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Introduction to Medical Treatment for Dogs

Dogs often seem to have limitless energy and robust constitutions, but don't let this fool you: they are susceptible to all sorts of maladies, ranging from mild to life-threatening. That's why it pays to have a relationship with a dependable, reassuring veterinarian (to ensure good treatment and quick treatment in an emergency), and to follow wise guidelines for dog-owners, which include regular checkups for your pooch and building your own store of knowledge about canine maladies, to catch treatable diseases early. Yes, dogs are energetic and robust by nature, but it's your job to help keep them that way. In this article, you will find tips to help you do just that, including:

Choosing a Veterinarian

Choosing a Veterinarian You don't have to take Fido to the nearest vet, and you never have to use a vet whose manner doesn't make you and your dog comfortable. Here are tips on finding the right veterinarian for both of you, including questions you can ask friends in order to get a strong word-of-mouth reference. We will also help you tell the difference between a problem with your dog that will clear up on its own and a major situation that needs to be seen by the vet right away.

Dog Disease Basics

Modern medicine has made dogs' lives much more pleasant, and longer for sure. But there are illnesses that will always be part of dog life, and these are made more threatening because dogs often come in contact with other animals, which can transmit diseases to them. In fact, there are some diseases that can be transmitted from dog to man. So you need to be familiar with diseases such as rabies, distemper and others, in order to prevent them or catch them early in your own dog.

Dog Illness Warning Signs

A dog owner can usually tell when their pet is not feeling well, but how do they know when the problem is serious? In this section we discuss many general signs that your dog could be ill. Ears and coat, energy level, eating habits and stool habits -- all of these can give signs that your dog is under the weather or seriously ill. This section is a must-read for any dog owner, as it also includes an extensive checklist of visible signs of illness in a dog. We suggest you print this out and keep it handy.

Preventive Health Care for Dogs

How often should your dog have a routine physical exam? More often than you think. Are you absolutely sure your dog has had all of her vaccinations? What about neutering and spaying? Did you know that it can lengthen your dog's lifespan considerably? In this section we cover many important facets of preventive health in dogs. If you're careful about yourself this way, you should extend the same care to your dog.

Alternative Treatments for Dogs

Just as human medicine has made many huge advancements in alternative medicine, so has canine medicine, in areas like acupuncture, chiropractic care, herbal treatments, homeopathy, massage and other kinds of non-standard medicine. Many of these are treatments you can provide yourself, which can foster good feelings in both you and your dog. Other treatments may require the expertise of the specialist, but can be just as beneficial. In this section, we cover alternative treatments for illness and natural ways to help keep your dog healthy.

Let's get started with the most important health care considerations for your dog -- choosing a veterinarian. We will give you some guidelines for choosing a vet in the next section and tell you when to seek their advice.

When to Call the Vet

Sometimes, the wait-and-see approach is best. Other times treatment just can't wait -- your dog's life may hang in the balance. The important thing then is to stay calm, do what you can to control the situation, apply first aid as needed, and get her to a vet as quickly and safely as possible. There are times when a call to the vet -- or a trip straight to the animal hospital -- are a right-this-minute priority. Emergency situations include:

  • Heavy bleeding, including any open wound or bleeding from nose, mouth, ears, or any other body opening.
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing, standing, or walking, including prolonged or frequent panting, staggering, or an uncoordinated gait.
  • Fractures or dislocations. If you suspect a broken bone, don't try to find the break or set it yourself. Let a professional handle it.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Temperature over 103 degrees, Fahrenheit (taken with a rectal thermometer).
  • Convulsion, electrocution, paralysis, shock, or persistent sneezing.
  • Blunt trauma, including being hit by a car or getting caught in doors or machinery, even if there is no apparent serious injury. These kind of accidents may cause internal bleeding or injuries only a veterinary exam can detect.

If your dog shows any of these signs, don't wait to take her to the veterinarian. Waiting even for a few hours -- and, in some cases, just a few minutes -- can be fatal.

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Choosing a Veterinarian

When you take your new dog home, he ought to be at the peak of health. A pup in this condition has no doubt been living in a healthful environment with good nutrition and all the right vaccinations against disease. Now, it's up to you to ensure he stays that way. You'll need to feed a high-quality food and offer balanced amounts of love and discipline, play and rest. But perhaps most important of all, you will need to develop a close working relationship with your pup's veterinarian. When the two of you work as a team, confident in each other's abilities and observations, you maximize the quality of your dog's health care.

To find just the right veterinarian, ask pet-owning friends for recommendations. If you are new in town or don't know anyone who has a dog, don't worry. Most veterinarians belong to the American Veterinary Medical Association or the American Animal Hospital Association. You can contact one of these national organizations for a referral to a member veterinarian in your area. Once you get some recommendations, make an appointment for a first visit so the three of you can get to know each other.

This visit may include a brief physical exam so the vet can ascertain the pup's general state of health, but pet vaccinations should wait for another time. It's important for your dog's first impression of the clinic, doctors, and staff to be a good one. After all, everyone needs to trust their doctor -- dogs included.

Communication is the foundation of a good client/veterinarian relationship. At this first visit, come prepared with the health records for your pup provided by the breeder, shelter, or previous owner and with any questions you may have about feeding, booster shots, flea and worm control, or anything else on your mind. Before you meet the veterinarian, you'll probably be asked to fill out a questionnaire with information about your dog's age, breed, sex, color or markings, and state of health. This medical history is the backbone of your pup's permanent record and will help the vet measure his growth and future health.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. And don't worry about "dumb" questions -- if you don't know the answer already, it isn't a dumb question. For example, you might ask what food is best for a growing pup, how much and how often to feed, and when to switch to a diet for adult dogs. Use this time to evaluate your veterinarian's responses. Does she explain her answers fully, using terms that are easy to understand? Does she offer advice based on experience with other dogs of your pup's breed?

Consider, too, how comfortable the vet and dog are with each other. Some veterinarians have a better tableside manner than others. Ideally, your veterinarian will handle your pup with confidence and ease, holding him firmly yet gently and talking to him -- and you -- in a manner that is friendly and reassuring.

Every good relationship is also based on trust. In future visits, you should have no qualms about asking your veterinarian why she is recommending a certain course of treatment, medication, or lab test. The better informed you are, the better you will be able to follow through with the necessary care. Likewise, once you and your vet have talked it through, you should be able to feel absolutely confident this doctor will do her best for your dog.

When you leave the veterinarian's office after the initial visit, it should be with confidence that your pooch's health and well-being are in good hands: yours and your veterinarian's.

Now let's consider the wide range of dog maladies. The more you know, the less chance of your pooch suffering from a serious illness. Details are in the next section.

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Basic Dog Diseases

Today we have vaccines to help prevent many of the killer dog diseases -- and antibiotics to treat some diseases when they do strike. With the proper series of preventative vaccinations, your dog will most likely never suffer any of the diseases listed in this section, but we've described them just in case.

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven

There are seven common and potentially fatal canine diseases you should protect your dog against with regular vaccinations: canine cough (also known as kennel cough), coronavirus, distemper, canine infectious hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus (or "parvo" for short), and -- the most dreaded of all -- rabies.

Canine cough. This is a respiratory infection common to any situation where many dogs are kept together, such as kennels (giving rise to the name "kennel cough"), animal shelters, and pet stores. The infection causes the trachea, larynx (voice box), and bronchi (the little branching tubes in the lungs) to become inflamed. Succumbing to the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, an infected dog will develop a mild to severe cough, sometimes with a runny nose, five to ten days after exposure. It can be treated with antibiotics and plenty of rest, which is very important. As with all the Not-So-Magnificent Seven, prevention is the most sensible and humane choice. If you plan to board your dog or will be exposing her to many other dogs, be sure she's protected against Bordetella. The "double whammy" is often a good strategy: a liquid vaccine administered through the dog's nose combined with an injection for canine parainfluenza virus.

Coronavirus. A usually mild disease, coronavirus is spread when a dog comes in contact with the stool or other excretions of infected dogs. Although it rarely kills dogs, coronavirus can be especially hard on puppies or dogs who are stressed or not in the best of health. Suspect coronavirus if your dog is depressed, doesn't want to eat, vomits -- especially if it's bloody -- and has a bad case of diarrhea. Exceptionally strong-smelling stools, particularly if bloody or with a strange yellow-orange color, are also signs. If coronavirus is diagnosed, the veterinarian will give your dog plenty of fluids to replace those lost from the vomiting and diarrhea, as well as medication to help keep the vomiting and diarrhea to a minimum. A coronavirus vaccination is usually recommended if your dog will be meeting lots of other dogs -- or their excrement -- at parks, dog shows, kennels, and other boarding facilities.

Distemper. Around the world, more dogs die from distemper than any other infectious disease. This highly contagious virus is spread by direct contact or through the air. A hale and hearty dog can survive distemper, usually with relatively mild symptoms. On the other hand, if your dog's immune system doesn't come out fighting, her whole body can be overwhelmed by the virus, as well as bacteria that jump in to cause secondary infections.

Distemper usually happens in two stages. Three to fifteen days after exposure to the virus, the dog develops a fever, doesn't want to eat, has no energy, and her eyes and nose become runny. As time passes, the discharge from her eyes and nose starts to get thick, yellow, and gooey -- the classic sign of distemper. If you haven't taken your dog to the vet before this symptom appears, you should take her now. Other first-stage signs of distemper are a dry cough, diarrhea, and pus blisters on the stomach. The second stage of distemper is even more serious, because the disease can begin to affect the brain and even the spinal cord. A dog in this stage might slobber frequently, shake her head, or act as if she has a bad taste in her mouth. Sometimes she has seizures, causing her to circle, fall down, and kick her feet in the air. Afterward, she seems confused, wandering around and shying away from people.

Unfortunately, when the disease gets this far, there's not much hope for the dog to survive. Dogs who do survive often have permanent neurological (brain and nerve) damage. Distemper can also spread to the lungs, causing pneumonia, conjunctivitis, and inflamed nasal passages (rhinitis); it can also spread to the skin, causing it to thicken, especially on the footpads. This form of distemper is called hardpad disease. Distemper is most likely to strike dogs as puppies between nine to twelve weeks old, especially if they come from an environment with several other dogs (animal shelter, pet store, breeding kennel). If your dog is diagnosed with distemper, your veterinarian will give her intravenous fluids to replace those she's lost, medications to help control the diarrhea and vomiting, and antibiotics to combat secondary infections.

Canine infectious hepatitis. This is a viral disease spread by direct contact. Mild cases last only one or two days, with the dog running a mild fever and having a low white-blood-cell count. Very young puppies -- two to six weeks old -- can suffer a form of the disease that comes on quickly. They have a fever, their tonsils are swollen, and their tummies ache. Very quickly they can go into shock and die. Onset is quick and unexpected: The pup may be fine one day and in shock the next. The most common form of canine infectious hepatitis occurs in puppies when they are six to ten weeks old. They show the usual signs of fever, lack of energy, and enlarged tonsils and lymph nodes. A dog whose immune system responds well will start to recover in four to seven days. In severe cases, however, the virus attacks the walls of the blood vessels and the dog starts bleeding from the mouth, nose, rectum, and urinary tract. If your puppy has canine infectious hepatitis, she will need intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and maybe even a blood transfusion.

Leptospirosis. This bacterial disease is caused by a spirochete, which is a type of bacteria with a slender spiral form. The leptospirosis spirochete is passed in the urine of infected animals and enters a dog's body through an open wound in the skin or when she eats or drinks something contaminated by infectious urine. The signs of leptospirosis are not pretty. Early symptoms include fever, depression, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Usually, leptospirosis attacks the kidneys, so an infected dog may walk all hunched up because her kidneys hurt. As the infection advances, ulcers appear in her mouth and on her tongue, and her tongue has a thick brown coating. It hurts to eat because her mouth is full of sores and might even be bleeding. Her stools have blood in them, and she's very thirsty, so she drinks a lot. To top it all off, she's probably vomiting and has diarrhea.

Treatment of leptospirosis requires hospitalization for a couple of reasons. First, in addition to needing antibiotics to knock out the bacteria and other medications to control the vomiting and diarrhea, a dog with advanced symptoms will have lost a lot of fluid and need to have them replaced. Second, leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be spread to people. Dogs with leptospirosis must be handled carefully to prevent infection. Even when your dog recovers, she can still be a carrier for up to a year. Your veterinarian can advise you on how to prevent infection after she's well.

Parvovirus. A highly contagious disease, parvovirus can be spread on an infected dog's paws, fur, saliva, and stool. It can also be carried on people's shoes and in crates or bedding used by infected dogs. Puppies younger than five months are hit especially hard by parvovirus and are most likely to die. Doberman Pinchers, Rottweilers, and Pitbulls are especially susceptible to parvovirus. The signs of parvovirus start to appear three to fourteen days after a dog has been exposed to it. Parvovirus can take two forms: The more common form is characterized by severe diarrhea, and the other rare form by damage to the heart muscle.

A dog with parvovirus is literally one sick puppy. If the disease affects her intestines, she'll be severely depressed with vomiting, abdominal pain, high fever, bloody diarrhea and -- not surprisingly -- no appetite. Few diseases cause this wide a range of serious symptoms. When parvo attacks the heart, young pups stop nursing and have trouble breathing. Usually they die quickly, but even if they recover they are likely to have congestive heart failure, which eventually kills them.

Vaccinations are available for parvovirus, but between six weeks and five months of age, pups are especially vulnerable to the disease, even if they've been vaccinated. The reason is complicated. You see, at birth, puppies get their immunities passively, through their mother's milk. Whatever diseases the mom has had or has been vaccinated against, the puppies get protection from, too. The effect of these maternal antibodies fades after weaning but may still be strong enough to interfere with the action of the parvovirus vaccine. With neither type of protection at full strength, the virus can slip in and do its dirty work. Even still, this does not mean you should put off getting a puppy vaccinated against parvo -- two types of protection less-than-full strength is better than only one or none at all.

Parvovirus is hard to kill. The virus can last weeks to months in the environment. If your dog has had parvo, thoroughly disinfect everything she was in contact with, using one part chlorine bleach mixed with 30 parts water.

Rabies. That Harper Lee sure could tell a story. Her description of a dog with rabies in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book To Kill a Mockingbird is not only medically accurate, it conveys all the fear and danger of this dreaded disease. Of course, she was hardly the first to write about it: Rabies has been known for thousands of years and is mentioned in the legal tablets of Mesopotamia and in the writings of Aristotle and Xenophon. Some areas of the world -- notably Australia, Great Britain, Iceland, Japan, and the Scandinavian nations -- have managed to eliminate rabies through strict quarantines on incoming animals, but it is found everywhere else in the world.

The rabies virus is a bullet-shaped killer. It enters the body through an open wound, usually in the saliva delivered during a bite. It can infect -- and kill -- any warm-blooded animal, including human beings. Depending on the area of the country, the wild animals most likely to transmit rabies are raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. In 2004, out of a total of 6,844 reported cases of rabies, 94 cases were reported in dogs and 281 cases reported in cats.

Rabies takes two forms. One is described as furious and the other called paralytic. Paralytic rabies is usually the final stage, ending in death. A dog in the furious stage of rabies, which can last for one to seven days, goes through a range of behaviors. She can be restless or nervous, vicious, excitable, and sensitive to light and touch. Her breathing is heavy and fast, causing her to foam at the mouth. Another sign of rabies is a "personality change." For instance, a friendly dog might become withdrawn and snappish, or a shy dog might become much friendlier than usual. As the rabies virus does its work on the central nervous system, the animal has trouble walking and moving. While it's bad form to approach any wild animal or strange dog, never try to approach one who is behaving oddly or having trouble with locomotion. You should be extremely cautious around any animal you know who is acting erratically.

Because rabies is fatal, public health veterinarians recommend euthanizing any animal with signs of rabies who has bitten someone. A dog who appears healthy but has bitten someone must be kept confined for ten days to see if signs of rabies develop. An unvaccinated dog who's exposed to rabies must either be euthanized or strictly confined for six months, with a rabies vaccination given one month before she's released from quarantine. If a vaccinated dog is exposed to rabies, she should be given a booster shot immediately, confined, and closely observed for 90 days. Unfortunately, the only surefire way to confirm a dog has rabies is to examine her brain (specifically, the tissue of her central nervous system) -- which means the dog can't be alive. If you have a dog or cat who dies rather suddenly -- particularly after displaying unusual behavior -- call your veterinarian immediately to see if you should have the animal checked for rabies.

Rabies is serious business. To protect your dog from rabies, you should have her vaccinated when she is three months old, again a year later, and once every three years afterward. If you are bitten by a rabid animal -- or by any animal you can't confirm for certain doesn't have rabies -- immediately clean the bite wound thoroughly with soap and water. Then call your doctor for immediate treatment, which may include a series of rabies vaccinations.

Can I Catch It From My Dog?: Zoonotic Conditions

We can't catch colds from our dogs, but they can share other diseases with us. Conditions that can be spread from dogs to humans are called zoonotic diseases. Some are merely unpleasant, such as the ringworm fungus, but others like salmonella poisoning or rabies can have more serious consequences. Dogs can also pass along leptospirosis, known as Weil's disease in humans, as well as parasites such as scabies, roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms, and the tick-borne Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Fortunately, it's not too difficult to prevent Ginger from spreading any diseases to us. She can be vaccinated against leptospirosis and rabies, of course. Worms can be kept under control by picking up her stool regularly and having regular fecal exams and deworming as needed. Good hygiene -- yours, that is -- is one of the most important ways you can prevent zoonosis. So be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the dog or picking up after her. This is especially important to remember for young children, elderly or debilitated people, and people with immune system disorders or undergoing cancer chemotherapy, all of whom are most susceptible to zoonotic diseases.

Ticks. If you live in a wooded or grassy area or take your dog to such places, examine Rover daily for ticks during warm weather. You're most likely to find ticks between her toes or on her head, neck, or ears. Remove ticks with tweezers, grasping them near the tick's head and pulling slowly but firmly. Be careful not to touch the ticks yourself. In fact, it's probably a good idea to wear rubber gloves when you're removing them. Drop ticks in a jar of rubbing alcohol to kill them. Other folk methods -- coating the tick with gasoline or petroleum jelly, or burning it -- are more likely to complicate matters and can actually be very dangerous if the tick bursts or the dog's hair catches fire. However, it can help to spray the dog with a flea-and-tick insecticide before removing the little blood-suckers. Newer tick-control prescription products are very effective at controlling ticks; check with your vet for a prescription.

Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Lyme disease is spread by the bite of ticks carrying the slender spiraling bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete. Ticks carrying Lyme disease include the deer tick in the eastern United States and the western black-legged tick on the West Coast. Ticks come out primarily in the spring and summer, especially when it's rainy, so Lyme disease is most common during the months of May through August, usually reaching a high in July. Most cases are found in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, but Lyme disease has been reported in most of the lower 48 states.

When dogs get Lyme disease, it usually shows up in the form of arthritis. Suddenly they're lame because their joints are tender and swollen. Not surprisingly, they're listless and weak, don't feel like eating, and may have a fever. In severe cases, Lyme disease can affect the heart, kidneys, and nervous system.

Unfortunately, Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose and is often confused with other diseases. If the dog has been bitten by ticks, develops the signs described above, and then responds to antibiotics, it's a pretty safe bet she was suffering from Lyme disease. If you live in an area where ticks are pretty common, ask your vet for advice on keeping them at bay with flea-and-tick-killing sprays, powders, and collars, or with the Lyme disease vaccine.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, also spread by contact with ticks, is caused by a different kind of bacteria called a rickettsia, which is rod-shaped and multiplies only within the cells of its host. Wood ticks and American dog ticks are the carriers of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is most common in the plains of the Midwest and in the mid-Atlantic states.

A dog with Rocky Mountain spotted fever has -- of course -- a fever, painful joints, and no appetite. In people, Rocky Mountain spotted fever causes flu-like symptoms: fever, chills, achy muscles, nausea, and vomiting. They may be sensitive to light, and a rash develops on their hands, wrists, ankles, and feet, sometimes spreading to the rest of the body. As with Lyme disease, antibiotics are the treatment of choice. Again, the best offense is a good defense: Examine your dog regularly for ticks, remove them carefully when you find them, and use insecticidal products that will kill or repel them.

In the next section, we'll look at early illness warning signs, to help you prevent illness from advancing if it does strike your pet.

Early Warning Signs of Illness: the Basics

The following signs of illness can indicate potentially serious problems. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should call your veterinarian for a consultation:

  • She seems tired or sluggish.
  • She has trouble urinating or she's urinating more than usual.
  • She's dragging or scooting her rear on the floor. She may have worms, her anal glands might be blocked, or she might have kidney disease or diabetes.
  • She's drinking a lot more water than usual.
  • She won't eat and misses more than two meals.
  • She eats a lot but is losing weight.
  • She's drooling a lot. She might have tooth or gum problems, or she could have gotten into something poisonous.
  • Her gums are red or swollen.
  • Her eyes are cloudy or red, she's squinting, or has a lot of discharge from her eye.
  • She's gasping or short of breath.
  • She flinches or whimpers when she's touched.
  • She has any kind of lump on her body.
  • She vomits, gags, sneezes, or coughs repeatedly.
  • Her coat is rough or dull.
  • She is unspayed and has a vaginal discharge.
  • She coughs or vomits up blood.
  • She has a fever.

The following signs of illness can indicate very serious problems. If you notice any of these symptoms, take your dog to the vet immediately:

  • She's dehydrated. Pinch the skin at the back of her neck. If it doesn't return back in place quickly, she might be dehydrated. Another sign of dehydration is dry or tacky gums.
  • Her gums are pale, white, or blue.
  • She can not urinate.
  • She faints or collapses.
  • She has a seizure or convulsion.
  • She becomes overheated.
  • Her abdomen is enlarged. She might have a gastric torsion (a twist in her stomach), mammary tumor, heart or liver disease, peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal lining), or pyometra (uterine infection).
  • She's unable to use her back legs.
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Dog Illness Warning Signs

A dog who's under the weather works hard to convince you she's just fine. That comes from thousands of years of instincts. In the wild, an obviously sick or weak animal (even a predator) is as good as dead. Even though she doesn't have to worry about that too much anymore, your dog's instincts still tell her to hide any signs of illness. You'll need a sharp eye and good observation skills to catch some of the more subtle clues. Of course, the better you know your dog, the easier it will be.

Some of the things to look for are basic: the way your dog looks, acts, eats, and drinks. For instance, she might look like she's gained weight, even though her appetite hasn't changed much, or like she's losing weight, even though she's eating more. A ten percent change in weight (which could be as little as a pound in a small dog) is something to bring to your vet's attention.

Eating

Usually, we know our dog is feeling good when she chows down on her food. It's not unheard of, though, for her to skip a meal or two, especially if it's hot outside. Any more than that is something to be concerned about. If your dog turns up her nose at food for more than two days, call your vet right away. Some diseases and medications cause dogs to develop eating habits that are downright out of the ordinary for them. A dog who has never been a food thief and suddenly starts raiding the garbage can or stealing food off the dinner table is telling you she needs a checkup or an adjustment of her medication.

Drinking

A dog who starts drinking water like a fish could be developing diabetes or kidney disease. You may not be able to notice the dog's extra water consumption easily, but you should be able to pick up her increased intake by paying careful attention to what comes out the other end. She'll be producing much larger amounts of urine and have to go outside more often. She may also start having accidents in the house.

Coat

A healthy dog has a thick, shiny coat. A dull coat or one with rough, dry, or bald patches is a sign that something's not right. The problem could be the type of food your dog is eating, a flea allergy, or another skin problem. Whatever the case, your vet's advice will help put your pooch back on the right track.

Lethargy

A more subtle sign of illness is what veterinary texts call "lethargy." (In simple terms, it means laziness or sluggishness.) A dog who's lethargic might show no interest in going for a walk, even though that's usually the highlight of her day. She doesn't want to play, not even her favorite game of fetch the tennis ball. Now, sometimes lethargy can be chalked up to a hot day, being sore after an extra long walk, or just feeling out of sorts. If it continues for more than two days, though, talk to your vet.

Vomiting

A familiar and not-so-subtle sign of illness is vomiting. Vomiting is not as dramatic a thing in the dog world as it is for us, and dogs may even vomit deliberately to get rid of something that doesn't agree with them (yesterday's garbage, for instance). Occasional mild vomiting usually isn't anything to worry about. But if your dog vomits frequently or several times in a row, has a fever, seems to be depressed or in pain, or has bloody or forceful vomit, you should call the vet immediately.

Stool

Finally, go on poop patrol. As unpleasant at it may sound, your dog's stool is a clue to her health. A healthy dog's stools are small, firm, and moist. Dry, hard stools that cause your dog to strain on elimination may be a sign your dog isn't getting enough water, or it may be a hint of another dietary or health problem. Squiggly, rice-shaped segments in the feces indicate worms. It's not unusual for an occasional stool to be loose or liquid or to contain mucous or even a tinge of blood. But diarrhea, straining, or mucous- or blood-tinged stool lasting more than two days should prompt a visit to the vet. If the elimination problem is accompanied by other signs -- fever, vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea -- call the vet immediately.

In the next section, we'll cover a crucial aspect of dog-care: how to prevent illnesses in the first place. Read on.

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Preventive Health Care for Dogs

Preventive pet medicine can catch problems before they become serious, saving time and money. How does preventive medicine work? It's a lot like caring for your car, really. You routinely check the oil and the air pressure in the tires and take the car in for regularly scheduled maintenance. By doing the same thing for your dog -- examining him at home on a weekly basis and scheduling an annual veterinary exam and vaccinations -- you can nip health problems in the bud and even extend your dog's life.

Regular veterinary visits. When you take your dog in each year for his veterinary exam, the vet doesn't just give him some vaccinations and send him on his way. He does a thorough exam: palpating the body to make sure all the internal organs feel normal and there are no worrisome lumps or bumps; checking the condition of the eyes and ears; listening to the heart and lungs; checking the weight; and taking the temperature. Because dogs age differently than people, this annual physical is comparable to you having a physical exam every five or six years. This is especially important if your dog is middle-aged or older because it gives the veterinarian a chance to find and treat health problems before they become serious.

Dog vaccinations. Most folks take it on faith that vaccinations are good for a dog and protect him against disease. They're right, of course. When puppies are born, they are protected by special antibodies produced in their mother's milk, but as they get older they lose this protection. That's why they need a series of vaccinations, usually starting at six to ten weeks of age, to stimulate their own immunity against disease. The vaccinations are repeated every three or four weeks until the pup is about four months old. Then he gets annual vaccinations to protect him throughout his life. These vaccinations protect your dog against such killers as rabies, parvovirus, and distemper and against other diseases such as viral hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, coronavirus, and kennel cough. If you live in an area where Lyme disease is common, especially if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, the vet can vaccinate for that as well.

Neutering and Spaying

It might surprise you to learn that spaying a female dog before her first heat and neutering a male before he reaches sexual maturity can prevent many health and behavior problems. Contrary to the old wives' tale, female dogs absolutely do not need to have one litter (or one heat) before being spayed. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Spay and neuter surgeries are easy to perform on young puppies, taking less time and requiring less anesthesia thanks to new technology and new drugs. Young pups recover more quickly than older puppies or dogs, and the long-term health benefits include a much smaller risk of developing mammary tumors and no risk at all of dangerous uterine infections or testicular cancer. Dogs who are spayed or neutered before they hit puberty have a much greater chance of living a long, full life.

Another common myth about spaying and neutering is that an altered dog will get fat. The truth is that weight gain and loss in dogs runs by the same rules as for humans. Too much food and not enough exercise -- not spaying and neutering -- are what causes dogs to gain weight.

Spaying or neutering a dog also has a positive effect on behavior. If there's a female dog in heat practically anywhere in the known universe, an unaltered male dog will know it. He'll try to get out, roam far and wide, mark your furniture and other things with urine, and may become overly aggressive. An unspayed female goes through the mess of heat (estrus) about twice a year, during which she may also try to escape or become more unpredictable in her behavior. Without the ebb and flow of those hormonal tides, spayed and neutered dogs are more consistent in their temperament -- which makes training easier -- yet their zeal in protecting you and your home is undiminished.

Spaying and neutering have one other important benefit that often gets overlooked: They prevent the birth of unwanted puppies. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 25 to 35 million dogs are put to sleep each year because there just aren't enough homes for them. Even if you let your dog have a litter and find homes for every last puppy, that simply means there's an equal number of puppies somewhere else who didn't get those homes and will end up being put to sleep.

Your dog should be altered by the age of four to six months, unless your veterinarian recommends waiting longer. Spaying or neutering is a one-time investment (many animal shelters even have low-cost spay and neuter programs), dramatically lowering your dog's risk of several serious disease (including some cancers), and doubling your dog's life expectancy.

For all the tried-and-true treatment methods there are for dogs, some owners will be eager to know about alternative methods. We cover them in the next section.

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Alternative Treatments for Dogs

Modern veterinary medicine has made many advances. New vaccinations, medications, diagnostic aids, and surgical techniques that were once undreamed of are realities, helping pets live longer, healthier lives. But some veterinarians are looking to the past to find successful treatments that rely on natural substances like herbs or homeopathic remedies, or physical manipulations like massage, chiropractic, or acupuncture. Alternative therapies for dogs have been used to treat skin problems, digestive upsets, and other conditions. Of course, an accurate diagnosis must be made before you begin any type of treatment, but many dogs can benefit from a skilled and sensible combination of traditional and alternative therapies.

Some veterinarians incorporate alternative medicine for dogs into traditional practices, while others specialize in treatments like acupuncture or homeopathy. A veterinary degree is not required to practice some alternative therapies, although many states require that these therapies be administered to animals with veterinary supervision. With the proper training, however, both veterinarians and nonveterinarians can perform acupressure or massage on a pet. Here are some alternative therapies and their uses.

Acupuncture. The use of acupuncture and acupressure is thousands of years old. These therapies were developed in ancient China and are based on the theory of energy flowing through a system of channels (called meridians) that flow through the body and are linked to certain internal organs. Disease is seen in large part as disharmony in this internal energy flow, and the purpose of acupuncture is to restore the balance. Acupuncturists may do this by using needles, finger pressure, heat sources, or other methods to manipulate certain specific points (or acupoints) along the meridians. Western scientific research is still at a loss to explain why acupuncture works. Some theories suggest that inserting the needles increases the body's production of endorphins (substances that make you feel better and more comfortable) and blocks the transmission of pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain.

When acupuncture was widely introduced in the West in the 1970s, the medical establishment didn't believe it worked. Since then, acupuncture has gradually gained respect as a viable treatment in many cases. In veterinary medicine, dog acupuncture has been used to treat allergies, arthritis, constipation, diabetes, kidney disorders, and liver disease.

With direction from a trained acupuncturist, you can provide home care for some conditions by manipulating your dog's meridians with finger pressure. Acupressure can be beneficial for dogs with arthritis, digestive disorders, and muscle strains.

Chiropractic. Developed in the 19th century, chiropractic is based on the idea that nerve energy flows through the spinal column. The energy becomes blocked if the spinal column is misaligned. Chiropractors manipulate the musculoskeletal system with fast, gentle motions (called adjustments) to restore normal movement or function to joints and surrounding tissues. As with acupuncture, we don't have a solid scientific explanation as to exactly why or how chiropractic works, but it has been used to treat a number of problems, from upset stomachs to arthritis.

Herbology. Herbs and flowers were probably among the first ways human beings treated sickness. We also know that animals will eat plants in response to certain illnesses. Today, some of our most widely used medications and treatments are plant-derived, including digitalis (foxglove), for certain heart conditions, and pyrethrins (chrysanthemums), a main ingredient in many flea-control products. The chemicals in herbal remedies have been found to strengthen the immune system, provide relief from pain, and calm the mind.

You may like the idea of using herbal remedies because they are natural, but like any other medication, medicinal herbs are dangerous if they're not used properly. They should be given only with veterinary supervision and in consultation with someone trained in the use of herbs. The safest, most effective way to use herbs at home is for treating external problems such as flea infestations or skin conditions. Before treating your dog with any herbal preparation, check with a qualified holistic veterinarian.

Homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine has been practiced for about 200 years and was originated by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Through testing and observation, Hahnemann discovered that substances that produced certain reactions in healthy people -- such as the itchy, swollen bumps caused by bee venom -- could stimulate a healing response in someone with an illness that had similar symptoms. Thus a homeopathic preparation of bee venom given to a person with a rash looking and feeling like bee stings alleviated the symptoms. This fundamental principle of homeopathy ("like cures like") was observed by the ancient Greeks and again in modern times with drugs like ritalin (a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity) and birth-control pills (the hormones that regulate fertility).

Before prescribing anything, a homeopathic veterinarian will question you about your dog's lifestyle, diet, and behavior. Once the environment is analyzed, the vet will prescribe a homeopathic remedy. In addition to homeopathic medications, the veterinarian may use tissue salts or flower essences to stimulate the body. Homeopathy is a true holistic healing modality: In addition to treating medical problems, homeopathic remedies are designed to take into account and treat related behavior and emotional issues.

Homeopathic remedies are prepared by successive dilutions and agitation of the original substance until there is little, if any, physical trace left. Because the active ingredients in common potencies of homeopathic remedies occur in such minute amounts, physical side effects are not an issue, making homeopathic remedies a safe, natural way to treat minor injuries and illnesses at home. Note: Homeopaths warn that using the wrong remedy may bring on a mild case of the symptoms that the remedy treats.

Common problems that respond to homeopathic remedies at home include minor stomach upset, bee stings or other insect bites, and minor injuries like cuts and scrapes. Other popular remedies include those that soothe the itching caused by flea bites and the anxiety caused by car travel or veterinary visits. Formulas for relieving the aches of arthritis; maintaining clean, healthy ears; and resolving mild cases of diarrhea are also available.

Massage. Massage does more than just feel good. A rubdown can help a dog recover more quickly from injury or illness, improve her flexibility and mobility, stimulate blood circulation, relieve muscle tension, and help keep her tissues supple. Depending on the strokes you use, a massage can energize or relax your dog.

Giving your dog a regular massage is a good way to become familiar with the feel of her body so you'll notice any unusual lumps, bumps, or other changes. A dog massaged also gets your dog used to being handled -- something your vet and groomer will appreciate.

We've covered myriad facets of the medical treatment of dogs. Congratulate yourself on being a well-informed dog-owner; your family and your pet may thank you someday.

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