How to Keep Your Dog Healthy

Vaccines prevent many viral and bacterial diseases that are difficult to treat in dogs. You must also protect your dog from a variety of parasites, from fleas to heartworms. Here's what you need to know.


+ enlarge image Vaccines help keep yourdog healthy and strong.

Vaccination schedules vary, as do the combination of vaccines that can be administered at the same time. "Puppies should be vaccinated starting somewhere between 6 and 8 weeks of age. By that time, the mother's antibodies are starting to wear off," explains veterinarian Robert Culver of the Heartland Animal Hospital in Des Moines.

As long as your dog has all her vaccines by 16 weeks, she should be well-protected. Until the immunizations have been given, minimize your puppy's contact with other dogs (except those that you know have had their shots).

Annual booster vaccinations will help your dog stay disease-free. Boosters are especially important for pets who will be interacting with other dogs -- such as at a dog run, kennel, or "doggie day care" facility. Even if your puppy will be walked with other dogs, or possibly come in contact with other dogs in your neighborhood, be sure to keep her vaccinations up-to-date.

These are the main diseases that dogs are vaccinated against:

Vaccinations

  • Rabies is a viral disease of the central nervous system that can be passed from wild animals to pets and is fatal to humans and animals. Rabies vaccines for dogs are required by law in most states. Symptoms of rabies include excess salivation, seizures, unexplained aggression, and difficulty swallowing.
  • Distemper is a highly-contagious viral disease that attacks a dog's nervous system. Puppies are the most common victims of distemper, but it can affect dogs of all ages. Distemper can cause fever, lethargy, discharge from the eyes and nose, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and death. The death rate is very high (75 percent) and patients that recover may suffer permanent damage to vision, teeth, and the nervous system.
  • Hepatitis generally affects dogs under a year old and causes damage to the liver, kidneys, eyes, and major organs. Hepatitis can be fatal. (Canine hepatitis is not the same as the human form of the disease, nor can dogs pass hepatitis to humans.)
  • Bordatella is an airborne, contagious, bacteria that is the most common cause of severe parainfluenza. The distinctive symptom of bordatella is a deep cough.
  • Parainfluenza is a viral infectious bronchitis, commonly known as kennel cough.
  • Parvovirus is a highly contagious intestinal virus that causes bloody diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, acute abdominal pain, high fever, and possibly death. Without proper sanitation, kennels can be breeding grounds for parvovirus since it spreads through exposure to fecal matter, can remain active for months, and is easily transmitted on shoes, clothing, and other objects.
  • Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects the liver, kidneys, and other major organs. If the kidneys are affected, leptospirosis can be fatal. Dogs that are exposed to rat urine (dogs on farms, for example) are at the greatest risk for leptospirosis.
  • Corona is a viral, intestinal disease that causes diarrhea, fever, and weakness. It can be fatal in very young puppies.
  • Lyme disease is a progressively debilitating bacterial disease carried by ticks, primarily deer ticks. Both humans and dogs are susceptible to Lyme disease. Early symptoms are difficult to spot and can range from nothing to lameness. If not diagnosed early, irreversible damage can occur to joints. While this vaccine reduces the risk of your dog's contracting Lyme disease, it's not 100 percent effective. See the "Parasites" page for more information about ticks and avoiding Lyme disease.

Parasites

Parasites live on or in another living creature (the host) and are dependent on the host for survival. They can cause blood loss, skin irritation, allergies, and disease. There are two types of parasites, internal and external.

Whether life-threatening or merely bothersome, parasitic infections should not be left untreated. If you suspect that your dog is infested with parasites, take her to your vet immediately.

Internal Parasites

Internal parasites live inside a plant or animal and produce an infection within the host.

Heartworms are the most common, most deadly, and also most easily preventable internal parasites that afflict dogs. Dogs get the worms via a bite from an infected mosquito. The worms enter your dog's circulatory system, grow, and infest her heart. Heartworms can grow to 12 inches long and are life threatening.

Symptoms may not show up for years, and heartworm disease is difficult to treat, which is why preventive treatments and testing (usually once or twice yearly) are advisable. Heartworm preventatives are given beginning in puppyhood (anywhere from 8 to16 weeks of age) and continue for life. Your vet will recommend a schedule for testing and preventive treatment based on your area's weather -- temperature fluctuations affect the mosquito and heartworm life cycles.

Other. There are many other internal parasites that afflict dogs; most of these vary regionally. For example, there are roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, tapeworms, threadworms and lungworms.

Soil contamination through dog feces is how these worms spread: the worms and worm eggs infest the soil, and then infect your dog when he stops to inspect that spot. You can do your part towards worm eradication by being diligent about picking up waste in your yard and particularly when walking your dog around the neighborhood or in a park.

Your vet will include testing for local parasites in your dog's regular care. Ask for details if you want to know what your dog is at risk for in your area, and be sure to tell your vet about travel plans with your pet.

External Parasites

External parasites, like fleas, ticks and mites, live on the outside of the host and not only annoy and harm your dog but also can affect you and infest your home. Here are the four major external parasites that plague dogs:

Fleas are minute, wingless insects that live and feed on the blood of dogs and other animals, including humans. Excessive scratching and biting can be signs of flea infestation. When checking your dog for fleas, look on the rump and at the base of the ears; you may actually see the fleas moving around on the skin.

Fleas can proliferate quickly; if left untreated, a dog covered with fleas can literally be bled to death by these tiny parasites. Some dogs develop allergies to flea saliva and a few bites could bring on a severe reaction. Notify your vet if you think your dog has fleas. There are a plethora of products available for flea control; consult your vet to determine which options, like oral and topical medications, would be best for your dog.

Because fleas are constantly shedding their eggs, there is a constant source of reinfestation. Your dog and her surroundings must be treated simultaneously. Washing all bedding in hot water and vacuuming carpets and upholstery can help get rid of fleas. For major infestations, contact a professional exterminator.

Ticks attach themselves to the skin and feed for 12 to 24 hours before falling off. There are around 800 species of tick, and all of them carry and transmit disease. Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are two of the most common serious illnesses spread by ticks. The American Kennel Club's Dog Care and Training book (Hungry Minds, 1991) recommends "making a habit of checking your dog's entire body for ticks, especially the face, ears, feet, and underside." This is especially important any time you and your pet have been romping outdoors, particularly in wooded areas.

Dog ticks are large enough to be easy to see. But a deer tick, the most common carrier of Lyme disease, is smaller than the head of a pin and requires careful scrutiny to be observed.

The quicker a tick is discovered and removed, the lower the risk of disease transmission. To remove a tick, grasp it with tweezers and gently pull it off. Try to avoid crushing it during removal. Notify your vet immediately if you think your dog has been bitten by a deer tick; the sooner Lyme disease treatment is begun, the more effective it is.

Ear mites are microscopic parasites that live on the surface of the skin lining of the ear canal, causing inflammation and discomfort. Left untreated, bacterial infections and hearing loss can occur.

Check your dog's ears regularly for brown material in ears, foul-smelling odor and tenderness to touch. Be on the lookout for excessive ear scratching, head-shaking, or restlessness. Take your dog to the vet at the first sign of ear mites.

Ear mites are easily transmittable; if you have a multipet household and one animal has ear mites, all your animals should be treated. Long-eared dogs are more prone to ear mite infections and can develop hematomas (ruptured blood vessels that form soft swellings) which require immediate medical attention.

Sarcoptic mites are also known as scabies. These microscopic mites lay eggs under a dog's skin and can cause scratching, self-biting, small red bumps, hair loss and crusty scabs. Sarcoptic mites are highly contagious. Take your dog to the vet immediately if you think your dog has scabies. In addition to getting your dog medical treatment, you will have to thoroughly clean his supplies and surroundings with a vet-recommended insecticide.

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