When you adopt a dog, you expect to deal with some health issues that will come up. While most common conditions dogs suffer from are mild and are often treated easily, some others can be severe and cause irreparable organ damage. The most serious health problems in dogs can be fatal.
Knowing what those conditions are, how you can recognize symptoms and what to do to treat them can save your dog’s life in case it happens and even prevent some of them in the first place. Below are the most fatal dog health conditions that veterinarians have to deal with and what you must know about them.
1. Chocolate Poisoning
All dog owners already know that chocolate is toxic to dogs, and this condition can be fatal. While this is rare since death only occurs in 1 out of 3000 cases of chocolate poisoning, it remains as the most common culprit of poisoning in dogs.
The main toxic components in chocolate are theobromine and caffeine, which are both methylxanthine alkaloids that primarily attack a dog’s nervous system. Not all chocolates contain the same amount of these alkaloids. White chocolate has the lowest methylxanthine concentration, while plain or dark chocolate (high cocoa percentage) has very high levels of caffeine and theobromine.
In fact, studies show that less than 100g of dark chocolate will kill a 20-pound dog. That’s why small pups are particularly sensitive to chocolate, as well as dogs that have a history of pancreatitis, diabetes or heart problems.
Symptoms of chocolate intoxication include vomiting, diarrhea, increased urination, panting, pacing and shaking. More severe cases can also lead to dogs having irregular heartbeat, heart attack, tremors and seizures. Symptoms of chocolate poisoning can last up to 72 hours.
Treatment for dog's chocolate intoxication depends on the type and amount of chocolate consumed. Your vet will give your Fido medications to induce vomiting and activated charcoal to stop the absorption of methylxanthine.
Supportive care, especially therapy with IV fluids, can stabilize your dog and induce excretion of toxic substances. In more severe cases where arrhythmia or elevated heart rate is present, your vet will administer beta-blockers.
2. Fungal Infections
While fungal infections in dogs usually present only a mild nuisance, some of them can be quite serious and even fatal for animals. Fungal infections which only affect the skin are easily treated but those that affect a dog’s entire body are dangerous, especially if they spread to lungs, liver or brain. The most dangerous among them include histoplasmosis, blastomycosis, Valley Fever and cryptococcosis.
Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis)
This is a non-contagious, dust-borne infection that dogs can contract. It's mostly present in dry regions of the southwestern US, as well as valleys of southern California. Epidemics commonly occur when periods of heavy rain are followed by drought, which creates dust storms.
Valley Fever is primarily a respiratory disease but it can also spread further and infect other tissues in the dog's body, particularly joints, bones and eyes. Symptoms can vary, depending on the severity of infection and organs that are affected. Some of the signs include loss of appetite, cough, apathy, fever, enlarged joints and diarrhea. Ulcers may appear on your dog’s skin as well.
Treatment includes the prescription of antifungal medications and often lasts from six months to a year.
This is a fungus that is found in soil worldwide but it can also be found in bird manure, particularly pigeon droppings. This disease affects the dog’s respiratory tract, eyes, skin and central nervous system.
Symptoms of cryptococcosis are usually most noticeable in the dog’s eyes and they include inflammation of the eye and bleeding in the retina. Other common symptoms are mostly related to the central nervous system and include head tilting, facial nerve paralysis, poor coordination and seizures.
Treatment involves various antifungal drugs, which can be administered for several months for most severe cases. Surgery may be needed if lesions are present in the pet's nose or nasal cavity.
Histoplasmosis is a non-contagious infection caused by the fungus found in the soil across the world. In the US, it is commonly found in the Midwest and southern parts of the county, particularly in river valleys. Lymph nodes and lungs will get infected first but gastrointestinal tract can sometimes be affected as well.
Symptoms are nonspecific because various organs can be involved. The most obvious signs include digestive issues like diarrhea and weight loss. Coughing and difficulty breathing are also common. Other symptoms include fever, anemia, digestive ulcers, enlarged lymph nodes, skin sores and various eye conditions.
Treating disseminated histoplasmosis is complicated and difficult. It involves administering antifungal drugs but also includes supportive care like adequate nutrition and constant hydration. Antifungal treatment usually lasts for prolonged periods of time.
Blastomycosis infection is caused by the fungus that thrives in wet, acidic soils and rotting wood or other decaying vegetation. In North America, it is prevalent in river basins and along the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. It is also found in bat and pigeon feces. This infection usually spreads through the dog's lungs but it can sometimes spread through the skin.
Common symptoms of blastomycosis include coughing, difficulty breathing, fever, weight loss and apathy. Sometimes the dog's lymph nodes may become enlarged. Eye problems like light sensitivity, glaucoma and even blindness can occur if the infection spreads to that area. Dogs with this infection often suffer from draining skin nodules.
Treatment of blastomycosis entails prolonged administration of antifungal drugs, usually Itraconazole. Dogs with breathing difficulties may need supplemental oxygen until their lungs start to function normally again.
Rabies is the infamous disease that everybody has heard of. It is a virus that is always fatal and one of the deadliest diseases in dogs. Another reason why rabies is so feared lies in the fact that humans can also get infected if they are bitten or scratched by a rabid animal.
This virus takes two to eight weeks to fully develop and symptoms may not become apparent before those stages are reached. That’s the reason why rabies is so deadly in dogs since there is no way to diagnose it before the symptoms appear and it is too late to do anything when the problem becomes evident. In fact, there is no test that can diagnose rabies in live animals. It is usually diagnosed after dog's death because the most accurate test for it requires brain tissue.
A dog infected with rabies will display extreme behavioral changes like apprehension, restlessness and ultimately aggression. Dogs will often bite, lick and chew the area on their body where they were bitten. Fever is another common symptom of rabies.
As the virus progresses and the dog’s condition becomes worse, he may become extremely sensitive to light, sound and touch. In most cases, paralysis of the jaw muscles and throat occurs, which is why rabid animals start foaming at the mouth. In the end come disorientation, weakness, seizures and sudden death.
The good news is that rabies is a preventable disease. While there is no cure for it, if you keep your dog up to date with his vaccination, you won’t have to worry. Rabies infection in vaccinated dogs is extremely rare, even after receiving a single vaccine.
Unfortunately, rabies still kills tens of thousands of people worldwide, especially in less developed countries around Asia and Africa. However, even in the US this has been reported in all states except for Hawaii but they are reported in cats more than they are in dogs.
This is another vaccine-preventable infamous disease which is often fatal in dogs. It is a contagious viral illness, a relative of the measles virus that affects humans. Unvaccinated puppies and older dogs are particularly susceptible to this disease. Canine distemper is transferred through direct contact and airborne exposure, which is why it is very contagious.
This virus initially attacks tonsils and lymph nodes of a dog before attacking the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital and nervous system.
Distemper symptoms come in two stages. In the first stage, dogs usually suffer from fever, watery eyes, nasal discharge and loss of appetite. Some other symptoms you may notice include coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia and lethargy. Your dog may also develop hyperkeratosis of the nose and paw pads, which causes dog’s feet to become enlarged and hardened.
As the disease progresses to the second stage, some dogs may suffer from neurological problems like head tilting, muscle twitching, paralysis, seizures and convolutions.
Distemper in dogs has a very high mortality rate and can often be fatal. Unfortunately, even the animals that survive this disease are likely to suffer from irreparable, permanent damage to their nervous system.
Unfortunately, distemper can’t be cured and treatment is focused on relieving the symptoms. That includes IV fluids for diarrhea or anorexia, antibiotics if there is a secondary bacterial infection present, and potassium bromide or phenobarbitals to control seizures and convulsions in the dog.
Since there is no cure for this virus, prevention is extremely important. Keep your dog up to date with his vaccines and avoid contact with infected animals. Be cautious when socializing with unvaccinated puppies or adult unvaccinated dogs.
This is an infectious disease that affects both animals and humans and it can spread from your dog to you. Leptospirosis in dogs is caused by a few different bacteria and can be contracted through direct contact with other infected animals, by ingestion of infected meat or feces, or by getting in contact with anything contaminated by the urine of an infected animal.
Leptospirosis infection can present itself in many different and subtle symptoms, which can also vary in intensity. Some dogs may even be without symptoms at all, but mostly signs of leptospirosis include fever, increased thirst and urination, lethargy, sore muscles and stiffness in joints, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting and jaundice.
Severe cases of leptospirosis can lead to swollen legs, bleeding disorders, lung disease, fluid in chest or abdomen and kidney failure. In many cases leptospirosis can be fatal.
Since this is a bacterial disease, it can be treated with antibiotics. However, it is extremely important to start the treatment as soon as possible to increase the chance for survival. Hospitalization and supportive care are almost always necessary.
Leptospirosis can be prevented with commercially available vaccines that protect dogs for at least 12 months. While no vaccine can provide absolute protection from this disease, keep your pooch up to date with his vaccines to minimize the risk as much as possible.
6. Lyme Disease
This is a tick-borne disease which can be fatal if not treated, although that is not such a common occurrence. Lyme disease can spread very fast since it is enough for an infected tick to be attached to your dog for 36-48 hours before your dog becomes infected too. It can also be found everywhere around the world, except for Antarctica. The disease can be prevented with vaccination.
The most common symptom of Lyme disease in dogs is lameness in their limbs. Stiffness in joints and loss of appetite can also occur, as well as lethargy, fever and enlarged lymph nodes. Kidney failure is the most serious symptom of Lyme disease but it only develops if the disease is left untreated.
The vast majority of dogs respond well to antibiotic treatment with Amoxicillin or Doxycycline. Symptoms usually go away after four weeks but some dogs may suffer from recurring symptoms. Vaccinate your dog for Lyme disease and use preventive tick medicines to minimize the risks. You should also check your dog for ticks often if he spends a lot of time outdoors.
Parvovirus, or Parvo, is a viral disease that attacks dogs’ intestines and heart. Since vaccines for Parvo are a part of the core vaccines administered to dogs, unvaccinated puppies and dogs in shelters or breeding facilities are at the highest risk of infection. In most cases, Parvo is spread through contaminated feces.
Parvo is a highly contagious and resilient virus and a very deadly disease. It is estimated that 15 % of all infected dogs die from parvovirus.
Signs of parvovirus include weight loss, vomiting, severe diarrhea and lethargy. Dogs with Parvo will usually have a poor appetite. Other, less common symptoms include dehydration, weakness and depression.
Immediate veterinary attention is necessary if you suspect that your dog has Parvo. The disease requires intensive care and the prognosis is significantly better with early treatment. Your dog will likely get hospitalized and isolated, where your vet will provide supportive care and keep an eye on any signs of secondary infections.
8. Heartworm Disease
This is another serious disease that can result in a death of a dog but it be prevented with proper heartworm medicine. Unfortunately, many dog owners don’t use these preventive meds even though dogs can get heartworm disease from a single bite of an infected mosquito. And even though dry climates were thought to be safe from heartworm, this disease has been reported in all US states.
This parasitic disease most commonly attacks a dog’s heart and surrounding blood vessels although worms can sometimes be found in the lungs and other areas of the circulatory system too. Adult worms can live up to five years and cause many serious health complications, including death.
The progression of heartworm disease is divided into four classes, based on the severity of the disease and symptoms exhibited. The first class is often asymptomatic, which means that dogs usually don’t show any signs of the disease.
Class II includes symptoms like coughing and getting tired quickly, usually after a moderate level of exercise. Dogs with Class III heartworm disease may suffer from weight or muscle loss, dry or greasy hair, extreme intolerance to exercise, difficulty breathing and fluid accumulation in the abdomen.
Class IV heartworm disease is the most serious stage, in which dogs develop a condition known as caval syndrome. Caval syndrome means that there are too many heartworms present in a dog’s heart. The worms block the flow of blood into the heart and at this stage the disease is considered fatal and non-treatable, and treatment instead is focused on providing comfort for the animal.
Treatment for heartworm involves medication to kill the circulating worms. In most cases, that entails three injections spread over one month.
Hospitalization is needed during the administration of these injections or even beyond that if your vet recommends it. Some medications like doxycycline or prednisone are prescribed to decrease the chances of your dog reacting badly to the death of the worms. Some dogs will also be given pain medications, diuretics if there is fluid in the lungs and various heart medications, which can sometimes be necessary even after heartworm disease gets treated.
Surgery is the last option for dogs with caval syndrome, although it is an extremely risky procedure and most dogs die regardless of the treatment.
Gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), commonly known as canine bloat, is a serious health condition in which a dog’s stomach twists and fills with gas. While the exact cause of bloat is unknown, large or giant breeds are more susceptible to it. Also males are more likely to suffer from bloat. It is believed that eating a large amount of food or eating too fast can lead to this condition, as well as eating from a raised bowl. Stress may also be a contributing factor.
This condition is dangerous because the stomach can put pressure on the dog's diaphragm and cause breathing problems. It can also lead to stomach rupture and damage of different tissues, including tissues of the spleen. Ultimately, bloat can become fatal if left untreated.
Luckily, bloat symptoms are pretty noticeable and if you spot any of them take your dog to the vet immediately. Canine bloat signs include retching and inability to vomit, salivating, restlessness and enlarged stomach area. As the condition becomes worse, your Fido may also experience rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, weakness and collapse.
Treatment for bloat will depend on the severity. First, your vet will insert a tube down your dog’s throat all the way to his stomach to release the built-up pressure. If the tube can’t pass due to the twisting of the stomach, your vet may put a large needle through your dog’s belly to release the pressure.
Dogs can sometimes go into shock if the condition is severe, in which case your vet will give your dog IV fluids, steroids or antibiotics. Your vet will then use X-rays to determine whether the stomach is twisted. If it is, your dog will need an emergency surgery.
10. Kidney Failure
Kidney failure in dogs is a condition that either develops on its own or due to some complications related to certain medications or other diseases. The one that develops on its own is called a chronic kidney failure and it is usually caused by genetic predisposition, which means that it is not preventable. The one cause of kidney failure that is preventable is dental disease. Acute kidney failure occurs suddenly and can be quite severe.
Both of them can be fatal but chronic kidney failure usually takes time to develop. On the other hand, acute kidney failure can be treated. Also, chronic kidney disease is more common in older dogs. It is estimated that more than one in 10 dogs will develop kidney disease over their lifetime.
Signs of kidney failure include increased thirst, increased or decreased urination, loss of bladder control, lethargy and decreased appetite. In some cases, bad breath can also be present, especially in acute kidney failure caused by dental disease.
Acute kidney failure treatment is focused on treating the underlying cause if the cause is known. For example, antibiotics are commonly used to treat an infection, while antidotes are prescribed if kidney failure is caused by poisoning. Dialysis is often recommended to assist the kidneys in removing toxins from the blood.
Chronic kidney failure is terminal and treatment is focused on managing the condition and improving quality of life. This includes fluid therapy, different medication and changes in diet.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs that are older than 10 years. While this is one of the most fatal health conditions in dogs, more than half of all cancers can be treated if caught early.
Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases, characterized by the division of body cells that spread into surrounding tissues. Most of the cancers form solid tumors, with the exception of leukemia and other cancers of the blood.
While causes of cancers are not definitely proven, it is believed that improper diet and lack of exercise play important roles. However, genetic and environmental factors probably carry the greater responsibility in the development of cancer in dogs (and people).
Since cancer can appear anywhere in the dog’s body, the symptoms can vary a lot. However, some of the more common signs of cancers include lumps on the skin, unusual odors, sores that won’t heal, weight loss, loss of appetite and lethargy.
Treatment for cancer depends on the severity and location. Chances of survival are usually much higher if the cancer is found early. The three basic treatments for cancer include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. While only one of these can be enough in some cases, usually a combination of two or three is required.
While all of these above mentioned health conditions can be fatal for the dog, most of them are easily prevented, either with proper vaccine immunization, preventive medicine or by taking certain precautions like feeding your dog proper food, avoiding areas with unvaccinated dogs and so forth.
Early discovery of these conditions can significantly increase the chances of successful treatment and survival, so take your dog to the vet for regular checkups or if you notice any changes in his health and behavior.