Common Canine Diseases

Information on common diseases found in dogs

  • Arthritis
  • Cushing’s Syndrome (Hyperadrenocorticism)
  • Gastric Dilation & Torsion (Bloat)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Vestibular Disease


Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease whereby pain and stiffness develop as a result of wear and tear to the joints involved.

In the normal joint, the bone surfaces, which meet and rub together, are covered by a thin layer of cartilage – an elastic substance acting as a self-repairing, shock absorbing layer.

The moving parts of the joint are encased within a capsule filled with synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant. Wear and tear, which occurs throughout life, may reach a stage where areas of the cartilage become worn, exposing the underlying bone and leading to pain and/or impaired movement.

Your dog’s hips, knees and elbows are the most susceptible joints. In some individuals and certain breeds, abnormal wear can start quite early in life. This may be the result of injury or an inherited condition.

When old age becomes a pain:

As we all know, getting about can become difficult with age and may become associated with considerable pain. Like humans, many dogs which have arthritic joints suffer in this way, but, because they are often much more stoical than we are, they seldom complain.

If your dog is to live life to the full, in spite of increasing pain and stiffness, you need to look out for the clues which may help to identify potential problems early, so that you can take necessary action as quickly as possible. Early action means treatment will be more successful and your dog will be comfortable for longer.

Here are some of the signs that suggest your dog may be in pain:

  • Licking or self injury
  • Reluctance to walk or play
  • Difficulty in getting up
  • Difficulty in climbing stairs/jumping into car/chair
  • Limping or stiffness
  • Change in character or aggression
  • Reduced interaction with people
  • Reduced appetite
  • Increase in anxiety/clinging, etc


Often, regular gentle exercise helps to maintain mobility, as joints that do not have regular movement may stiffen up, meaning your dog becomes less and less active. Your dog may still be keen to chase a ball, but it may be better to avoid such energetic activities. Frequent gentle walks may be of more benefit.

Hydrotherapy is an increasingly popular complementary therapy for dogs with osteoarthritis. It involves purpose-built pools that allow safe, controlled swimming for your dog. Swimming helps build up muscle mass which will support the joint. It is a ‘low impact’ exercise so won’t aggravate joint pain. Speak to us about the correct type and level of exercise for your dog. We also have contact details of hydrotherapy pools in the area. Some insurance companies cover hydrotherapy.

Weight loss:

Joint problems are aggravated by excess weight. Carrying excess weight causes both additional pain and increases damage to the joint. There have been studies done that have shown slim dogs to live longer than overweight dogs. Ask us if you think your pet is overweight, we can offer free weight clinics with our nurses.

In younger animals, exercise plays a big part in controlling weight. This is more difficult in older dogs with arthritis as we usually advise limited exercise. This means that a reduction in food intake is often necessary, talk to us about how our nurses can help with a nutritional plan for your pet.


Treatment of the older dog is aimed at reducing pain and stiffness so improving quality of life. As in humans, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) are now commonly used to achieve this, since they reduce the formation of substances in the body which give rise to both pain and inflammation. Early intervention is important to reduce the likelihood of more severe pain developing.

Remember that arthritis is a progressive disease and regular reassessment by your veterinary practice is essential to ensure that your pet is receiving the best possible care. As part of this assessment we might suggest blood testing to monitor liver and kidney function amongst others. This is important, as we might need to adjust the treatment accordingly once we have those results.

Supplementary therapies:

Supplementary therapies include such things as nutritional supplements, acupuncture, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy (mentioned above).

These are becoming more popular and more common.

When choosing a physiotherapist make sure he/she is a chartered animal physiotherapist which means that they have had the training and have a governing body.

We can also give you details of acupuncturists.

There is a wide range of nutritional supplements (nutraceuticals) now that may help to support the normal function of your dog’s joints. In the UK, vitamins, minerals, supplements and a variety of related nutritional products including nutraceuticals fall into 2 categories, licensed and unlicensed preparations. Licensed products are assessed for safety, efficacy and quality in accordance with legislation.

Unlicensed products do not allow for medicinal claims but can claim for health maintenance. The current regulatory position still has not really clarified the situation very much for the consumer. The same ingredients can still be found in licensed and unlicensed products. The key difference is that licensed products have therapeutic indications and may make claims as such, having had to provide a dossier of evidence to support efficacy, quality and safety claims.

Cushing’s Syndrome (Hyperadrenocorticism)

Cushing’s syndrome occurs when a dog is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol for an extended period of time. Cortisol is produced by 2 small glands situated near the kidneys called the adrenal glands. The hormone ACTH controls the production & release of cortisol. ACTH is produced by a small gland beneath the brain called the pituitary. Cortisol is normally released into the bloodstream at times of stress to prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response.

In dogs with Cushing’s syndrome, cortisol release is excessive and so results in a number of possible clinical signs including:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Increased appetite
  • A “pot belly”
  • Thinned skin & hair loss
  • Development of muscle wastage
  • Lethargy

There are 2 forms of Cushing’s syndrome:

Pituitary – dependent Cushing’s syndrome

  • Most common form
  • Due to the development of a slow growing tumour in the pituitary gland which produces large amounts of the hormone ACTH

Adrenal – dependent Cushing’s syndrome

  • Development of a tumour in 1 or possibly both of the adrenals producing large amounts of cortisol

Cushing’s syndrome is usually seen in the older dog and therefore the clinical signs may initially attributed to normal ageing.

As the cortisol levels in the blood of all dogs fluctuates greatly throughout the day, diagnosis of Cushing’s

Syndrome involves an “ACTH stimulation test” which measures the ability of a dog’s adrenal glands to produce cortisol when stimulated. An alternative test is the “low dose dexamethasone suppression test” which assesses the ability of the adrenal glands to control the production of cortisol.

The above blood tests require you to leave your dog with us at the surgery for a couple of hours or for the day.

If your dog is diagnosed as having Cushing’s syndrome they will need to start medication in the form of capsules. Unfortunately this is not a cure and your dog will have to take the medication for the rest of their life but by reducing the body’s cortisol production it is efficient at reversing the signs of Cushing’s syndrome.

We will need to monitor your dog’s treatment to ensure they are on the correct dose. Repeat blood samples will need to be taken after 4 weeks and then every 6 months, providing your dog is stable. Your vet may decide a sample is required 10 days after starting treatment.

Gastric Dilation & Torsion (Bloat)

Gastric Dilation and Torsion – is one of the few true veterinary emergencies. It occurs when the stomach dilates or swells up excessively with gas. The stomach may maintain its normal position inside the abdomen or it may twist trapping the gas inside (gastric torsion).

This effectively shuts off the ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ of the stomach so the frothy gas cannot escape. It continues to make the stomach swell and the dog’s abdomen becomes as tight as a drum. However, it also twists and constricts the blood supply to the stomach and the starved tissue rapidly begins to die. This condition occurs principally in large and giant breed dogs with deep chests i.e. Irish setters and Great Danes but it is important to realise that it can occur in any dog, even in small breeds, though this is rare.

It is very often not evident why this condition occurs but can happen when a dog wolfs food down too quickly and swallows too much air.

Affected animals may retch but not bring anything up and may show signs of abdominal pain. There may also be evidence of abdominal swelling (bloating). They may be restless and pant due to the discomfort

If you are at all concerned and believe your dog is displaying any of above symptoms please contact the surgery immediately.

Prevention/Reducing Risk

Avoid exercising your dog too near to meal times. Ideally exercise either 1 hour before or 2 hours after feeding

  • Feed your dog from a height with the bowl positioned on a stand at chest level
  • Avoid feeding just one big meal daily. Divide their food into 2 or 3 smaller meals


The thyroid hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) & T4 (thyroxine) are produced by the thyroid glands located in the neck region. Hypothyroidism is the underproduction of the above hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. Thyroid hormones production & release is controlled by another hormone, TSH that is released from a gland beneath the brain called the pituitary.

The disease normally occurs in middle to older aged dogs but we do see the condition in younger dogs of larger breeds.

There are 2 main causes:

Idiopathic atrophy

  • here the thyroid gland cells become replaced with fat cells but there is no known biological cause for the gland not functioning properly

Thyroiditis i.e. inflammation of the thyroid gland

  • inflammatory cells gradually destroy the thyroid cells
  • may be inherited in some breeds

Clinical signs include:

  • losing hair, especially on the tail, hind quarters or flank
  • dry or oily skin
  • recurrent skin/ear infections
  • increased weight & lethargy
  • unwillingness to exercise
  • seeking out of warm places

Diagnosis of the condition involves getting a blood sample to test a combination of the hormones.

If your dog is diagnosed with hypothyroidism they will need to start treatment in the form of tablets that are given once or twice daily. These tablets work by replacing the missing thyroid hormones. Unfortunately they are not a cure & therefore will need to be given for the rest of your dog’s life. You should see an improvement in your dog’s overall health in the first 2 months.

To ensure your dog is receiving the correct dose of treatment, repeat blood tests are required 4-6 weeks after starting treatment & then every 6 months.

Vestibular Disease

The vestibular (inner ear) organs provide the brain with important information about body position. It tells the body if it is upside down, right-side up, tumbling, turning, falling or accelerating. It helps to maintain balance.

When your dog has vestibular disease, it is most often associated with the inner ear (peripheral) rather than the brain (central).

Signs of vestibular disease in pets can include:

  • Circling (spinning or walking in circles)
  • Standing with an exaggerated wide stance
  • Head tilting
  • Falling or rolling to one side
  • Nystagmus (involuntary drifting eye movements)
  • Squint or strabismus (abnormal position of the eyeballs)
  • Ataxia (stumbling, staggering, lack of coordination or general wobbliness)
  • Vomiting and motion sickness

These signs can come on very suddenly and can be very frightening. Most people think that their pet has suffered a stroke. Strokes are very uncommon in pets and most pets with vestibular disease will recover over a few weeks.


Peripheral vestibular disease in dogs is usually of unknown origin (idiopathic), less common causes can be middle ear infection, head trauma or a brain lesion.

How can I help my pet with idiopathic vestibular disease?

Your vet may prescribe some medication to reduce nausea and motion sickness in the short term and will often use a “wait and see” approach to treatment. You can help your pet in several ways:

  • Give your pet time. Canine idiopathic vestibular disease is generally not life threatening, most pets will naturally adapt and compensate within about 3 to 5 days, although a head tilt may remain.
  • Comfort your pet by managing your own stress. Pets are sensitive to the mood of their companions. The less agitated you are, the calmer he /she will be.
  • Provide a quiet resting spot. This should be away from all the hustle and bustle of a busy household, minimise your pet’s exposure to enthusiastic toddlers or loud television for example. Avoid your pet settling in a middle of a hallway where people walk through, even if you are attentive to cautiously stepping around your dog, his heightened motion sensitivity may make him startle easily.
  • Provide lighting and support. Good lighting is essential for your dog to see his visual clues to help his positioning. Also consider providing a blanket rolled up in a C-shape to support and surround your pet when he/she is lying down.
  • Avoid carrying your pet. In the same way that a human with a vestibular disease needs to move about to help recalibrate sensory information, your pet needs to retrain his system by navigating on his own. The touch sensors in a pet’s paw give information about balance to the inner ear. This won’t be activated if your dog’s paws are dangling in the air. Instead, help your dog walk by placing your hands on both sides of his body or use a towel/sling under his belly.
  • If your pet is not improving it is possible that there may be an underlying cause for the vestibular disease (rather than being idiopathic- no known cause). Further investigation may be necessary, including advanced imaging (MRI/CT scan) to determine the underlying cause.
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