Understanding Your Dog’s Health

Understanding Your Dog’s Health

In This Chapter

  • Knowing when more doesn’t equal better (the overvaccinating problem)
  • Identifying when you have to vaccinate
  • Understanding hypothyroidism
  • Going to a doggy chiropractor
  • Looking at homeopathy — medicine or magic?
  • Poking around with acupuncture

Adog that is fed correctly and given enough exercise and mental stimulation through training rarely exhibits behavior problems. He deals well with stress, hardly ever gets sick, and keeps his youthful characteristics into his teens.

In Chapter Feeding Your Dog, we talk about the influence of nutrition on health and behavior. In this chapter, we cover some of the more common health concerns and how they can affect your dog’s behavior. You can quickly figure out that when your dog doesn’t feel quite right, he also doesn’t act quite right.

Here Comes That Needle Again (The Overvaccination Issue)

During the past 20 years, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of vaccinations that dogs receive. Sadly, instead of improving the dogs’ health and longevity, the practice has had the opposite effect.

Overvaccinating has created unintended and undesirable reactions to vaccinations, which result in vaccinosis, the term used to describe those undesirable reactions. The reactions can range from none or barely detectable to death. And they may occur as a result of one vaccine, several vaccines given at the same time, or repeated vaccinations given in a relatively short timeframe.


Too many vaccinations too close together can cause a puppy’s immune system to break down and can result in serious health problems (see the sidebar “Our sad song about Caesar,” a pitiful case-in-point story about an overvaccinated puppy). We want to make it clear right here that we aren’t against vaccinations. But what we are against is random, repetitive, routine, and completely unnecessary vaccinations.

And as for annual booster shots — where do they fit into this picture? Actually, they don’t. According to Kirk’s Current Veterinary Therapy XI-205 (W.B. Saunders Co.) the textbook used in veterinary schools, no scientific basis or immunological reason necessitates annual revaccinations. Immunity to viruses can last for many years — even for a dog’s lifetime.


When your dog already carries the antibodies against a particular virus, a revaccination can wreak havoc with his immune system. The many adverse reactions to unnecessary vaccinations have caused breeders, dog owners, and vets to begin questioning the need for boosters and to become more cautious in the way vaccines are administered. By law, your dog only needs a rabies vaccination and the rabies booster only every three years. Don’t ever give your dog a rabies shot before he is 6 months of age.

Some breeds of dogs have extreme — even fatal — reactions to vaccines that are tolerated by other breeds of dogs. Some develop odd behaviors such as
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • Excessive licking
  • Insomnia
  • Snapping at imaginary flies


A rabies vaccine given in conjunction with other vaccines can be responsible for aggression, epilepsy, and other seizure disorders.

How do you know if your dog will have a reaction to a vaccine? You don’t, and therein lies the problem. Fortunately, you don’t have to take the chance. When you take Buddy in for his annual physical checkup, you can ask your vet to do a titer test, a blood test that tells you whether Buddy has antibodies (or resistance) to the diseases for which he’s already been vaccinated. If he has a high titer, or level of antibodies, to the disease, you don’t need to have him revaccinated. Titering is becoming a more acceptable alternative to revaccinations.
Immunologists are discovering a direct correlation between the increase in autoimmune and chronic disease states with the increased use of vaccines.
Many holistically trained vets now believe that the benefits of many vaccines are outweighed by the risks and that dogs are better off if you go with one of these options:

– Vaccinate lightly with vaccines spaced out by at least three to four weeks.

– Only vaccinate once for parvo and distemper when your dog is young with one booster four weeks later. Have your vet draw some blood and send it off to a laboratory to establish the level of antibodies your puppy carries. If the puppy is protected, you don’t need any more vaccines. Titer again at one year and vaccinate only when the titers are low.

– Don’t have your puppy vaccinated for rabies (which is mandatory) before 6 months of age. Make sure this vaccine is at least one month away from any other vaccines.

– Use a homeopathic alternative to vaccines.


If you’re interested in the holistic approach, you can work out a vaccination schedule for your puppy by consulting The Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog, 2nd Edition (Wiley). As vets learn more about vaccines and their side effects, the information supplied to them is continuously being reviewed and updated. Also check out “Homeopathy: Medicine or Magic” later in this chapter for more info.

The bottom line? Before vaccinating your dog, discuss the safety with your veterinarian if Buddy

– Is on any kind of medication

– Isn’t perfectly healthy

(Note: In the literature that vaccine manufacturers supply to vets, it specifically states that no dog should be vaccinated unless he’s in perfect health. Remember that.)

– Has any skin, eye, or ear infections

– Has recently been treated for fleas, ticks, or worms

– Has had prior reactions to vaccines

– Hasn’t received supplemental vitamins and minerals

– Is scheduled for teeth cleaning, spaying or neutering, or any other surgical procedure

Boarding, Schooling, and Vaccinating

Sometimes you have to vaccinate your dog. Many boarding kennels and obedience schools, for example, require proof of vaccination although titers are becoming more acceptable.

Our sad song about Caesar

We remember one consultation involving a 4- month old Great Dane puppy, Caesar. When he came to us, he was virtually paralyzed. The vet had told the owners that Caesar probably had contracted some spinal disease, not uncommon in giant breeds, and that nothing could be done. The owners came to us as a last resort. By that time, Caesar didn’t want to eat, had become urine incontinent, and was constipated. Our first step was to take Caesar to our own vet. After a blood test and X-rays, our vet considered a number of diagnoses, but couldn’t determine anything definitive.
In the meantime, we examined Caesar’s history with the owners, and here’s what we uncovered:

– The breeder gave Caesar distemper and parvo vaccines at 6 weeks of age.

– The new owners picked up Caesar at 7 weeks of age.

– Under the terms of the seller’s guarantee, Caesar was taken to the owners’ veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase for a health evaluation.

– On that visit, Caesar was wormed and given a 5 in 1 vaccination.

– These vaccinations were repeated at 9, 11, and 13 weeks.

– During that time span, Caesar was wormed two more times as a so-called precautionary matter, even though no fecal sample was taken to see whether he actually had worms.

– At 15 weeks of age, Caesar received another set of shots, to which the rabies vaccine had been added.

– Two days later, Caesar collapsed, having received 23 vaccines in 9 weeks.

This sad story does have a happy ending. Through acupuncture, chiropractic, dietary, and homeopathic remedies, we managed to piece Caesar back together into a normal dog.
So you need to know this: If you vaccinate Buddy and then immediately take him to a boarding kennel, you may be exposing him to the risk of the very diseases that the vaccine is supposed to protect him against. Immunity to disease develops about 21 days after your dog has been vaccinated against the disease, so make sure that Buddy’s vaccine has been given a minimum of three weeks before you board him.


Before you vaccinate, call the facility. Some boarding kennels are now recognizing titer tests (see the preceding section for details about titer tests).

Because not everything’s cut and dried in this world, suppose that Buddy is one of those dogs who have adverse side effects from vaccinations, and as a result, you adamantly refuse to vaccinate him, and now you can’t find a boarding kennel that will honor your wishes. What then? Well, you’re going to have to find someone to come in and dog sit for you while you’re away. And if the local obedience organization doesn’t accept you either, then you may have to get a private trainer to come to your home (see Chapter Seeking Expert Outside Help).


Vaccinating even a healthy dog stresses his immune system, whether or not you see a reaction. And boarding a dog is stressful — even at the nicest boarding kennels. Under stress, Buddy is vulnerable to picking up disease.

Uncovering the Rise in Doggy Hypothyroidism

Providing poor nutrition, overvaccinating, and neutering or spaying a puppy too early can cause a disease called hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid gland, which causes physical as well as behavioral abnormalities. Rarely seen until the 1970s, this disease has become more prevalent as the way of managing dogs has changed in the last 30 years. More than 50 percent of all dogs today show some signs of this disease.

Technical Stuff

The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine gland system. This system not only controls many of the hormones in the body but also the brain’s ability to deal with stress.

Hypothyroidism can be partially hereditary in nature. If your dog’s parents had the disease, the chances of him getting it are quite high.
The physical manifestations of hypothyroidism can be

– Heart disorders

– Lack of control over body temperature — the dog is either too cold or too hot under otherwise normal conditions

– Oily, scaly skin and blackened skin on the belly

– Some kinds of paralysis

– Seizures

– Thinning of the hair on each side of the body, usually around the rib cage

– Weight gain

Behavioral manifestations may include

– Aggression to people or other dogs

– Being picked on by other dogs

– Difficulty learning

– Fear and anxiety, including separation anxiety and fear of thunderstorms

Lick granulomas, where the dog licks constantly at one spot, usually on a leg, and goes down to the bone

– Obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as spinning and extreme hyperactivity

– Overreaction to stressful situations

– Self-mutilation

Note: The preceding behaviors were reported in a 1997 English study, and nearly all the abnormal behaviors disappeared when thyroid medication was administered.


How can you tell if Buddy has a thyroid-related problem? If he’s exhibiting any of the behaviors listed in this section, make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. If you want to reassure yourself that Buddy doesn’t have hypothyroidism, have your vet do a blood test and ask for a complete thyroid panel. The results can tell you whether Buddy needs medication. All laboratory reports indicate a low and high normal reading for each test done. Many vets believe that when a dog shows a low normal reading, the dog needs to be on medication. High readings are uncommon in adult dogs.

The Bone Crusher: “Oh, My Aching Back”

Performance events, especially agility, are athletic activities for a dog. So are you really surprised that various parts of performing dogs’ bodies might go out of whack? Because the dogs’ performances are affected, many competitors routinely take their dogs in for chiropractic adjustments.


To keep your dog in tiptop shape, have a chiropractor examine him. Buddy may need an alignment. To find an animal chiropractor in your area, go to the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association’s Web site at www.animalchiropractic.org. Dog chiropractors cost typically the same as a human chiropractor — about $45 a crack (no pun intended), depending on your location.

Misalignments of your dog’s musculoskeletal system can affect not only his performance, but also his behavior. Our own introduction to a veterinary chiropractor came through our Briard, D.J. While he was growing up, D.J. was quite unpredictable when meeting new people or new dogs. His first reaction was to lunge and bark and show typical signs of aggression. We didn’t take it too seriously, attributing it to his lack of maturity. We figured that with training and gaining confidence, he’d grow out of it.

Although the behavior diminished to a certain extent, it didn’t disappear. At that point, we decided to have D.J. examined. We learned that one of the vertebrae in his neck was impinging on the optic nerve and that he had never been able to see properly. After he was adjusted, he was a different dog.
After that experience, we had all our dogs examined. These examinations disclosed a number of weaknesses that we had been aware of but didn’t know how to address. For example, our Dachshund’s jaw was out, which caused him discomfort and affected his behavior and performance. With treatment, he became a much happier dog.


Having a chiropractor look at your puppies to make sure that everything is in order is a good idea. Vigorous play, especially with other dogs, can cause all manner of misalignments, which then may interfere with proper growth.

Homeopathy: Medicine or Magic

Many dogs experience fear or anxiety under different conditions. For example, anxiety can occur
  • When Buddy goes on a trip away from home
  • Before and during thunderstorms
  • When Buddy goes to the vet
  • When Buddy encounters situations that he perceives as stressful
We’ve been quite successful in dealing with this sort of anxiety with homeopathic remedies. In fact, we carry a small homeopathic emergency kit with us wherever we go, just in case. You can find one at www.phdproducts.com.
Homeopathy relies on the energy of natural substances. These natural substances, which come from plants or minerals, are diluted to the extreme and then added to milk sugar pellets. This form of treatment, which was popular until the discovery of antibiotics, generally fell out of favor during the middle of the 20th century. Today, this form of treatment is enjoying an enormous resurgence all over the world, and many vets in Europe are trained both in traditional medicine and homeopathy.


Because the homeopathic remedies are so diluted, they’re safe to use and don’t cause side effects. They come in different strengths, called potencies. These potencies have numbers from 3X upwards. We use a diluted form at the 30C potency. You can find these remedies in the health food section of supermarkets, as well as in health food stores. Effective in dealing with many conditions, each dose consists of three pellets that you put into the back of your dog’s mouth.

The following listing includes a few common homeopathic remedies we find useful and use frequently, along with what they treat. All are in the emergency kit we carry with us and that we mention earlier in this section.
  • Aconite: fright, anxiety, and fear of thunderstorms
  • Apis: Bee stings, any shiny swellings
  • Arnica: Bruising from falls, dog bites, and recuperation from any operation
  • Belladonna: Heat stroke and hot, red ears
  • Carbo Veg: Bloating or gas
  • Chamomilla: Vomiting of yellow bile and teething problems
  • Ferrum Phos: Stops bleeding
  • Hydrophobinum: (Sometimes called Lyssin), reaction to rabies vaccine
  • Hypericum: Stops pain to nerve endings after injury or operations
  • Ignatia: Grief, insecurity, stress, or sadness
  • Ledum: Insect or spider bites
  • Nux Vomica: Any kind of poisoning; recuperation after anesthesia
  • Phosphorus: Sound sensitivity
  • Rhus Tox (poison ivy): Rheumatism
  • Sulphur: Good skin and mange remedy
  • Thuja: Vaccine reaction
Many holistic vets are trained in homeopathy, and you probably can find one in your area without difficulty. To find a holistic vet in your area go to the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s Web site at www.ahvma.org.

Using More Needles: Acupuncture

Many vets today use acupuncture for a variety of chronic conditions. We’ve found that among its many applications, acupuncture is particularly effective with allergies, skin disorders, incontinence in old dogs, and the aches and pains that come with age.
The origin of acupuncture dates back to ancient China. The Chinese regularly practiced acupuncture on horses and then gradually tried it on other farm animals and finally dogs, cats, and birds. The practitioner punctures the skin with a fine needle at designated points on the body. Acupuncture serves to unblock energy and in so doing boosts the immune system, which aids in selfhealing. Acupuncture causes the body to release endorphins and hormones while at the same time decreasing inflammation both internally and externally.

Where to go for other health-related concerns

Here are a few more resources available to you and your dog concerning his health:

Poison control: As with your family, have a reliable poison control resource for your dog. We recommend the Animal Poison Control Center. You can call the center for 24-hour emergency information. The center has 20 full-time veterinary toxicologists on-call to work with you on an emergency with your dog, for a $45 per case fee. The number is 888-426-4435. For more information, check out the Web site at www.napcc.aspca.org.

Holistic health: The Pet Health and Nutrition Center is a phone consultation service that offers a holistic approach to your dog’s health. Since 1995, this dedicated group of nutritionists has provided care for more than 10,000 animals. These nutritionists offer alternative therapies, modestly priced consultations, and supplemental support for the treatment of numerous diseases through metabolic therapies. While working with vets, this group provides phone consultations and a support system by which pet owners are able to treat their dog or cat at home for most illnesses and diseases. If your dog needs help, these are the folks for you.

Nutritional and homeopathic products: PHD (which stands for Perfect Health Diet) supplies one of the highest quality lines of dog foods and supplements on the market today. Used by professional dog trainers, behaviorists, holistic vets, and discriminating pet owners to bring dogs back to health, we also use PHD for our own dogs. The products are all natural, contain no preservatives, and the foods ship directly from the factory to you, getting to you within three weeks of manufacture. You’ll find the homeopathic emergency kit referred to in “Homeopathy: Medicine or Magic” earlier in this chapter, as well as the Natural Diet Foundation discussed in Chapter Feeding Your Dog. PHD does no advertising, selling only by word of mouth and reputation, and was set up by professional dog people for dog people. Check out its Web site at www.phdproducts.com.

Acupuncture specializes in putting the body back into balance, and is ideal for conditions commonly found in dogs. Limps, incontinence, skin problems, and chronic diseases of major organs, such as heart, kidney, liver, lungs, and stomach, respond well to this modality. We advise seeking the help of an acupuncture veterinarian for middle-aged to older dogs. Treatments can make an older dog feel like a puppy again.
To find out more about acupuncture, contact the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), one of the fastest growing veterinary organizations. More than 400 vets are trained yearly by this group, and have been for the last ten years, so you can find a trained vet in your area without too much difficulty. You can also check out the society’s Web site at www.ivas.org for more information.
by Jack and Wendy Volhard