Whether you’re a new puppy owners, or have owned dogs all your life, it’s always useful to know a little about the health problems your dog might suffer from during their lifetime. We all know about the “big” problems to watch out for, such as cancer or epilepsy, but what are the issues that most dogs suffer from and what can owners do to minimise their dog’s risk?
What are the most common health problems in dogs?
The top three most commonly diagnosed health problems in dogs are gum disease, ear infections and obesity. Your dog’s risk of developing these disorders will largely depend on their breed, age, sex, whether they’re neutered and other important factors, such as diet and how much exercise they get. There are many things that owner can do to reduce their dog’s risk of developing these issues and it’s important for all owners to get into a habit of caring for their dog’s teeth, ears and weight.
How do we know what’s common?
In 2021 the Royal Veterinary College and The Kennel Club conducted joint research that looked at the veterinary records of over 22,000 dogs. Data from these dogs were analysed to look at the health issues that most commonly affect dogs.
Details about the study
A study from the Royal Veterinary College and The Kennel Club looked at the UKs most commonly diagnosed disorders in dogs, using data collected through the VetCompass research project. The study analysed data from the veterinary records of 22,333 dogs from 2016 and is the largest study of its kind.
The study found that the most commonly diagnosed disorders were:
- gum disease (12.5%)
- ear infections (7.3%)
- obesity (7.1%)
- overgrown nails (5.5%)
- anal sac impaction (4.8%)
- diarrhoea (3.8%)
- vomiting (3.1%)
- lameness (2.7%)
- arthritis (2.3%)
65.8% of study dogs were diagnosed with at least one disorder and, unsurprisingly, older dogs were found to have more health problems that younger ones.
Additional analysis of the data regarding age, sex and neuter status was also undertaken and illustrated the complexity of disorder occurrence.
More information can be found at
O'Neill, D.G., James, H., Church, D.B., Brodbelt, D.C. and Pegram, C. Prevalence of commonly diagnosed disorders in UK dogs under primary veterinary care: results and applications. BMC Vet Res17, 69 (2021). doi.org/10.1186/s12917-021-02775-3
The most common health problems in dogs
A list of the most commonly diagnosed health problems in dogs can be found below, starting with the most common and working backwards.
Straight after your dog eats, bacteria, food, saliva, and other particles mix to make a sticky film over their teeth called 'plaque'. Over time plaque can harden and become tartar. Tartar is a hard, rough substance that is difficult to remove and a great place for more plaque to build-up and grow. Both plaque and tartar are rich in bacteria. These bacteria can cause gum disease and produce an acid that eats away at your dog’s teeth, eventually leading to cavities.
Signs of gum disease include:
- bad breath
- bleeding gums
- pawing at the face
- loss of interest in food or chew toys
Ear infections (otitis externa)
Waste and particles can easily collect and get trapped in a dog’s ear. Their long and narrow ear canals, helped by a sharp bend part the way along it, make it difficult for them to keep their ears clear and clean. Some dogs, or breeds, may also be more prone to ear infections than others. Dogs with long floppy ears can have an even higher risk of developing ear infections because their ear flaps prevent moisture from escaping, making them a warm wet environment that is perfect for yeast and bacteria to thrive and spread.
Signs of ear infections:
- repeated scratching or rubbing of their ears
- an unpleasant discharge in their ears
- their ears smelling unpleasant
- head tilting or head shaking
- lack of balance
- wincing or yelping when their ears are touched
Obesity is an increasingly common problem for both us and our dogs. All types of dogs can suffer from weight management issues, and it’s estimated to affect between 30 and 60% of the canine population. Dogs, like us, need a balanced diet and the right amount of exercise to stay fit and healthy, but finding that balance is not always simple.
Signs of obesity:
- no clear waist if you look from above and the side. Their body should go in between their ribs and hips
- it’s difficult to feel their ribs if you run your hands along their side
- a larger and rounder face
- a thick, fatty neck
- not keen to exercise
- finding it hard to walk
- getting out of breath easily
- often tired or sleep a lot
Find out more about obesity and weight management.
Long claws are more prone to chipping, tearing, splitting and breaking, which can be very painful and may require veterinary treatment. As well as being prone to damage, when a dog stands or walks on long-clawed paws it puts pressure on the wrong parts of the foot, causing pain and discomfort which can travel to other parts of the limb and cause lameness.
Anal sac impaction
Dogs have two small glands on either side of their bottom, which produce a smelly oily liquid that helps them to identify each other (by sniffing each other’s bottoms) and to mark their territory. Your dog’s anal gland usually empties naturally when having a poo, but if the gland becomes blocked they can become infected, swollen and painful, often causing them to scoot on their bottom in an effort to relieve the discomfort.
Signs of anal sac impaction:
- a nasty fishy smell
- dragging or scooting their bum
- having an uncomfortable bum
- changes in colour of anal gland fluid
Most episodes of diarrhoea are not serious, but it’s important to know when you should contact your vet and, if possible, what the causes may be. A dog can have diarrhoea for many different reasons, including stress, changes to their diet and parasites. If your dog’s diarrhoea is accompanied by other signs, or if you are concerned about their health, then you should contact your vet for advice.
Find out more about dog diarrhoea.
Dogs, like us, are usually sick to help empty their system of anything difficult to digest, but sometimes it might be a sign of an underlying illness, health concern or an indicator that something else is going on. In these situations it’s important to know the difference between when to look after your dog at home and when to speak to your vet for advice.
Find out more about vomiting in dogs.
Dogs can limp for a number of reasons, including injury, trauma, joint disease or bone disease. Limping can have a gradual onset, or may appear suddenly. Long term issues, such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia or arthritis, tend to cause gradual onset of limping. Injuries, sprains or fractures usually result in dogs suddenly limping. If your dog is limping, and you don’t know why, then its best to contact your local veterinary practice for advice.
Arthritis is a common, painful condition that is often most severe in older dogs, but can develop at any age. Heavier dogs and larger breeds are usually more likely to be affected. This condition is one of the main causes of chronic pain in our beloved pets and can be a very debilitating disease, greatly reducing a dog’s quality of life and ability to enjoy the most basic of daily activities.
Signs of arthritis include:
- limping and lameness
- stiffness (particularly after periods of sitting or lying down)
- wincing or yelping when moving or touched in the affected area
- swollen joints
Think your dog may be affected?
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.