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The essentials

  • Puppies are highly susceptible to illnesses — They don’t have strong immune systems yet to fight off most viruses and diseases, putting them at a high risk of getting sick.
  • Consult your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis — If your puppy is sick, your vet can diagnose their condition and put together a treatment plan.
  • Vaccines go a long way in preventing illnesses — Immunizations are the most effective way to prevent or reduce symptoms for your new pup.

Between feeding, exercising, and training, being a dog owner comes with many responsibilities. But above all else, keeping our furry friends healthy is most important. It can be scary to see your dog not feeling well, especially a young puppy

Since their immune systems aren’t fully developed, puppies face a high risk of contracting illnesses. The good news is a veterinary professional can get to the root of your pup’s illness and formulate a treatment plan. Here are some of the most common sicknesses to watch for in your puppy.

Common diseases in sick puppies

Your vet is the most qualified person to diagnose your sick puppy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t familiarize yourself with what signs to look out for. Here are some of the most common diseases to learn about to keep your puppy happy and healthy 

    1. Parvo (parvovirus)

Parvo, technically referred to as canine parvovirus, or CPV, is a highly contagious disease that attacks the lining of the gastrointestinal tract in puppies. The virus can result in severe dehydration, low white blood cell count, heart damage, or even death. Puppies can contract parvo by interacting with an infected dog or other contaminated environments or items like feces, leashes, toys, crates, or bowls.

Symptoms of parvo in puppies include: 

Since the virus is difficult to eradicate, the most important treatment for parvo is prevention. Early vaccination greatly reduces the risk of contracting the virus, and keeping your puppy up to date on their shots is the most effective way to avoid this serious illness.

If your puppy is showing signs of parvo, especially fever and bloody diarrhea, it is vital to contact your vet and get your pup tested ASAP. If diagnosed with parvo, hospitalization will likely be necessary to keep your dog hydrated and to prevent further infections and complications.

    2. Kennel cough

While boarding your puppy can be a good option for when you are traveling, it also comes with some health risks. The most common illness spread in doggie daycares and dog boarding facilities is kennel cough. According to the CDC , it is “considered one of the most prevalent infectious respiratory diseases in dogs worldwide,” and is spread via airborne droplets from dogs near one another. If left untreated, kennel cough can develop into pneumonia, which can be deadly for puppies.

The main symptoms of kennel cough include:

  • A loud, persistent cough (sometimes sounds like reverse sneezing)
  • Lethargy 
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite 

If your puppy has come down with the disease, their vet can prescribe any needed medication to make sure the cough runs its course without causing further issues.

While it doesn’t completely protect against kennel cough, the Bordetella vaccine can significantly reduce the length and symptoms of the disease. Many boarding facilities and groomers won’t take unvaccinated dogs to reduce the risk of an outbreak.

    3. Influenza

More commonly known as the “dog flu,” canine influenza is an infectious disease transferred through droplets in the air and contaminated surfaces. Though uncommon, dogs can also get the flu from their humans.

The symptoms of canine influenza are very similar to the symptoms of kennel cough — including fevers, coughs, sneezing, and runny noses — making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Your vet will be able to determine which illness your dog is experiencing, if any, and the correct treatment plan.

Though canine influenza has no direct cure, symptoms can be alleviated with supportive care like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), fluids, and antibiotics aimed at boosting the puppy’s immune system. Additionally, your vet will be able to advise you on how to safely quarantine your pup to avoid spreading the flu to other dogs in your community.

  4. Canine distemper

Canine distemper is a highly contagious viral disease that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. There are three main ways that puppies can contract this illness:

  • Contact with infected animals. Dogs or wildlife (including coyotes, raccoons, and foxes) infected with distemper can spread the virus through contact and shared surfaces.
  • Airborne exposure. Like the common cold in humans, the virus passes through droplets in the air caused by the sneeze or cough of an infected animal. This is considered the most common route of transmission.
  • In the womb. If their mom is infected while pregnant, puppies could be exposed to distemper through the placenta. The virus can also be passed through their mother’s milk after they’ve been born.

The first sign of distemper that owners should look out for is a watery, pus-like discharge from the eyes. Further symptoms include fever, coughing, a runny nose, lack of energy, lack of appetite, and vomiting. In severe cases, dogs may start “circling,” have involuntary muscle twitches, head tilts, drool, or even seizures.

Prevention in the form of vaccination is key. Distemper in dogs is often fatal, and even pets that survive can face permanent nervous system damage. Since there are currently no known medications to help , treatment is focused on preventing further infections and making sure dehydration doesn’t worsen the condition.

    5. Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis refers to inflammation or irritation of a puppy’s gastrointestinal tract. The most common causes include viral or bacterial infections, adverse reactions to medicine, food allergies, ulcers, poisoning, and diseases in the pancreas, liver, and kidneys.

Owners with sick puppies should note that gastroenteritis is a blanket term that can cover four different types of the illness:

  • Acute gastroenteritis. When symptoms come on suddenly and go away on their own. In extreme cases, the gastroenteritis will worsen until treatment is provided.
  • Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE). When there’s blood in the dog’s diarrhea. This is generally more common in smaller dog breeds.
  • Chronic gastroenteritis. When it continues over weeks, months, or even years. This type of gastroenteritis is typically accompanied by an underlying long-term health issue.
  • Eosinophilic gastroenteritis. Caused by a type of white blood cell called eosinophil . It’s more common in younger dogs but certain breeds like German shepherds and rottweilers are prone to it as well.

Symptoms of gastroenteritis in puppies include vomiting foamy bile, diarrhea, loss of appetite, low energy, weight loss, slight fever, and tenderness in the stomach area. The treatment your vet prescribes depends on the underlying cause, but bland diets, probiotics, and antibiotics may be used to help your dog recover. You’ll also want to ensure your puppy is drinking plenty of water, as dehydration is a concern with gastroenteritis.

    6. Urinary tract infection (UTI)

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are bacterial infections of the urinary tract. The condition is fairly common in not just puppies, but all dogs. A study from the University of California, Davis found that 14% of dogs experience a UTI in their lifetime. Thankfully, not all UTIs are serious or cause significant distress. That said, owners should be aware of the symptoms to prevent them from becoming worse.

UTIs can be especially difficult to detect in puppies who aren’t fully housetrained, as one of the main signs of the infection is having accidents in the house. Other signs of a UTI include bloody or cloudy urine, frequent licking of the genitals, and a fever.

If you are concerned that your puppy has a UTI, your vet will advise on whether or not medication is needed for their unique case. To help treat and prevent infection, be sure your dog is drinking plenty of water, stays well-groomed around the genitals, and has ample opportunities to go out and do their business.

    7. Leptospirosis

Dogs, cats, and even humans are at risk for leptospirosis , a bacterial infection that can spread through a puppy’s bloodstream. It is contracted when your puppy makes direct contact with infected water, mud, or urine. This is most prevalent in wooded areas where wildlife is abundant. The infection can be transferred from animals to humans, including children.

Symptoms of leptospirosis include: 

  • Sudden fever
  • Shivers
  • Muscle weakness or soreness
  • Red gums
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice. 

Though it doesn’t target every strain of the infection, the lepto vaccine is the best way to protect your dog from the condition.

If you suspect your puppy may have leptospirosis, you must handle them with protective gloves to prevent infecting yourself. Your vet will likely conduct a chemical blood test or urinalysis to determine if your puppy has leptospirosis. If so, an IV may be administered to prevent dehydration. 

Depending on your pup’s unique case, other treatments can include antibiotics, nausea medications, a blood transfusion, or a tube to aid in digestion. Your family or other members of the home will also need to be tested to make sure they’re not also infected.

Other reasons your puppy may be sick

Puppies love getting into mischief, so it’s possible that the symptoms they’re experiencing aren’t necessarily the result of an underlying illness. Instead, look towards these other factors that can contribute to your pup not feeling well.

  • Underlying conditions. Puppies exhibiting symptoms may be experiencing an underlying health issue brought on by genetics, poor breeding practices, or past trauma. Health problems puppies are prone to include hip dysplasia, eye cataracts, deafness, and bloat.
  • Injury. Puppies experience pain more intensely than adult dogs. Whether they’ve taken a tumble or gotten into a physical altercation with a bigger animal, their small stature sets them up for a good amount of trauma. If your puppy is showing signs of physical pain such as limping or difficulty breathing after an incident, seek veterinary care immediately.
  • Foreign objects. If your puppy has ingested an object they shouldn’t have, this can lead to an intestinal obstruction that results in symptoms like vomiting, bloating, and abdominal pain. Emergency care is necessary to quickly address the issue before it gets worse.
  • Poisoning. In addition to foreign objects, you’ll also want to be careful of “people foods” deemed dangerous to puppies and adult dogs, like grapes and chocolate. Call the pet poison control or schedule a vet appointment immediately if you think your puppy has ingested something poisonous. Rodenticide can also be deadly to dogs and should be treated as an emergency.

How to keep your puppy healthy

While routine vet checkups and vaccinations can go a long way in ensuring your puppy stays healthy, it’s also a good idea to take steps at home to keep them from getting sick. Here are considerations for maintaining a healthy immune system in your forever friend.

  • Diet. Once you’ve found a nutrient-rich dog food for your puppy, make sure you’re not over-feeding or under-feeding them. Treats can go a long way in training, but shouldn’t comprise more than 10% of their daily caloric intake.
  • Preventatives. Flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives should be administered at home monthly to deter common parasites that like to feed on our furry friends.
  • Exercise. Puppies need their exercise to burn energy and stay healthy, but not too much! A good rule of thumb is to not do more than 5 minutes of exercise for each month of age for your pup. Mental stimulation is also important for exercising their brains.
  • Training. In addition to keeping them well-behaved, training can be beneficial in keeping your puppy healthy. As curious explorers, there’s no shortage of foreign objects and potentially poisonous food or garbage your little fella will try to get into. Training can teach them to steer clear of harmful things that get them sick.

👉 Emergency pet care is extremely costly. Enrolling early in a pet insurance plan can provide you with the coverage you need in the event your puppy requires emergency surgery.

Changes as your puppy ages

We all wish our cute little puppies could stay the cute little puppies forever, but they will inevitably age. As your fur baby turns into a fur adult, keep these changes in mind that will affect your dog’s health.

  • Transition to adulthood. Dogs are typically considered adults when they reach one year of age, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re done growing. A puppy’s bones can take between 6 months and 2  years to fully develop. The more they grow, so does the number of calories they require, which is all the more reason to continue checking with your vet on how much you should be feeding them.
  • Spaying and neutering. When to spay or neuter a dog depends on their age and size. For toy and small breeds, vets will typically recommend having them fixed when they’re 6 months olds, while larger breeds usually won’t have the procedure done until they’re 1-1.5 years old.
  • Behavioral changes. As dogs change in size, they also change in behavior. Around the one-year mark, they become more focused and confident, but also more dominant. It is best to start training early when they are 8 weeks of age with a puppy training course and continue training into adulthood. Use positive reinforcement instead of punishment-based tactics in order to set them up for success.

It’s super important to have your puppy seen by your vet regularly as they grow to catch any health issues early and keep their vaccines up to date. And never be worried about calling your vet’s office with any questions about your puppy!

Dr. Jennifer Schott

betterpet vet

With all the different illnesses your puppy can contract, keeping them healthy can seem like a daunting task for pet owners. But it’s important to remember that getting sick is as inevitable for dogs as it is for humans, and as long as you keep your new best friend up to date on their shots and seek help when they present symptoms, you can rest assured they’ll be getting the help they need to live a long, happy life.

Frequently asked questions

How can I treat my sick puppy at home?

You should always consult your veterinarian before trying to treat a sick puppy on your own. Guidance for at-home care may include rest, giving them plenty of fluids, and recommended diet changes. Your vet may also prescribe medication that you can administer every day.

When should I take my puppy to the vet if they’re sick?

If your puppy has symptoms that last longer than a day, schedule a vet appointment as soon as possible. For severe symptoms like an injury or excessive vomiting, seek emergency care.

What common illnesses can affect puppies and how can they be prevented?

Common illnesses that puppies may experience include parvo, gastroenteritis, kennel cough, and UTIs. Vaccinations can reduce symptoms and even prevent certain health issues. Heartworm preventatives administered at home can protect against intestinal parasites.

What are the signs of a sick puppy?

Symptoms like coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and seizures are indications that your puppy is sick and requires veterinary care.

At what age can I vaccinate my puppy?

Generally speaking, most puppies are eligible to be vaccinated after 12 weeks of age. Puppies and young dogs have underdeveloped immune systems, so the sooner they are vaccinated, the better.