Here Are 11 Common Big Dog Health Problems, According To A Vet

Here’s what to look out for 🤕

big dog with ice pack

Big dogs are often the cuddliest.

But with their big, snuggly size comes health problems that are specific to large breeds.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Corinne Wigfall, a veterinarian spokesperson for SpiritDog Training, to put together a list of some of the most common health problems for giant breeds.

Here are 11 of the most common health problems in large dogs.

Arthritis

“Arthritis is a degenerative, progressive disease typically seen in older large-breed dogs. It is a common mobility disorder affecting the joints,” Dr. Wigfall told The Dodo.

When dogs have arthritis, the cartilage in their joints becomes damaged, which causes their bones to rub against each other. This causes even more damage and pain. New bone can then form around the joints (aka bone spurs), which makes it difficult to move.

Signs of arthritis can include:

  • Difficulty jumping up or down (like onto the bed or into the car)
  • Reluctance to go on walks
  • Reluctance to go up or down stairs
  • Lameness
  • Joint pain (licking or biting joints)
  • Stiff or slow walking
  • Swollen joints
  • Not wanting to be pet or aggression when being pet in certain areas
  • Irritability
  • Loss of muscle

Arthritis can’t be cured, but the symptoms can be managed.

“Management is based on controlling the pain, promoting joint and cartilage health, and ensuring appropriate weight management,” Dr. Wigfall said. “Weight loss is essential if an arthritic dog is overweight to avoid overloading their joints.”

According to Dr. Wigfall, one aspect of managing arthritis includes making some lifestyle changes, “such as putting down carpet to avoid slipping and aid their movement; ensuring a thick, comfy bed is available; [buying] ramps for them to walk up into the car; and ensuring consistent walks (no long walks as this can flare up arthritis).”

You can get this memory foam orthopedic dog bed from Amazon for $69.95 and this dog ramp from Amazon for $109.95.

“Laser therapy, acupuncture, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy are also other treatments to help aid your pet’s comfort and mobility,” Dr. Wigfall said.

You can also talk to your vet to find out which pain medication would be best to manage your pup’s pain.

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Cardiomyopathy is when the heart becomes enlarged because the heart muscle stops working properly (cardiomyopathy is degeneration of the heart muscle).

This is the most common cause of heart failure in some types of large breeds, including Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, boxers, Irish wolfhounds, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards. (Cocker spaniels, while not technically a big dog breed, are often affected, too).

DCM can seem to come on suddenly because there may not be symptoms when it starts to develop.

“It can go undiagnosed in its preclinical phase, where no obvious clinical symptoms are showing,” Dr. Wigfall said. “However, as the heart structure changes and enlarges, it may start to stop working as efficiently, which may cause a sudden onset of clinical signs.”

Signs of DCM include:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Not wanting to play or go on walks
  • Fainting
  • Collapse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen belly

If your dog has undiagnosed DCM, congestive heart failure can develop very quickly, and it can present with the following symptoms:

According to Dr. Wigfall, treatment depends on the severity of the DCM. Medications can include diuretics (aka medications that flush fluid from the body) to remove excess fluid in the lungs, ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure, antiarrhythmic drugs to help the heart beat normally, and pimobendan to help the heart contract.

The prognosis for DCM isn’t good, which is why it’s so important to take your dog for annual checkups with your vet so they can diagnose any heart problems and start treatment as early as possible.

Aortic stenosis

Aortic stenosis is a hereditary condition that occurs when the aortic valve in the heart narrows. When this happens, the heart has to work harder to pump blood out to the rest of the body.

Because this condition is genetic, it can sometimes be present when a dog is born, or it can show up within the first year of a dog’s life. Your vet will usually notice a heart murmur during a regular checkup and will conduct follow-up tests, such as X-rays, ECGs and echocardiograms, to confirm the diagnosis.

In mild cases, you probably won’t see any symptoms, and your dog won’t need treatment. But the condition can progress as your dog gets older, so your vet will monitor his symptoms.

In more severe cases, symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Fainting
  • Weakness
  • Coughing

Beta blockers are used to treat aortic stenosis by helping the heart not work as hard and slowing the heart rate.

Bloat

Bloat, or gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), is a life-threatening condition that occurs when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and liquid and flips and twists, which traps the contents inside. This can cut off blood flow to other organs in the body and lead to shock.

“[Bloat is] a true emergency,” Dr. Wigfall said. “Bloat typically occurs with exercise after ingestion of a large meal or large volumes of water; however, there are several other risk factors for this condition.”

The following can cause bloat in dogs:

  • Eating too quickly
  • Overeating
  • Drinking too much in a short period of time
  • Stress
  • Older age (this condition occurs most often in middle-aged dogs)
  • Exercising after eating
  • Eating from a raised food bowl

While any breed can develop bloat, large breeds with deep chests are typically at greater risk. Around 20 percent of dogs weighing over 100 pounds will develop bloat. And Great Danes have the greatest risk. They have up to a 42 percent risk of developing bloat during their lives.

Here are the symptoms of bloat in dogs:

  • Swollen or distended belly
  • Painful belly
  • Retching or dry heaving
  • Excessive drooling
  • Collapse
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Restlessness
  • Pale gums
  • Rapid heart beat

If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, take him to the vet immediately.

“Urgent veterinary treatment is needed,” Dr. Wigfall said. “Treatment is based on emergency resuscitation of shock, involving high rates of intravenous fluids and pain relief. To treat the issue, emergency surgery is needed to de-rotate and deflate the stomach.”

Hip and elbow dysplasia

With hip and elbow dysplasia, the joints don’t fit together properly, causing them to rub together and leading the joints to deteriorate. Eventually, your dog’s joints won’t work like they should.

Genetics, rapid growth, weight gain, exercise (too much or too little) and diet can be risk factors for developing hip or elbow dysplasia.

Here are signs of hip or elbow dysplasia to look out for:

  • Back (hip) or front (elbow) limb stiffness or lameness
  • Decreased activity
  • Difficulty jumping
  • Reluctance to go on walks
  • Reluctance to go up or down stairs
  • Stiff or slow walking
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Pain
  • Limping

There are a bunch of options for treatment for hip and elbow dysplasia, including surgery, lifestyle changes, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and joint supplements.

You can try a joint supplement like this Zesty Paws one from Amazon for $26.97.

Make sure to take your dog to the vet if you notice any symptoms so they can diagnose your dog and recommend the most effective treatment plan for him.

Panosteitis

Panosteitis is sometimes called growing pains. It happens when the outer surface of a dog’s leg bones becomes inflamed.

This condition occurs in young puppies because they grow so quickly. It usually shows up when a puppy is between approximately 6 and 18 months old, and it’ll resolve on its own once a dog is around 2 years old.

German shepherds are the most commonly affected dogs, but many other big dog breeds are prone to it, too.

Signs of panosteitis appear seemingly out of nowhere, and symptoms usually come and go in cycles. Here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Sudden lameness
  • Leg pain
  • Limping
  • Pain and lameness shifting between legs

Because panosteitis goes away once your pup is done growing, your vet will treat him with pain medication to manage the symptoms.

Cervical spondylomyelopathy or wobbler syndrome

Wobbler syndrome occurs when a dog’s spinal cord becomes compressed in his neck, leading to neurological symptoms or pain. It’s called wobbler syndrome because of the wobbly walk dogs develop with this condition.

It’s not known what exactly causes wobbler syndrome, but genetics are a likely cause because certain breeds are predisposed to it. Doberman pinschers and Great Danes are much more likely to develop the condition. Diets with too much protein, calcium and calories may play a role, too.

Symptoms of wobbler syndrome include:

  • Wobbly gait
  • Walking with head down
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Scuffed toenails from an uneven gait
  • Partial or total paralysis

For treatment, your dog can have surgery to help decompress his spinal cord. Your vet can also prescribe medications to reduce swelling from the compression in his neck.

You should also use a harness instead of attaching a leash to your dog’s collar, as that can hurt your pup’s neck even more.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is underactive, which slows down a dog’s metabolism.

Here are some signs of hypothyroidism in dogs:

  • Weight gain
  • Lethargy
  • Gets cold easily
  • Dull coat
  • Thinning coat
  • High cholesterol
  • Slow heart rate
  • Darkened skin
  • Skin infections
  • Ear infections

Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroid replacement hormone. It’s not curable, so your dog will have to take medication for the rest of his life, but the good news is that the disease isn’t life threatening.

Entropion

Entropion occurs when part of a dog’s eyelid folds inward, causing the eyelashes and other hair around his eyes to rub and irritate them, and this rubbing can even cause corneal ulcers. If the ulcer isn’t treated, it can permanently damage the dog’s eye. Entropion can occur on both the upper and lower eyelids.


Entropion is genetic, and it can also be caused by other health problems, such as trauma, neurological disorders, nerve damage and infections.

Here’s how to tell if your dog has entropion:

  • Squinting
  • Tearing and eye discharge
  • Rubbing at eyes
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Eye redness

If your dog has cornea damage, he’ll need surgery to repair it. Some dogs may also need surgery to fix their eyelids so they don’t roll inward. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infections, as well.

Ectropion

Ectropion is when a dog’s lower eyelid rolls outward, which causes the eye to dry out.

Congenital (aka inherited) ectropion is the most common form, but dogs can also get it from nerve damage, injuries, infections and chronic eye inflammation.

Here’s what ectropion looks like in dogs:

  • Droopy lower eyelids
  • Eye redness
  • Tearing and eye discharge

Treatment is usually eyedrops to prevent the eye from drying out and antibiotics to treat corneal ulcers. In severe cases, the eyelid can be fixed with surgery.

Cherry eye

Cherry eye is a condition that occurs when a dog’s third eyelid gland pops out, causing a red bulge in his eye (like a cherry). This usually happens because the ligament that attaches the gland to the corner of the eye is weak, so it stretches or breaks.

Cherry eye is pretty easy to spot because it causes a red or pink mass in the corner of your dog’s eye, but here are some other symptoms of the condition:

  • Discharge
  • Rubbing at eyes
  • Unable to close eye

Your dog will have to have surgery to put the gland back into place to treat the cherry eye.

How to pay for vet costs

It’s super important to take your pup for regular vet checkups to make sure he’s healthy and to catch any illnesses early. Vet expenses can add up, though, so you should have a plan to pay for them.

There are a few different ways you can curb the costs of vet bills you can’t afford. You can try researching low-cost clinics in your area or asking your vet about payment plans. Or you can try pet health insurance.

Pet insurance is probably one of the best ways to help pay for expensive vet bills, especially when your pet is still young and healthy, since most policies don’t cover pre-existing conditions.

When looking for the best pet insurance policy for your big dog, it’s a good idea to check out plans that can cover holistic services and prescribed supplements, since these are often given as treatments for arthritis.

And if your large dog is a purebred, make sure the policy will cover conditions related to his breed because not all plans cover breed-specific illnesses.

(If you're looking for pet insurance, you’ll want to check out Fetch by The Dodo since it's made by and for adoring pet parents, and because it's the most comprehensive coverage in the US and Canada, covering things that other providers don't or charge extra for, like holistic services, prescribed supplements for conditions they’re covering, and breed-specific conditions.)

Big dogs are awesome — but unfortunately, they’re predisposed to certain health issues, which is why it’s important for you to know what they are and how to spot them and take your dog for regular checkups.

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