By Sarah Wooten, DVM
Whether they’re in the backyard chasing a brazen squirrel or hiking a breathtaking nature trail, active dogs long for adventure. One only has to observe the sheer excitement on a dog’s face when he sees a squirrel to know that experiencing wildlife is one of man’s best friend’s greatest pleasures.
In order to experience the best nature has to offer, it is important to protect your dog’s health against harmful parasites harbored by wildlife and other dogs and cats, including fleas, ticks, and worms. One way to protect your dog is to recognize the subtle symptoms of infection before the problem gets worse.
Here are eight suspicious symptoms in active dogs, potential causes of these symptoms, and what to do if you notice them.
8 Suspicious Symptoms in Active Dogs
Dogs cough for a variety of reasons. Non-infectious causes of coughing in dogs include heart disease, cancer, bronchitis, allergies, and pneumonia. Infectious causes of dog coughing include bacteria and viral diseases, such as kennel cough and distemper, pneumonia due to influenza, parasitic infections such as heartworm and lungworm, and fungal disease. Some infectious causes can be transmitted directly from dog to dog while others are transmitted via other routes and not directly contagious to other dogs.
Heartworm disease is a common infectious cause of coughing in young dogs who are not administered a regular heartworm preventive. It is transmitted by mosquitoes.
Fortunately, many of the infectious causes of coughing in dogs can be prevented. Effective vaccines reduce the likelihood that your dog will contract distemper, influenza, and kennel cough. Heartworms, lungworms, and intestinal worms can be protected against by administering a broad-spectrum dewormer.
If you notice your dog coughing and it lasts for more than 24 hours, if your dog is lethargic, has difficulty breathing or pale gums, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian immediately to get your dog checked out.
Dog Scratching or Excessive Licking
Excessive scratching or licking is always suspicious. Dogs often scratch or chew themselves for one reason: they are itchy. Even though many things can make a dog itch, fleas are the number one reason dogs scratch themselves.
Some dogs are so sensitive that flea bites cause an allergic reaction (called flea allergy dermatitis), in which they may scratch themselves raw. Other possible causes of excessive scratching can include seasonal allergies, skin mites, yeast and bacterial infections, and ingredient sensitivities can also cause dogs to scratch, itch, and lose their hair.
If your dog is scratching more than usual, get it checked out by a veterinarian. A veterinarian will conduct an exam and may recommend skin testing and treatment. If fleas are noted, then flea control may be recommended. Ask your veterinarian about a chewable tablet that protects against both fleas and ticks.
Head Shaking in Dogs
Dogs shake their heads if they have something in their ear or if their ear is infected, itchy, or painful. For instance, dogs can get grass seeds lodged in their ears after sniffing around the grass. Dogs’ ears can also get infected with mites, yeast, or bacteria.
Head shaking is a suspicious sign that something is wrong with one or both ears, and if it doesn’t stop after a day, or your dog is violently shaking his head and won’t stop, see a veterinarian.
Loose Stool in Dogs
Dogs can get into all sorts of unsavory stuff, leading to gastrointestinal inflammation, infection, vomiting, and diarrhea. Intestinal parasites, GI inflammation, pancreatitis, and diet change, and hunting and scavenging are all things that can cause abdominal pain and loose stool.
If you notice diarrhea or loose stool that is severe, bloody, is accompanied by vomiting, or lasts more than 24 hours then call your veterinarian.
If you notice something suspicious in your dog’s stool that resembles grains of rice or spaghetti, it can be a sign of intestinal parasite infection. Ask your veterinarian about a broad-spectrum product that protects against multiple internal worms.
Lumps in Dogs
Lumps and bumps on the skin can be anything from infected abscesses to tumors to burrowing parasites to warts, just to name a few. It’s also very common for pet parents to bring their dog to the veterinarian with a new “bump” and have it be an engorged tick.
Abscesses are usually the result of infected bite wounds, and appear swollen, fluid-filled, warm to the touch, and may be painful or draining pus.
If your dog has a tumor, keep in mind that some are benign and do not require treatment, while others should be removed as soon as possible.
If your dog has a wart, it will appear firm and flat, and there may be more than one.
Another cause of lumps in dogs is cuterebra, a fly larva that burrows under the skin and makes a lump with a breathing hole. (Gross, we know!)
Any lumps or bumps that you notice should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Dogs scoot their bums around when they are itchy. Itchy dog bums are often caused by anal gland irritation or infection, where one or both scent glands located just inside the anus get irritated or too full.
Dog scooting can also be caused by tapeworms, an intestinal parasite. Infected dogs will shed tapeworm segments in their feces. Some tapeworm segments look like grains of rice that often adhere to the anus or the hair around the anus, while other types of tapeworm are not visible with the naked eye.
The most common tapeworms are transmitted by fleas, so if your dog has fleas, it likely also has tapeworms. Fleas are only one source of tapeworms, however. Dogs can also contract tapeworm from rodents and other small mammals, wildlife, and raw meat.
If your dog is scooting, have a veterinarian check your dog out to see if the anal glands need to be expressed, or if a broad spectrum dewormer and flea control need to be instituted.
Lack of Energy in Dogs
If your normally active dog is acting lethargic, it could be a suspicious sign. Dogs can act lethargic if they are too hot or have played or run too much—this type of lethargy usually resolves on its own.
Lethargy in dogs can also be caused by pain, hormonal problems, liver disease, heart disease, kidney disease, brain or nervous disorders, and many other things.
If you notice your dog has lower energy than normal for longer than one day’s duration, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Weight Loss in Dogs
Weight loss happens when a dog is not eating enough, not absorbing calories from the gut due to parasites or gastrointestinal disease, or losing too many calories to parasites, cancer, or other diseases.
If you have checked with your veterinarian and are feeding an appropriate amount of food and your healthy, happy active dog is still losing weight, then something is not right.
If your dog is eating a normal or increased amount of food and is still losing weight, then it is time to enlist the help of your friendly neighborhood veterinarian. She will ask you questions, conduct an exam on your dog, and will recommend a fecal test, and may recommend blood or urine tests. Depending on the results of the tests, she will recommend treatment and/or diet modification.
Intestinal parasites are some of the most common causes of weight loss in active, young dogs, and the three most common intestinal parasites in dogs in the U.S. are hookworms, roundworms, and whipworms (1). Some of these worms are even contagious to humans. Infections with small numbers of worms may go unnoticed initially, while the worms’ eggs are passed in the dog’s feces and are contaminating the environment, resulting in a source of future infections. Fortunately, it is easy to protect your dog by using a monthly broad-spectrum parasite control dewormer, year-round.
Knowledge is power. Knowing how to monitor for these suspicious symptoms and what to do if you notice them may help prevent health problems or pain in your furry friend. Who knows—you might just save your dog’s life.
- Drake, J., Carey, T. Seasonality and changing prevalence of common canine gastrointestinal nematodes in the USA. Parasites Vectors 12, 430 (2019) doi:10.1186/s13071-019-3701-7
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