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Silent Killers That Often Go Undetected in Dogs Until It’s Too Late

Contributing Writer: Chan Choy Yu

Pets are absolute masters at hiding their pain and discomfort. It’s against their survival instincts to show signs of weakness, so without regular health check-ups it’s very possible for a pet to be suffering in silence from a life-threatening condition without us knowing. 

In order to stop these maladies in their track as early as possible and get our pets access to more treatment options for a healthier, happier life, here are some of the most common “silent killers” in dogs and their clinical signs that you need to know about:

1. Heart disease

Source: Bruno Cervera on Pexels

One of the most prevalent silent killers in dogs, a common complication of heart disease is congestive heart failure — a progressive condition that is often hard to detect in its early stages. By the time clinical signs become evident, the disease is usually already in advanced stages. 

Congestive heart failure almost always arises in the aftermath of a damaged or weakened heart muscle that can be due to heart defects, cardiovascular disease, valvular heart disease, heart infections, or cardiomyopathy. When it happens, the dog’s heart is unable to effectively circulate blood with adequate oxygen to supply the entire body, which causes the cells and organs to be unable to function as per normal, which then leads to a deterioration in your pet’s health.

While there is currently no cure for canine congestive heart failure or most cardiomyopathy, early detection and management of the condition can definitely improve your pet’s quality of life and longevity!

Here are some of the outward clinical signs of congestive heart failure in dogs:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Excessive panting
  • Intermittent coughing
  • Decreased energy and stamina
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Fainting
  • Restlessness

However, in the early subclinical phase, most dogs do not show any outward signs of heart failure. Instead, ECGs (electrocardiogram) can detect arrhythmia and abnormal heart sounds. We recommend going for regular health check-ups to increase the chances of early detection of the condition!

2. Heartworm disease

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Another disease that isn’t easy to detect in its early stages, heartworm disease can be fatal if diagnosed too late. Caused by a parasite known as a heartworm, it is transmitted when a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito. The heartworms then lodge themselves in the dog’s heart, arteries, and lungs, causing long-lasting damage to major organs, heart failure, lung disease, and more as they grow up to 14 inches in length and multiply until there are several hundreds of them in the dog. 

One of the main killers in dogs, vets in Singapore strongly encourages pet owners to put their dogs on heartworm preventives as prevention is always better than cure when it comes to heartworm disease. These can either come in the form of chewable tablets to be taken monthly, spot-on topical medication, or a yearly injection, which are all readily available at vet clinics.

In the event that your dog is tested to have heartworm disease, take heart — most dogs can still be successfully treated, especially in the early stages. A series of injections would be used to try and kill all the microfilariae and adult worms, but dogs with advanced heartworm disease may require antibiotics, pain relief medications, and diuretics to remove fluid accumulation and drugs to improve their heart function.

Again, it’s not easy to detect the infection in its early stages without a blood test that you can request for at the vet clinic. The more severe the infection, the more noticeable the symptoms will be, which can include: 

  • Fatigue, tiredness, and increase in sleep
  • Loss in appetite
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Coughing and difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Moodiness and a reluctance to exercise or play
  • A swollen stomach and chest area
  • Darkish brown coloured urine
  • Heavy panting after a small amount of exercise
  • Pale gums
  • Cardiovascular collapse.

3. Chronic kidney disease 

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Kidney disease is an incurable condition in dogs, and what’s scary about it is that it takes at least two-thirds of the kidneys to be dysfunctional before obvious clinical signs start showing. This means that by the time you discover that your pet has chronic kidney disease or chronic renal failure, it is already in its advanced stage with less treatment and management options available to prolong its life and reduce its suffering. 

In dogs, chronic kidney disease is often associated with ageing due to the “wear and tear” of the kidney tissues. It renders the kidneys unable to efficiently filter waste products from the blood, which results in a rapid rise of waste products in the bloodstream and affects the functions of other vital organs, causing inappetence, depression, vomiting, diarrhoea, foul breath, and more. 

That said, there are measures that you can take to reduce the likelihood of your pooch developing kidney failure, which includes: 

  • Maintaining a good diet that has quality proteins and free from toxins.
  • Ensuring that your dog stays hydrated, even if it isn’t a fan of drinking water. You may do so by feeding wet meals or flavouring its water.
    • Wellness® Canned Formulas are high-quality wet dog food in Singapore formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles and a delicious way to increase your dog’s moisture intake!
  • Keeping its teeth clean — studies have shown that periodontal disease poses an increased risk of renal failure in dogs.
  • Bringing your pet for regular health examinations!

Early signs of kidney failure include increased water consumption and urination, but the onset of the condition and these symptoms will depend on the size of the dog. For small dogs, the early signs of kidney disease typically occur at about ten to fourteen years of age, while large dogs may suffer from kidney failure as early as seven years of age.

4. Canine hemangiosarcoma

Source: Artem Beliaikin on Pexels 

A mysterious cancer of endothelial cells (the cells that line blood vessels), vets do not know what causes some dogs to develop canine hemangiosarcoma till this day. Usually occurring in middle-aged and geriatric dogs, hemangiosarcoma can develop anywhere in the body where there are blood vessels but are more prone to affecting the spleen, the right atrium of the heart, and the tissue beneath the skin.

Since hemangiosarcoma is indolent, aka not painful with a relatively slow rate of growth in the early stages, dogs harboring hemangiosarcomas may show no clinical signs until in the face of imminent danger. 

This is a major cause for concern because hemangiosarcoma tends to metastasise aggressively to other parts of the body, and the eventual outcome for patients with this disease (especially visceral hemangiosarcoma, or one that affects the internal organs) often leads to the rupture of a tumour, which results in acute, severe hemorrhage, collapse, shock, and even death.

It is estimated that hemangiosarcoma accounts for 5% – 7% of tumours in dogs, with these breeds being more at risk of developing it:

  • Golden retrievers
  • German shepherds
  • Labrador retrievers
  • English setters
  • Boxers
  • Doberman pinschers. 

To help your pet fight against hemangiosarcoma, keep a lookout for these warning signs and bring it to the vet immediately if you suspect anything!

  • Slight bleeding within the abdomen
  • Slight lethargy
  • Weakness in the back legs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Enlarged abdomen (also known as ascites, which occurs when a large amount of blood is lost and the abdominal wall stretches to accommodate it).

Guarding against the silent enemy

Source: Helena Lopes on Pexels

At the end of the day, regular health check-ups are a necessary component of your pet’s preventive care to ensure a happy and healthy life for your pet for as long as possible. As their name goes, silent killers are hard to detect with our naked, untrained eye. The least we can do is to consult the professionals consistently, diligently, and follow their medical advice! 

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