6 Signs of Illness in Your Pet (cont.)

Hair Loss or Itchy Skin

Fleas, ticks, mange mites, and ear mites are common reasons for hair loss and itching on the skin or around the ears. When cats or dogs have ear mites or yeast infections, they may scratch at itching ears and have "brown, crumbly discharge in the ears," Sawchuk says.

But hair loss or itchy skin may also result from endocrine problems, staph infections, fungal or yeast infections, and a host of other causes, Sawchuk says. "We make our diagnosis by sometimes collecting samples of hair and the superficial debris on the skin," she adds, "or sometimes doing laboratory testing to look for hormonal problems or culturing if we're worried about fungal infections and things like that."

Stiffness, Lameness, or Difficulty With Rising

Pets that suffer stiffness, lameness, inability to bear weight on one leg, or trouble rising from the ground may have hip or spine arthritis, disc disease, ruptured ligaments, or hip dysplasia. Tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, can also cause arthritis.

In hip dysplasia, the hip joint develops abnormally, leading to degenerative joint disease. Big dogs, such as German shepherds, Labradors, and golden retrievers, are more likely to be affected. "The larger dogs tend to have more problems with inherited joint problems, like hip dysplasia and shoulder and elbow dysplasia that can result in them developing arthritis as they age," Sawchuk says. "A lot of little dogs also will get arthritis, but because they tend to be carried around a little more and pampered and not asked to do the same things that large dogs are, it may not be quite as evident to the owner."

Besides pain and stiffness, arthritis can result in other nasty consequences. For example, long-haired dogs that are unable to get up may urinate on themselves and end up with maggot infestations in their fur during warm weather, Meadows says.

When a dog has trouble getting up from the ground "it's one of those things that families just accept as a sign of aging," Meadows says. But "we know dogs get arthritis in their knees, hips, and lower back, and we have so many tools to manage that and keep the quality of their life and the quality of their mobility really excellent."

Treatments range from glucosamine and NSAIDs to exercise, physical therapy, and surgery.

SOURCES:

Karen Mitchell, Alameda, Calif.

Julie Meadows, DVM, assistant professor for clinical medicine in community practice, University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Sandra Sawchuk, DVM, clinical instructor, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

Mark Stickney, DVM, director of general surgery services, Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

John Randolph, DVM, diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine; professor of medicine, Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition, 2007.