By John Gilpatrick
If you notice something wrong with your dog, or you suddenly get a frightening-sounding diagnosis from your veterinarian, it’s easy to start preparing for the worst. But not all conditions are life-threatening emergencies—even if the medical term makes you think of nothing but doom and gloom.
That’s not to say that a visit to the veterinarian isn’t recommended or that your feelings aren’t valid—it just means that panicking is not the best course of action. Yes, in some cases, time is of the essence, but you need to think rationally and ultimately take the appropriate course of action as quickly as possible. Sometimes that means rushing your dog to an emergency veterinary hospital. Other times, all you need to do is pick up a phone and talk to your veterinarian.
All this is a way of saying that it’s easy to freak out when something appears wrong with your four-legged friend, but the fact is some medical conditions look or sound a lot scarier than they actually are. Here are six such conditions.
Lameness refers to a dog not using one or more of his limbs in a normal manner due to a problem with his musculoskeletal system. It is disconcerting if you experience lameness in your dog first hand. But it’s not always a dire cause for concern.
Many cases of lameness subside in an hour or less, says Christopher Miller, DVM, owner of AtlasVet, an animal hospital in Washington, DC. “At least 20 percent of cases of lameness that I see are undetectable by the time they get to me,” he says. “You could save yourself $100 and a lot of heartache by just waiting and being patient.”
That said, if you’re seeing lameness persist for a day or more, Miller says it’s definitely time to visit your vet. “This could be a sign of something more serious.” The same applies to lameness that is accompanied by severe discomfort or visible abnormalities with the leg.
If you spot what looks like a flattened piece of rice in your dog’s stool, around your dog’s anus, or on his favorite resting place that might indicate that he has tapeworms. Tapeworms cause itchiness and discomfort, though Shannon Mazur, DVM, managing veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital in Durango, CO, says it’s a relatively harmless condition. “Any worms in the stool are worth checking with your vet and should be treated, but tapeworms are fairly benign and not an emergency,” she says.
Miller describes these as “small, cauliflower-like growths” that are very common in and around the mouths of dogs under the age of two. They’re very contagious, so if you spot them in your dog—and you might not; some are as small as two millimeters wide—you should keep him away from other dogs for as long as three months, until they go away. Unfortunately, dogs are often contagious before the actual papillomas develop, so you’ll still need to monitor all of the dogs in your house for spread of the condition.
“They’re like chicken pox is for people,” Miller says, “and some people think it’s best to expose your dog at a young age so he gets it out of his system. Vets don’t recommend that, but this is generally a harmless condition.” In most cases, viral papillomas will disappear without treatment over the course of a few months.
Like viral papillomas, these are technically tumors, though both are benign. “I’ve seen hundreds of cases of benign histiocytomas,” Miller says. “There are some larger breeds where these tumors can be malignant, but I’ve never seen one.” If you have a larger-breed dog, he adds, you might be more inclined to bring your dog in for an exam when you spot a histiocytoma.
They usually manifest as small, red, eraser-like bumps, often located on a dog’s head, neck, trunk, ears, and limbs..
They’re more common in younger dogs and usually go away within 1-3 months, though Miller says they can and probably should be surgically removed if they become painful, start bleeding, or triple in size. Also, “if your dog is older, it probably isn’t a histiocytoma, but rather something more serious, so definitely have your dog checked out in that case,” he adds.
About this immune mediated disease, Mazur says, “Sometimes this has to be chronically treated. Other times, it resolves but can flare up again.” But it’s important to distinguish between the two types of lupus: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE).
Both diseases alter the immune system by tricking antibodies into thinking normal DNA is actually viral DNA. In the case of SLE, the antibodies can attack throughout the body damaging joints, organs like the kidneys, skin, blood cells, etc. It manifests itself primarily through lameness, and while it’s life threatening if left untreated (and sometimes even with appropriate treatment), it’s also significantly less common than DLE.
DLE is limited mostly to the skin. You might notice it if your dog’s nose or lips lose pigment or become scaly. It’s relatively easy to treat with a combination of medicine, supplements, and avoidance of the sun and is not nearly as serious as SLE.
Heart murmurs are often heard in apparently healthy dogs during a routine physical exam. The sound that doctors call a murmur is made by blood flowing in an abnormal, turbulent way within the heart. This turbulent blood flow may not be big deal (e.g., young puppies often outgrow something that is called an “innocent murmur”) or a sign of serious problems within (or even outside of) the heart.
And while the heart isn’t something anyone should mess around with, it’s worth knowing that some heart murmurs, even in older dogs, are relatively benign and require no immediate treatment.
“You just don’t know without having a cardiologist examine your dog,” Miller says, “and because they change over time, almost every report I’ve seen says you should bring your dog in for a follow-up every four to six months.”