3 Common Health Issues in Small Dogs and How We Treat Them

Physical Challenges Small Pets Are Prone to and Their Treatment Plans

West Highland Terrier

From “purse pups” and those you can pop into your bike basket to big dogs with no sense of personalspace and the enormousness of breeds like Alaskan malamutes, canines certainly come in all sizes. Whether you have a tiny dachshund or a Great Dane (or a mix of bigs and littles), you likely realize that the size of the dog can be tied to certain health problems. Big dogs are often subject to things like hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis. Small dogs, on the other hand, have their own set of challenges.

In the article below, we’ll be covering three health problems commonly experienced by small dogs, including:

  1. Patellar Luxation
  2. Tracheal Collapse
  3. Mitral Valve Degeneration Disease

1.    Patellar Luxation 

Medial patellar luxation is a condition that is relatively common in small-breed dogs. It’s a condition where the patella (kneecap) slides out of its normal position. Ouch! As humans, just the thought of this makes us surely cringe. Not surprisingly, this can cause your dog pain or irritation, which is why it’s good for you to know the symptoms.

The most common signs you might see of patellar luxation in your dog at home would be:

  • Limping on one or both hind legs
  • Walking with a catch or hitch in their step
  • Being more reluctant to jump like they used to

The patella normally sits within a groove of the femur and is held in place by various ligaments. When the patella luxates, it moves out of the groove to different locations. It’s most common for the patella to move medially, meaning towards the inside of the leg. This can happen because the surrounding structures around the patella are damaged or loose, either by genetic factors or trauma. In most cases, patellar luxation is congenital and clinical signs are observed early in life.

Patellar luxation can be diagnosed on physical examination during your pet’s annual wellness visit.

Your veterinarian will grade the degree of luxation on a scale from 1 to 4:

  • Grade 1: The patella can be luxated with manual manipulation, but it regains its normal position once released. This can be an incidental finding in some dogs, and it may not progress further in those cases. 
  • Grade 2: The patella can be luxated with manual manipulation or can be luxated by manually extending the joint and turning the foot in different directions. Once manual manipulation is done, the patella will regain its normal position or will resolve when the joint is flexed. 
  • Grade 3: The patella is found to be permanently luxated, but it can be manually manipulated back to its normal position. Once released, though, the patella will luxate again. 
  • Grade 4: The patella is permanently luxated and cannot be manually manipulated to its normal position. 

In most cases, grade 1 and 2 luxating patellas can be managed with a conservative approach. This can include exercise, weight loss, joint supplements, and/or medications if needed. Surgical correction is typically recommended for grade 4 luxating patellas and might be recommended for grade 3s. While surgical repair is considered the gold standard for patellar luxation, your dog can live with a luxating patella, especially if it is low grade. Supportive care is not recommended for severe patellar luxation as it can cause pain and discomfort for your pet. 

The prognosis for young dogs is relatively good when we perform the surgery at an early age once detected. Most dogs regain normal function relatively quickly after the procedure. In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend activity restriction for a couple of weeks following the procedure. 

2.    Tracheal Collapse

The trachea is a long tube-like structure that is lined by cartilage rings. Normally, these rings have some structure and rigidity, but with tracheal collapse, these rings lose that rigidity and become flattened during the negative pressures when the animal breathes. We make the diagnosis most accurately with an endoscope, or a tiny video camera we insert safely into your dog’s trachea. Chest radiographs can also be helpful. 

Because some breeds are more predisposed to tracheal collapse, it’s believed that there is a genetic factor involved. The most common breeds are Yorkshire terriers and Pomeranians. This process most commonly presents in middle-aged to senior dogs. 

Differential diagnoses should be ruled out, so we may need various diagnostics might need to be performed (heartworm test, chest radiographs, etc.). 

Treatment consists of weight loss or weight management, anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants, and other medications. Dogs with severe tracheal collapse can become surgical candidates. Surgery aims not to return the trachea to normal but to provide the patient with a more open airway. We know surgery can sound daunting to pet parents, so we would always discuss the pros and cons of surgical correction for severe tracheal collapse with you.

Tracheal collapse is a progressive disease since the tracheal cartilage rings deteriorate over time despite treatment. The prognosis will depend on how your pet responds to therapy, so please be sure to follow any instructions for at-home care. 

3.    Mitral Valve Degeneration Disease 

Mitral valve degeneration is a common canine cardiac disease that most commonly affects small-breed dogs. Some breeds are highly predisposed compared to others. For instance, virtually all Cavalier King Charles spaniels will develop mitral valve degeneration disease at some point in their lifetime. 

The mitral valve is a one-directional valve between two out of four chambers of the heart. There is a lot of pressure on the valve, and it can begin to wear out or “leak” over time. This “leak” is associated with a heart murmur. A heart murmur can be the earliest sign of a leaking mitral valve. 

Initially, mitral valve degeneration disease can be asymptomatic, but as time goes on, it can progress. This progression can lead to congestive heart failure. From the time a heart murmur is detected, it can be months or years until heart failure occurs. 

If we detect a heart murmur, we’d likely recommend chest radiographs, an electrocardiogram, or an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart). This will help to determine the stage and severity to make recommendations accordingly. Therapy might include medications and/or dietary modification. Unfortunately, we cannot reverse or cure mitral valve degeneration disease. Instead, the purpose of therapy is to delay the onset of congestive heart failure. If you notice any signs of heart disease in your dog, please err on the side of caution and call us. The earlier we treat them, the better the prognosis typically is.

Small dogs are known for their incredible zoomies, cozy nap spots, and their ability to make their way into our hearts, so you surely don’t enjoy learning about things that can affect them. However, knowledge is always power. Monitoring disease progression could include annual wellness exams, scheduled echocardiograms depending on your pet’s stage, and bloodwork to assess whole-body organ function. 

If you just adopted a small dog or recognize some symptoms of some of these conditions in your current canine companion, call us right away!