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Common Health and Behavioral Problems of Rescue Dogs: How to Prevent Them

By: Renae Hamrick, RVT

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Rescuing a dog is a generous and rewarding action, which will provide an underprivileged dog with the love and care he craves, and you will be rewarded with a new best friend. Though there are endless positives to rescuing, there are also some common health and behavioral problems that may affect your new pal.

The extent of their problems, if they have any at all, often is related to their former life, the care they received, and where you are acquiring the dog. A dog adopted from a shelter or rescue group should have fewer problems than a dog rescued directly from an abusive home. Abuse, neglect of medical care and preventative treatments, malnourishment, unsanitary living conditions, and close quarters with other dogs are some predisposing factors.


Listed below are several common health problems associated with rescue dogs. With any health problem, you should see your veterinarian for treatment.


Fleas are external parasites which bite your dog to feed on his blood. Fleas may also bite you, but will not live on you. Fleas are common on any dog that has not had proper flea prevention. The presence of small bugs, flea dirt (black, pepper-like discharge), itching, and red skin are signs of fleas. Talk to your veterinarian about flea treatment and monthly flea prevention.


Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal internal parasite which causes strain on the heart and vessels. Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes; therefore, it is most common in dogs that live or spend a lot of time outdoors. Heartworm disease is treatable by a veterinarian, and it can be prevented with a monthly medication.

Signs of heartworm disease include coughing, lethargy, trouble breathing, and fluid distention of the abdomen.

When adopting a rescue dog, it is important to be sure he is heartworm negative. If there is no medical record to prove heartworm prevention and a current negative test, it is ideal to see your veterinarian for bloodwork.

Intestinal Parasites

Intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and whipworms, are also common in rescue dogs. These parasites often cause diarrhea and can also lead to vomiting, inappetance, lethargy, and weight loss. When adopting a dog with an unknown medical history, it is ideal to take a fecal sample to your veterinarian for analysis. Before a negative fecal test, it is best to keep children away from the dog's feces, as some parasites are zoonotic.

Intestinal parasites can be easily treated and prevented with medications acquired from your veterinarian. Monthly preventative medication is imperative in all dogs, and it is usually included in your heartworm prevention.

Skin Problems

There are many skin problems which can affect dogs from infections to allergies to microscopic parasites. Hair loss, extreme itchiness, red skin, sores, and puss or other discharge from the skin are signs that a dog is suffering from some dermatological problem. If you see any of these symptoms, take your dog to a veterinarian. He may choose to perform a skin scraping to develop a diagnosis and treatment plan.


Diarrhea is common in rescue dogs for several reasons, most commonly stress, food change, and intestinal parasites. Rescued dogs go through a lot of change in a hurry. Despite the fact that it is a change for the better, the dog is usually still very nervous. The stress of a new home and new life can cause diarrhea. A sudden change in food type can also cause abnormal stools.

If your new canine friend has diarrhea, it is best to talk to your veterinarian and have a stool sample analyzed for intestinal parasites. If your dog is showing other signs of illness along with the diarrhea, do not delay an appointment with a veterinarian, as there may be a more serious problem.


If a rescue dog is coming from a particularly unfortunate situation, he may not have received enough food or a proper, balanced diet. Malnourishment can lead to a host of health and behavioral problems. Some of the most common, easy to identify signs of malnourishment are an underweight body, poor coat quality, and sunken eyes.

If you suspect your rescue dog is a victim of malnourishment, see your veterinarian immediately. It is also important when initially feeding these dogs to provide small, frequent doses of food. Allowing a malnourished dog to quickly eat a large meal can actually be dangerous to the dog.

Kennel Cough

Despite regular cleaning and sanitary conditions, kennel cough is a common problem of shelters. Kennel cough is a highly contagious viral infection affecting the trachea and bronchial tree of the respiratory system. A honking cough sometimes followed by retching is the hallmark of this disease. Kennel cough can become more severe and lead to pneumonia, so veterinary care is crucial.

Treatment of kennel cough includes cough suppressants and sometimes antibiotics. This condition can be prevented with vaccinations.

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