum color, urination issues, change in skin color, yellow in the white of the eyes, strange bruising and seizures.

In the end, Joyce says visiting a veterinarian is always a wise course of action. She often finds what’s available online to be more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s easy for owners to misinterpret pain from a dog that can’t speak, says Joyce, who often sees clients diagnosing their own dogs. She recounts how owners may come in and say, “My dog has a stomach problem, because when I pick him up, he yelps.” But instead of the stomach causing the issue, “it could be his back,” explains Joyce. “When I have someone who’s already decided what’s wrong, it makes my job harder.”

If you go online for clues, Joyce also recommends calling your local veterinary hospital’s emergency room, which will often listen to symptoms over the phone and offer advice for free. “It’s a great service for the public.”

New Treatments for Canine Cancer

Canine cancer treatments can be somewhat like this summer's blackout: The power may be there, but without access to it, it's not worth much. Most veterinary oncologists (specialists in treating cancer in companion animals) agree that while improvements have been made in all areas of cancer treatment, the most important progress has been in improving their clients' access to that treatment. "Availability is the biggest advance in the last 10 years," says David Vail, DVM, DACVIM/Oncology, and a former chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Morris Animal Foundation.

Veterinarians refer to a triad of cancer treatment: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, most likely your veterinarian will discuss one or more of these treatments with you, depending on the type of cancer. According to Vail, surgery is still the number one option. "Far and away, surgery still cures the majority of patients," he says. "If you can catch it early enough and remove the primary tumor, that is still ideal."

Radiation therapy is the second most often used form of treatment, and according to Vail, the number of radiation therapy facilities has drastically increased in the last 10 years, increasing your chances of being close to one. "There are five times as many radiation facilities as when I started in cancer treatment 10 years ago," he says. "That's made a huge difference."

Chemotherapy, generally used when cancer has already spread through the body or when a tumor is located in an inoperable place (such as in the heart), used to be administered only by certified oncologists, which often made it difficult for pet owners to get treatment for their dogs. However, says Philip Bergman, DVM, MS, PhD, head of the Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic and the Flaherty Comparative Oncology Laboratory at the Animal Medical Center, that has now changed, with more and more general practitioners administering chemotherapy. In fact, Bergman himself is one of the medical directors of a brand-new company, Oncura Partners, which partners veterinarians with oncologists. Veterinarians can consult on-line with an oncologist, receive recommendations and protocols, and even get the chemotherapy treatments to administer themselves.

While exciting advances have been made in newer therapies for cancer, including immunotherapy and molecular targeted therapy, both Vail and Bergman agree that knowledge and access are the most important ingredients for successfully treating cancer. "Our general practitioners are getting more and more well-versed in veterinary oncology," says Vail. He encourages pet owners to discuss their dog's treatment with their veterinarian in as much detail as possible, including any alternative therapies you may be giving the dog. "Some [alternative therapies] have proven roles," he says. "[Pet owners] should not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about it." However, because some alternative medicine, such as echinacea, can contraindict chemotherapy or radiation treatments, your veterinarian needs to know what you may be giving your dog.

"Information is key," says Bergman. "We share with [owners] side effects, cost, potential benefit. By knowing all those things they can come to some level of understanding about what is best for them and their pets." Ultimately, he says, "we try our best not to make the decision for them. They know their pet better than anyone else."

Active Lives of Disabled Dogs

Frankie scampers through life, tail wagging and wheels rolling, says owner Barbara Techel. That’s why Frankie, a perky dachshund left partially paralyzed after a fall, has been named the mascot for National Disabled Pets Day.

National Disabled Pets Day, May 3, is an effort to promote recognition of disabled dogs like Frankie. Organizers hope to draw attention to the disabled, special-needs and geriatric pets awaiting adoption. The day is also intended to encourage animal lovers to volunteer time or donate money to organizations that assist disabled dogs and other disabled animals.

“Watching Frankie persevere, I knew we had an amazing opportunity to educate others that animals with disabilities can and do live quality lives if we give them a chance,” says Techel, who has written two books about Frankie “the walk ’n’ roll dog.” Frankie even works as a therapy dog, visiting the residents in a seniors’ facility. While Frankie’s back legs don’t work, he runs and plays like any other dog, happy to be alive.

Celebrating Disabled Dogs

Frankie is far from alone, says Laura Bradshaw, executive director of Healing Hearts Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where disabled dogs and other special-needs animals are given a permanent home or placed for adoption, when possible. “Not everybody knows that these disabled dogs can have fun, full, happy lives,” says Bradshaw. “We’re trying to get that perception changed.”

Owners of disabled dogs are often eager to share their pals’ tales. Here are just a few:

  • Gidget the cocker spaniel Gidget’s missing front right leg didn’t stop Joanne Kaufmann and her husband from bringing the puppy home two years ago. Someone had tossed Gidget down a flight of stairs, injuring the pup’s leg so badly that it had to be amputated. “We still haven’t told her she only has three legs, and I’m not sure that she has figured it out yet,” says Kaufmann. “We do make accommodations to make her life easier. Her food bowls are raised, and she has a wheelchair she uses for walks.”

    Gidget keeps up at the local dog park by playing smart. She will anticipate other dogs’ moves and “cut them off at the pass,” explains Kaufmann. The irrepressible Cocker Spaniel even digs for clams on beach vacations, despite having just one front leg.
  • Maurice the Maltese When Yvonne Kleine’s dog, Maurice, was 12 years old, a degenerative neurological disorder and a failed surgery left the dog without the use of a rear leg. Maurice also lost his vision yet thrived to the ripe old age of 18, says Kleine. Maurice used a wheelchair for disabled dogs. “He would actually race around to the point where we called him Hot Wheels,” says Kleine. “His blindness was not a handicap as far as we could tell. We kept the furniture in the same places, and he navigated perfectly. I truly believe that having the freedom and mobility that the wheelchair afforded him contributed to his happiness and long life, in spite of his handicap.”
  • Garcia the English sheepdog It wasn’t a traumatic injury, but rather aging that slowed Maryglenn McCombs’ beloved Garcia. The 10-year-old, 125-pound English sheepdog suffers from such severe arthritis that he could barely move several months ago, says McCombs. Garcia’s veterinarian recommended underwater therapy. Garcia’s walks on the underwater treadmill at a canine rehabilitation center in Nashville, Tenn., have changed his quality of life, says McCombs. “His progress has been nothing short of incredible. Garcia is now able to take daily walks that sometimes last up to an hour,” she says.

Help for Disabled Dogs and Their Owners
Dog owners can be overwhelmed when confronted with a disabled dog’s needs, says Lisa R. LaVerdiere, executive director of Home for Life, a Minneapolis animal sanctuary that takes in disabled dogs. “A lot of times, people with a disabled animal need some coaching and support,” she says.

If your dog is disabled or you are considering adopting a disabled dog, you’ll find a number of resources online, says LaVerdiere. You can also seek advice from organizations such as Home for Life or Healing Hearts. Companies like Eddie’s Wheels sell carts or wheelchairs for dogs, and you’ll even find diaper covers and special harnesses and slings for dogs that need assistance.

“I would tell owners of disabled dogs that their dogs can live a great life because these dogs don’t think about what they can’t do,” says LaVerdiere. “They think about what they can do.”

Signs of Illness in Your Dog

When your dog is ill, the sooner you intervene, the better. While lethargy and changes in appetite and elimination patterns are easily detectable, other signs of illness may slip under the radar for months on end. Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian at NYC Veterinary Specialists, offers advice on what you should watch out for to ensure your pet stays healthy.

When dog owners call Joyce to ask whether or not they should bring their pet to her emergency room, one of the first things she asks about is the color of the animal’s gums. Gums that are lighter or darker than normal can indicate a number of problems requiring medical attention.

In general, a healthy dog has pink gums. “If gums are pale, the cause can be internal bleeding -- especially common in older, large-breed dogs -- or it can be due to low blood pressure or low body temperature,” explains Joyce. “Bright-red gums can be caused by a fever and an infection.”

Legs and Paws
Your dog should always bear weight equally on all four legs. Both sprains and bone cancer can show up as what Joyce calls “light lameness.” She suggests checking for lumps and bumps, particularly in older large-breed dogs. Asymmetry in the legs can suggest a disease that involves withering of the muscles.

Your dog’s paws are vulnerable to contact dermatitis, and dogs usually lick their paws repeatedly to manage the irritation. Excessive redness between the toes can mean that either a bacterial or yeast infection has set in. 

When your dog is hale and hearty, its eyes are bright and clear. The whites are white, and there is no discharge. In contrast, less-than-healthy eyes are red and may be a notable source of irritation for your furry friend. Redness can indicate anything from dry eye to glaucoma to an infectious disease. Discharge may be suggestive of an eye ulcer.

Healthy ears are reasonably clean and don’t smell bad. The floppy part is neither pink nor red. Also, both ears should look the same on the inside. If there’s a difference, the animal may have either a bacterial or a yeast infection.

Abundant earwax can also signify an ear infection. “If your dog is scratching at its ears a lot, check the wax. Normal earwax is pale gray to light brown and is not abundant,” explains Joyce.

Skin and Hair
Ideally, your pup’s skin is pink, without patchy areas of hair loss or irritation. “Your dog should smell like a dog. With some skin diseases, the dog will smell yeasty or stinky,” says Joyce. Excessive skin scratching is another way your dog may alert you to skin issues.

A healthy canine coat has luster. “You can see if a dog’s hair is healthy, just like you can with a person,” says Joyce. Hair should not have a lot of dander and should not feel greasy. Abundant hair loss can indicate anything from anxiety to endocrine disease and nutritional deficits.

Dental health is as important in dogs as in people. Good dental hygiene shows up in your pet’s breath as well as its teeth. “Dog owners are surprisingly reluctant to look into their dogs’ mouths,” comments Joyce. However, doing so is important, as dental disease is common -- especially in small dogs, which tend to have longer life spans.

“Teeth are a potential source of pain and infection,” notes Joyce. She suggests monitoring your dog’s breath and the amount of tartar on its teeth. When either takes a turn for the worse, it may be time for a cleaning to prevent more serious problems down the road.

“No matter what body part you’re talking about, start off knowing what’s normal for your pet,” sums up Joyce. “Changes in any of the above might be indicative of a problem, at which point it’s time to check with your dog’s veterinarian.”

Kennel Cough Treatment and Prevention

As the owner of both a dog day care facility and a boarding kennel in Virginia, Laura Sharkey works hard to keep the dogs in her care free of injury and disease. One disease she doesn’t really worry about? A condition called kennel cough. In fact, she doesn’t even require the dogs she cares for to be immunized against it. 

“Kennel cough is a relatively innocuous illness that is rarely fatal or even serious,” says Sharkey. “It would be more accurate to call it social dog cough.”

What Kennel Cough Really Is
What’s commonly called kennel cough is actually “a condition that’s associated with intensive confinement circumstances,” explains Kate Hurley, DVM, head of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Those circumstances include kennels, animal shelters, doggie day cares, dog parks and grooming facilities.

This upper respiratory problem can be triggered by a number of different agents, including several types of bacteria that belong to a kind of family called bordetella. “Bordetella is one of the most common players in kennel cough,” says Hurley. “But there are many other players as well.”

Does the usually mild nature of this condition mean that its symptoms should be ignored? Not necessarily. The trick is to know which symptoms are relatively benign and which indicate more serious trouble.

Serious Symptoms 
A dog that’s experiencing a honking cough and discharge from its nose and eyes may have an uncomplicated respiratory infection that will clear up on its own. But if your dog is also lethargic, not eating or feverish, see your veterinarian. Such signs indicate that your dog may have a more serious illness, such as distemper, parainfluenza or canine influenza.

Take Action
Here are four steps to take to protect your dog from kennel cough or treat your already diagnosed pup:

1. Vaccinate appropriately Not every dog needs a vaccination against bordetella. For example, a healthy adult dog that spends little or no time with other dogs probably can forego the vaccine. But for dogs that regularly get groomed professionally, visit doggie day cares and dog parks, or are boarded at kennels, Hurley suggests a yearly bordetella vaccination. “Vaccinations for other conditions such as distemper, parvovirus and parainfluenza provide long-term protection and need to be given only once every three years,” explains Hurley. “But bordetella vaccine does not provide such protection, which is why dogs at risk need it every year.”

2. Know the limits Even a vaccinated dog may develop a respiratory condition. “Most vaccines for respiratory disease reduce the severity of the signs of those diseases but don’t alleviate them completely,” says Hurley.

3. ID your dog Hurley says that proper identification is the best way to protect a dog from kennel cough or other respiratory infection. “Get your dog an identification tag and a microchip,” she suggests. “That way, if your dog gets lost, the person or shelter who finds him can contact you quickly, greatly reducing your dog’s risk of being in the shelter long enough to be exposed to kennel cough.”

4. Limit exposure to other dogs If your dog gets infected, follow the guidelines set by your dog day care operator or boarding kennel to protect other dogs. At Sharkey’s day care facility, staffers recognize symptoms, quarantine dogs that are suspected of being ill and alert the dogs’ owners that their dogs cannot return to day care until they are cleared by a veterinarian. 

If your dog does come down with kennel cough, don’t panic. Follow the advice of our experts, seek veterinary treatment and try to ride out the two to three weeks of ear-splitting canine coughs associated with the dreaded illness.