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Common Health and Behavioral Problems of Rescued or Stray Dogs

How to Prevent Health & Behavioral Problems of Rescue Dogs

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.

Health Problems of Rescue Dogs

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

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.


Behavioral problems can be the most frustrating to handle. Their solution is often not as simple as the treatment for health problems; sometimes trial and error is needed. For some rescue dogs, the help of a behaviorist or a professional trainer may be necessary.


Anxiety, particularly separation anxiety, is a very common behavior problem in rescue dogs. These dogs suffer from this mental storm with good reason. They’ve left a family they knew (that family may not have treated your dog well, but the dog probably still had some attachment), possibly spent some time in a shelter amongst other scared dogs, and has wound up in a new home with people he doesn’t know. Will this home be permanent? Will these people be kind? Your dog is at your mercy, and he does not know what to expect. Of course he is anxious!

Preventing and treating anxiety requires time and effort. Give your dog an abundance of exercise and your attention. Show him he is important to you. Play with him, walk him, wear him out – this will help take care of his nervous energy and build the human-animal bond. Teach him basic obedience, give him toys that make him think – occupy his brain so he has less time to be nervous. It is also important to establish your dog’s rules and guidelines and stick with them! Dogs like consistency.

Inappropriate Elimination

Keep in mind your dog might be new to the housebreaking concept, even though he is an adult! Maybe he lived his previous life outdoors, maybe he was allowed to potty inside — who knows! BE PATIENT – this is key. If your dog is messing in the house, give him plenty of opportunities to get it right and go outside. Reward him when he does! Take him outside after a nap, after mealtime, after playtime, and anytime he is near the door.

Messing in the house may also be due to instinctual marking. If your dog is intact, get him or her neutered or spayed. This will probably help; however, the habit may have become habit by now and the resolution may involve more effort to housebreak.

Another cause of accidents in the house may be submissive urinating. Try to instill confidence in your dog by teaching obedience, encouraging play, and by not scolding but only giving positive reinforcement. Proper body language around a nervous or submissive dog is also helpful – do not tower over the dog and do not look him directly in the eyes. Read PetPlace’s Submissive Urination in Dogs for more help.

If your dog is messing in the house only when you leave, it may be due to separation anxiety. If exercise, mental stimulation, and your time and attention do not help this problem, a behaviorist may be needed.
Health problems can also cause inappropriate eliminations, so if the problem is not improving or it is accompanied by signs of illness, see your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Aggression Toward Other Pets

Anticipate stress between your rescue dog and your pre-existing pets, and follow appropriate steps to prevent it. Do your best to avoid injury by exercising caution. If possible, learn about the rescue dog’s attitude toward other pets before adoption. If adopting from a shelter or rescue group, you may able to witness the dog’s actions around other rescue animals.

If you have another pet at home, it is important to slowly introduce your rescue dog to your pre-existing pet. If possible, start by giving each animal something that smells like other. When two dogs meet one another, introduce them on neutral turf, such as a friend’s yard or a park where neither has been. Introduce both dogs on-leash, so that you can maintain control. When the dogs are comfortable around one another or are ignoring each other, you can move to your own yard. Read PetPlace’s Introducing a New Dog Into Your Household for more information.


Be patient with your rescue dog as he adjusts to his new life and realizes that this is a positive change. Dogs are expert readers of human body language. If you are frustrated with your dog, he will pick up on that, which will make his transition more difficult. Be sure to make your dog feel wanted and loved, and he will reward you with more than you could have ever imagined!