Dental disease, obesity and arthritis: what do these three have in common you might ask? They were recently identified as the most serious conditions of dogs from a list of the most common conditions treated by vets in practice.
The study was undertaken at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), and was supported by Dogs Trust, and aimed to help us to understand which problems really are the worst, from the dog’s perspective with dental disease, obesity and arthritis came top.
Researchers started by identifying the most common conditions seen in dogs across vet practices in the UK and then added in information on their severity and how long they lasted in order to come up with an overall score for how badly they affected the dogs.
Drawing on anonymised information on dog health coming in from a large network of vet practices across the UK in a programme called VetCompass™, dental disease, obesity and arthritis came out as a dog’s worst enemy because not only were they common but because they also often had serious adverse effects on dogs’ lives as well as also often affecting them for substantial periods of time.
What is this ‘VetCompass’? Well, in these days of wall-to-wall bad news stories, VetCompass is a rare shiny success story for animal welfare. VetCompass shares anonymised health information on UK pets from over 1500 UK veterinary practices and uses this for studies that aim to answer questions that can improve the health and welfare of all companion animals.
Currently primarily focused on companion animal practice, VetCompass includes health information from over 10 million animals, of which more than 5 million are dogs. This Big Data approach has allowed investigators at the RVC and elsewhere to investigate a range of important conditions affecting pets across the UK. Previous studies have explored heart disease, kidney problems, diabetes, cancer, urinary incontinence to name but a few conditions affecting dogs and cats.
The new information generated by these studies can help vets and owners to spot problems earlier by knowing about high risk breeds, e.g. Yorkshire terriers are at increased risk of diabetes. Equally, by highlighting the likely course of a disease after diagnosis (i.e. prognosis), owners can have a better idea of what sort of future their animals can expect after diagnosis, and this sort of information can help owners to make the best welfare decisions for their pets.
So what about our trio of terrible diseases?
Dental disease was particularly common in dogs, with nearly 10% of dogs having this diagnosed by vets in practice. Some breeds appeared more prone to having dental issues, with greyhounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (CKCS), Border terriers, Bichon frises and Chihuahuas being amongst the breeds most commonly affected.
The severity of disease diagnosed by vets ranged from problems such as mild gum disease through to severe tooth and gum problems requiring surgery.
Once present, dental problems do not just go away unless treated and relatively young dogs were often affected, meaning this could be a problem for the dog for a long period of time.
Dental disease wasn’t the most severe of conditions that is seen in practice, but its overall impact on dogs’ quality of life was high because it was so common and also because it can affect dogs for so long during their life.
It is often said that prevention is better than a cure and this is especially true when it comes to dental disease. By regularly examining our animals’ mouths and taking the opportunity when we visit our vets to ask them to examine your pet’s teeth, we can spot problems earlier. There are many products available such as dental chews and dog toothbrushes/toothpaste that can help us to maintain our animal’s dental health.
If our animal does progress to have more severe dental problems, then occasionally a dental procedure under anesthetic at your vets is the best way to get it under control.
And as for the growing problem of obesity in pets? Well my Labrador, Olli, is a little overweight.
If it wasn’t for all the cats’ food he keeps stealing, he would be incredibly trim. I keep thinking that all the exercise and energy he consumes trying to outwit me to get the cat food should at least counter the extra food he takes on. Or maybe it is just keeping me fitter as I remain on high alert? The tell-tale sign of the rapid rattling of the cat bowel – cats just don’t eat that quickly – gives him away and like a shot I am down the stairs to tell him off.
It turns out obesity is also a major problem that can harm our pet’s health and welfare. Although it is not always the main reason for a trip to the vets, obesity is often picked up by vets when we bring in our animals for other reasons.
The new study also identified a number of breeds that were at increased risk. These included Beagles, CKCS, Labradors (yes you Olli), Pugs, and Golden retrievers to name a few. It was diagnosed on average at about 5 years of age and once present it tended to stay. Obesity and being overweight can be a significant problem for our pets. Though the study showed that it generally wasn’t an extremely severe condition relative to other conditions, its long duration and high frequency mark it out as a major health concern.
One of the worst impacts of obesity is that there is evidence it increases the risk of other diseases such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes and can reduce our pets’ ability to enjoy a healthy active life. Not necessarily easy to address, but by considering reducing the amount and re- thinking what we feed them as well as increasing their exercise, we can make a substantial inroad into their weight problems and improve their quality of life. Watch out Olli: I have a cunning plan to get you slim.
Arthritis was the last of the big three. Though diagnosed less often than dental disease or obesity, it still was a relatively common condition seen in practice. Larger breeds, including Golden retrievers, Labradors, Rottweilers and GSDs in particular were especially prone to joint problems. Though recorded in dogs more during older age (10 years on average), it was often a primary reason for a visit to the vets and also commonly required medication to maintain the animal’s comfort. Of the major conditions seen by vets in practice, this was the most severe. Osteoarthritis is rarely curable but there are several treatments available to help maintain an animal’s quality of life and, when coupled with appropriate weight reduction, many affected dogs can live reasonably good lives.
There are many conditions that vets have to deal with in practice and owners have to help their animals with at home. Osteoarthritis, obesity and dental disease are just three of them. But their frequency, severity and long duration make them major threats to our pets’ welfare and happiness.
This is useful information because we can now be extra vigilant to such conditions, and it can also help research funding bodies to decide which conditions should be prioritised for funding.
If you are worried that your pet has one of these conditions, the best starting point is to visit your vet and discuss your concerns. VetCompass is a partnership with a large number of practices across the UK and if it weren’t for the foresight of these practices sharing their information, such studies that can see the bigger picture would not be possible.
For more info visit www.rvc.ac.uk/VetCompass
by D Brodbelt and D O’Neill, Royal Veterinary College