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What are the most common disorders diagnosed in dogs in the UK?

A newly published study has identified the most common health conditions to affect dogs.

Researchers have named the three most common health problems in dogs as dental disease, ear disease and obesity.

The study published in BMC Veterinary Research is the largest of its kind, and is part of the VetCompass initiative. Run by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), the VetCompass project carries out welfare research and is focussed on improving companion animal health. Their database contains the anonymised veterinary records of more than 8 million dogs.

Scientists studied the veterinary records of 22,333 dogs collected at 784 vet practices across the UK, during 2016. They looked at how often each condition was diagnosed (prevalence) and studied how the dogs’ age, sex and neuter status affected disease frequency.

Study highlights

  • The most frequently diagnosed conditions were dental disease, ear disease and obesity.

  • Anal gland impaction, overgrown nails and diarrhoea were also common.

  • Almost two thirds of dogs had at least one disorder diagnosed during the year of study.

  • The likelihood of having a health problem increased with age.

  • The likelihood of having a disorder differed between males and females for 14 conditions.

More detail

Disease frequency:

The researchers looked at the frequency of individual diseases (e.g. periodontal disease) and different groups of diseases (e.g. dental disease).

The most frequently reported individual health conditions were periodontal (gum) disease (12.52%), otitis externa (ear disease) (7.3%), obesity (7.07%), overgrown nail(s) (5.52%), anal sac impaction (4.8%) and diarrhoea (3.81%).

The most commonly reported groups of diseases were: dental disorders (14.1%), skin disorders (12.58%), enteropathy (intestinal disorders, 10.43%), musculoskeletal disorders (8.64%), ear disorders (8.17%) and obesity (7.07%).

Effects of age:

The likelihood of having one or more health conditions increased with age. Age also affected which conditions the dogs were most likely to get.

Dogs over 9 years of age were more likely to have osteoarthritis, heart murmurs and masses (tumours).Younger dogs (less than 6 years) were more commonly diagnosed with infections, traumatic injury (e.g. to the claw), ear infections, allergies, behavioural disorders, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Effects of sex

The study confirmed previous reports that urinary incontinence, urinary tract infection and mammary masses (tumours) are more common among females than males. It

The findings also confirmed that males are more likely than females to be diagnosed with otitis externa (ear disease), aggression and seizure disorders. Males were also more likely than females to be diagnosed with:

  • A cough

  • Drug reactions

  • Dermatitis (skin inflammation)

  • Wounds and lacerations

  • Arthritis

  • Foreign body

Effects of neutering

Neutered animals were more likely to have at least one health issue during the study period than those dogs which were entire (un-neutered). According to the findings of this study, they were also more likely to be diagnosed with:

  • Obesity

  • Periodontal disease

  • Urinary incontinence

  • Urinary tract infection

  • Lipoma

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Atopic dermatitis (skin allergies)

  • Lacerations

However, the authors warn that association is not the same as causation. In other words, just because a condition was more frequently diagnosed in neutered dogs, does not mean that neutering was the cause.

There are many other factors which might have caused this association, the most likely of which is age. Further research is needed to tease out the finer details of the health impacts of neutering.

Mammary masses, flea infestations and weight loss were more common in entire (un-neutered) animals. Not surprisingly, so too were disorders of the female and male reproductive tract.

What do the findings mean?

The findings of this research will help numerous different groups to work towards improving the lives of dogs, by reducing the prevalence and negative welfare impacts of common diseases. They will help vets and owners decide which areas to prioritise when it comes to preventative healthcare, and know what conditions they should be on the lookout for.

Study author, and senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the RVC, Dan O’Neill told the Vet Times: “This study shows that it is really important for owners to develop strong habits of caring for their dog’s teeth, ears and weight right from the time they first acquire a puppy. Owners should work closely with their vet to plan appropriate dental and weight care programmes at each visit to their veterinary clinic”.

Owners and prospective owners should also be aware that two thirds of dogs will be diagnosed with a health condition each year, something they should consider, plan and provide for, when taking on a dog.

The findings of the study might also be used:

  • To guide campaigns to raise awareness and reduce the prevalence of certain diseases

  • By vet schools to prepare the next generation of vets for the diseases they are most likely to encounter

  • By groups such as the World Small Animal Veterinary Association to inform decision making about how to prioritise the allocation of resources such as drugs, especially during uncertain times due to Brexit and Covid-19.

In the future, the data collected might be used to compare disease frequency between different breeds of dog. Identifying the conditions to which each breed it most susceptible means that breed-related health campaigns can be targeted accordingly.

Full paper reference:

O’Neill, D.G., James, H., Brodbelt, D.C. et al. Prevalence of commonly diagnosed disorders in UK dogs under primary veterinary care: results and applications. BMC Vet Res 17, 69 (2021).

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