Puppy perils: common illness and injuries in dogs under one year old

Puppies are full of bounce and always on the go. But all that energy and curiosity can lead to a vet trip.

Out of all the dog claims we handled between November 2020-2021, well over a quarter were for puppies under one.

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The average puppy claim cost  £498 but some conditions are much more expensive. In the last year we’ve seen puppy claims in excess of £5,000 each for spine, heart, lymph node and even middle ear conditions.

And puppies are a lot more accident-prone than adult dogs. Accidents accounted for 22% of puppy claims, but just 10% of claims for adult dogs.

That’s certainly been my own experience. I’ve had two dogs from puppyhood and both have endured a significant vet trip before their first birthday.

One of them, at just four months old, hoovered up and swallowed a huge fishhook on the beach concealed in a lump of delicious, smelly bait. We rushed to the vet with the neon fishing line still hanging from his mouth.

The second - a cockerpoo with remarkable jumping and climbing ability scrambled onto a high table and scarfed down six ibuprofen. Luckily I found the chewed up packet and realised what had happened.

Both dogs had overnight stays at the out of hours vet, resulting in bills of over £3,000 and £1,000. Both, I’m relieved to say, have made a full recovery.

I’ve learned some hard lessons about keeping mischievous pups out of trouble, but the claims data shows I’m not alone.

The most common accidents for puppies

These are the most common types of accident claims for puppies:

Surprise-surprise, foreign bodies (like fish hooks) and intoxication (including poisoning with painkillers) accounted for well over half of all puppy accidents.

A variety of cuts, bumps and broken bones make up a large proportion of other incidents that land puppies at the vets.

The most common puppy accident claims are for foreign bodies

Puppies seem to get quite a curious range of objects stuck in a variety of body parts. Although 60% were simply claims for a ‘foreign body’, over a quarter involved unspecified objects lodged in the digestive system and nearly one in 10 were for grass seeds lodged in unspecified body parts.

Types of claims for foreign bodies

  1. Foreign body - unspecified 60%
  2. Foreign body in the stomach, or digestive organs 26%
  3. Grass seed 9%
  4. Foreign body stuck in throat 1% 
  5. Foreign body in mouth  1%
  6. Foreign body in eye 1%
  7. Foreign body in ear 1%
  8. Foreign body in nose 0.5%
  9. Other 0.5%

Grass seeds can do surprising damage to your poor pup if you don’t get them treated quickly. Vet Sophie Bell’s dog actually lost an eye because of one - read her advice on avoiding grass seeds and what to do if your puppy does meet with the sharp end of one.

Most other foreign body incidents involved hapless pups getting things stuck somewhere in their face, with claims spread fairly evenly across throats, mouths, eyes, ears and noses.

Here’s a breakdown of foreign body claims that name a specific body part:

The average cost of a puppy accident claim is £560, but as my own experience shows, bills can run a lot higher if your poor pup needs overnight stays, stomach pumping or even surgery.

Sometimes you can't stop your puppy getting into a pickle. But some practical steps like crate training could really help. Here are a few tips to keep them out of mischief - and the vets:

Poisoning is very common in puppies

We all know how quickly puppies can get hold of and eat things, which is why poisoning is the second most common accident.

Although a large proportion of poisoning incidents don’t give a specific cause, there’s one big culprit here: raisins or grapes, which account for over a third of all puppy poisonings.

Chocolate, painkillers and rat poison were also responsible for significant numbers of vet visits for pups.

“Some owners are completely unaware that grapes, raisins, and sultanas are toxic,” says Sophie. “There is no known toxic dose – ALL cases should be considered as a potential serious toxicity, even one grape.”

You should get your puppy to the vet straight away if you think they’ve eaten raisins or grapes. “Never sit and wait as it can take several days for symptoms to show, by which time your dog could be in acute renal failure," says Sophie.

“Your vet might take bloods to look at kidney function, make the dog sick, give charcoal, begin intravenous fluid therapy for 72 hours, repeat bloods at the end of the IVFT and send them home if they’re ok.”

What are the most common puppy illnesses?

Although pups are significantly more accident-prone than adult dogs, it’s illnesses that make up the bulk of puppy claims.

The average cost of a puppy illness claim was slightly lower than for accidents, at £440. But prologued treatment and repeat vet visits for some conditions could mean a significantly higher bill.

The most common puppy illnesses are digestive upsets, with diarrhoea and vomiting topping the list. Gastroenteritis and giardiasis, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea, were also common.

Most common puppy illness claims

  1. Diarrhoea 12%
  2. Vomiting 11%
  3. Conjunctivitis 6%
  4. Gastroenteritis 5%
  5. Ear infection 4%
  6. Giardiasis 3%
  7. Other 59%

Each of these illnesses are usually easily treated and relatively mild, but because of puppies’ small size and weight, they can deteriorate quickly, so it’s important to act fast when you see any sign of illness.

All our policies include free unlimited video calls to a qualified vet, day or night. Almost 60% of people calling between 1 November 2020 and 31 October 2021 were worried puppy parents and over a third of them had a puppy with a stomach complaint.

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What to do if your puppy’s been sick

If your puppy’s sick repeatedly, you need to get them to the vet.

But if your dog’s otherwise bright and well and only has mild diarrhoea, Dr Sophie Bell has these tips for treating your pup at home:

  • Don’t starve them – they get much needed nutrients, electrolytes, and moisture from their food.
  • Offer bland proteins like scrambled egg (made with water) or boiled white fish and add good dietary fibre alongside – unsweetened canned pumpkin or butternut squash.
  • Feed little and often – small meals regularly throughout the day instead of two-three large meals. Do not offer their usual diet until the diarrhoea has resolved for at least 24 hours.
  • Chamomile tea may help diarrhoea and gut discomfort.  Brew with a saucer on top and only offer small amounts with their food once cooled. Check with your vet first.
  • Use a pre- and pro-biotic that contains kaolin, these are available without a prescription and examples include Probind, Prokolin and Canikur which can be bought from your vet.

Treating your dog’s ear infection at home

“You cannot treat an infection at home,” says Sophie. “At best you can use a dog-specific ear cleaner to remove excess debris and wax.

“Your vet may prescribe topical ear drops and can take a swab of the ear to identify the cause. They will look inside the ear and they may need to perform a sedation and flush the ears. Some dogs may also need oral steroids and antibiotics.”

Ear infections can be caused by ear mites, fungal infection, bacteria and viruses, allergies or even foreign objects like grass seeds. Dogs that like to swim can get them more often too.

Some common signs are:

  • Head shaking or pawing the side of the face
  • Offensive smell
  • Wax
  • Inflamed/red ear or discharge
  • Crying when touched near to the ear
  • Jaw pain which may lead to trouble eating
  • Vomiting and nausea

Identifying your dog’s triggers can help avoid recurrent ear infections - things like swimming or food allergies.

You should check your dog’s ears regularly. You can clean them, but don’t over-clean, as that can encourage wax build-up.

Why puppy vaccines are important

One of the most important things you can do to keep your puppy healthy is to get them vaccinated.

Claims for diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines were thankfully very low. But illnesses like parvovirus and distemper can be devastating in puppies and often fatal.

More than three quarters of the claims we saw for vaccinable diseases were for kennel cough, which isn’t always included in your dog’s routine jabs.

Ask your vet whether your puppy’s first course of vaccinations includes kennel cough. If not and you think your pup could be exposed, see if your vet will include it – it might not cost much extra.

Claims for vaccinable diseases in puppies

  1. Kennel cough 76%
  2. Parvovirus 22%
  3. Leptospirosis 1%
  4. Hepatitis 1%
  5. Distemper 0.3%

Keep your puppy safe by having them vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity and don’t take them anywhere that unvaccinated dogs could have been until two weeks after the end of their course.