by Teri Dickinson, DVM
Chair, Health and Welfare Committee, Italian Greyhound Club of America
Despite their fragile appearance, Italian greyhounds (IG’s) are both sturdier and healthier than they appear to the casual observer. Obviously, due to short hair and little body fat, they are not suited to prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures, but many do live happily in northern climates. Fortunately for their owners, IG’s, on the whole, are not often plagued by some of the more common canine diseases. Allergies, digestive problems, heart problems, arthritis and back injuries can be found in IG’s, but certainly not to the extent that they are represented in some breeds.
Despite their overall good health, there are a few problems that are very common in IG’s and there are some inherited problems that all IG owners should be aware of, and for which the dogs should be monitored.
Without question, the biggest health problems involving Italian greyhounds involve the teeth and gums. Most IG’s will develop severe periodontal (gum) disease at a relatively early age, if their teeth do not receive proper care. Theories abound about why this occurs and the answer probably lies in a combination of factors. Like most toy dogs, IG’s have relatively large teeth for the size of their heads, and this can result in crowding of the teeth in the mouth. IG’s have tight lips which can trap food against the gums, and a relatively dry mouth which causes a reduction of the cleansing effects of saliva washing food from the gums.
Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that it is not uncommon for IG’s to begin losing incisor (front) teeth to periodontal disease at 1-3 years of age. All IG’s owners should begin a preventive dentistry program as soon as the permanent teeth erupt, and should plan on brushing the teeth as often as possible, preferably daily. Brushes and canine tooth paste are available from the veterinarian. In addition, the veterinarian should be recruited to help monitor the condition of the gums, and the dog should have professional cleanings as often as is necessary to keep the gums in good condition. This may require annual dentals, or in come cases, semiannual visits, just like your dentist insists on for your teeth. Teeth cleanings should include polishing the teeth as the final step, as smooth teeth will trap less calculus on the enamel.
Selecting dogs as breeding stock that have healthy teeth and gums seems to lessen the incidence of gum disease in the puppies. In addition, teeth should be strong, smooth and shiny white, indicating healthy enamel. There is a condition in IG’s where the teeth are small and pointy, and the enamel is rough and yellow. These rough teeth trap a lot of calculus, and special attention must be paid to brushing these teeth if one is to keep them healthy. In addition, these teeth are very soft compared to normal teeth, and will wear down much faster, just in the normal chewing activities of the dog. It appears that the presence of the rough, yellow teeth is hereditary in nature, and most breeders recommend against using an affected animal in a breeding program.
Retained deciduous (baby) teeth are also fairly common. The IG should be monitored as the adult teeth erupt (4-7 months), and if a permanent tooth erupts and the corresponding deciduous tooth remains, the deciduous tooth should be extracted by a veterinarian. The upper canine teeth (fangs) are most commonly affected.
Drug sensitivities are a known issue in IG’s. Anesthetics of the barbiturate class, and organophosphate insecticides should be avoided, just as they are in the larger sighthounds. IG’s can be successfully and safely anesthetized with gas anesthetics, particularly isoflurane. It is recommended that the veterinarian administer the gas through a special set of hoses known as a “non-rebreathing” apparatus to insure that the IG gets adequate amounts of oxygen through its relatively small airways.
IG owners should find a veterinarian who is interested in dentistry, and who uses the described anesthetic techniques, and should not let fear of anesthesia prevent them from getting proper dental care for the dog.
Fractures of the radius and ulna (forearm) are a common problem in IG’s, particularly between the ages of four and 12 months. New IG owners should be aware that IG puppies are fearless, and believe they can fly. The puppy should be safely confined when unsupervised, and the house should be puppy-proofed as much as possible by removing potential “launching pads.” The puppy should be closely supervised when loose in the house, and where possible, kept off of hard, slippery floors.
Some broken legs are inevitable in a breed with the long, slender legs of an IG. However, dogs that have a lot of relatives with broken legs seem to be at increased risk, and again, many breeders recommend against breeding dogs from families with a high percentage of leg breaks.
Idiopathic epilepsy is another condition which affects IG’s. Otherwise healthy dogs begin having seizures at 2-5 years, and no cause for the seizures can be identified. In many cases, the seizures are mild and infrequent, and no treatment is necessary. If the seizures become violent, more frequent, or occur in “clusters” the veterinarian will recommend the dog be placed on anticonvulsants. Phenobarbital is currently considered the drug of choice, and is widely used in IG’s. Phenobarb (as it is known) is a member of the barbiturate class of drugs, but given orally is as safe in IG’s as in any other breed.
In every breed in which research has been undertaken, idiopathic epilepsy has been determined to be an inherited disease. It is not recommended to breed an animal that has seizures.
Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) is diagnosed regularly in the breed. Symptoms can be variable, ranging from weight loss to weight gain to hair loss. The veterinarian now has a wide range of blood tests available to help ascertain the level of thyroid function, and if necessary, supplemental thyroid hormone can be given in tablet form. Once again, breeding of affected dogs is not recommended.
Color dilute alopecia (CDA) is also known as color mutant alopecia, blue Doberman syndrome or blue balding. Alopecia (hair loss) affects the colored areas of hair on dogs that have dilute coats. Dilute colors can include blue, blue-fawn, fawn, etc. The hair loss usually starts in the dorsal stripe (middle of the back) and spreads to include most of the body. White-haired areas are not affected. There is no pruritus (itching) associated with this disease, and there is no treatment for the hair loss. In some breeds (Dobermans) the majority of dilute (blue and fawn) dogs are affected, but in IG’s, only a small percentage of dilute dogs seem to be affected. Many dilute IG’s retain a full hair coat all their lives. CDA affected dogs should not be bred.
Retained testicles (cryptorchidism or sometimes called monorchidism) are frequent findings in male IG’s. Dogs with undescended testicles are at greater risk of developing testicular cancer, and should be neutered at an early age.
Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is an eye disease wherein the cells in the retina (back of the eye) which register the visual image, begin to die. Dogs are born with normal vision but at three to four years of age develop lack of night vision (night blindness). Vision loss is normally progressive, and eventually results in total blindness. A veterinary ophthalmologist who examines the eye may be able to detect changes in an affected IG at two to three years of age. There is no treatment for PRA.
PRA is known to be hereditary nature in nature. It is inherited as a simple recessive which means that two normal dogs may be carriers of the gene, and when bred together can produce an affected dog. Any dog which produces an affected dog is a carrier and should no longer be bred. In addition, affected dogs and their littermates should not be used as breeding stock. IG’s used for breeding should have annual eye exams performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Juvenile cataracts (which are also heritable) are occasionally diagnosed in IG’s as well.
Luxating patellas (slipped stifles) are a common problem in toy breeds and the IG is no exception. The patella (knee cap) does not remain in the groove on the femur (thigh bone) and thus becomes luxated (dislocated). The affected dog will often hold up the affected hind leg, and may exhibit a hopping gate in the rear, as the patella moves in and out of the groove. Once again, affected animals should not be bred, but surgery can be used to stabilize the patella and make the dog more comfortable.
Legg-Perthe’s disease (LPD) is another orthopedic problem found in IG’s. LPD affects the hip joint, and the primary sign is lameness in one or both hind legs at 5-12 months of age. In LPD, part of the hip joint loses its blood supply, and the surrounding bone dies and collapses. There is a surgical treatment for this disease. LPD is known to be hereditary.
IG’s can be affected by a number of autoimmune or immune mediated diseases. In these conditions, the dog’s immune system becomes confused, and fails to differentiate the cells that belong to the dog from those of invading bacteria, viruses, etc. As a result, the immune system begins attacking the dog’s own cells. A wide variety of diseases can occur including pemphigus (all forms) and lupus (local or systemic). The symptoms can usually be controlled by treating the dog with a variety of drugs to suppress the immune system (immunosuppresants), and these dogs too should be removed from the breeding pool.
Portal systemic shunts (liver shunts) may occur in IG’s. An abnormal pattern of blood vessels allows blood to be routed around the dog’s liver, instead of through the liver. As a result, the toxins in the blood cannot be removed by the liver, and affected dogs may suffer seizures (hepatic encephalopathy). In some cases, it is possible to surgically repair the blood vessels, and allow the dog to live a more normal life, but affected dogs should not be bred.
Inherited deafness has been reported in IG’s particularly in individuals which are solid white or have only small patches of color on their heads or ears. Von Willebrand’s disease (VWD), an inherited blood clotting disease, has also been detected in IG’s.
Considering buying an IG? Ask the breeder if their breeding stock is free of the above conditions, and has had appropriate health screening tests performed. Already have an IG? Be on the lookout for the symptoms described above, and share the information in this article with your veterinarian. Have an IG affected with one of these problems? Please contact the breeder and give them as much information as possible. Conscientious breeders need and want to know about any health problems which crop up in their lines. Above all, remember to brush those IG teeth!
© copyright Teri Dickinson, DVM, 1997
Reprinted with permission from Top Notch Toys