Common Health Issues

The most common health issues in Westies are skin problems. There are a number of contributing factors and you can read our skin issues article to see what treatments and preventative measures that can be taken to minimise the impact if they occur.
There are many other rare conditions that impact a very small percentage of dogs and are highly unlikely to occur in most cases, but are listed here for general information purposes only. If you suspect that there is something wrong with your Westie, then take them to a Vet. If you are not happy with the diagnosis or the treatment your Westie is receiving, then seek a second opinion from another Vet.

Skin Issues in Westies

Skin issues in Westies can be in many forms. In most cases they are the result of something that your Westie has come into contact with or something that they have eaten.

Contact Allergies
The first thing you should do if your Westie seems itchy and is scratching themselves excessively is check for fleas. Flea-related dermatitis is a common cause of skin issues. A black flea is easy to spot on a white dog, particularly when your Westie is wet. If you see any signs of fleas, you should apply flea treatment. If you are using a liquid flea treatment, make sure that you part the coat, so that it gets onto the skin. Wash their bedding as well and if there is an infestation, use a flea bomb to get rid of them.

There are several plants known to trigger allergies in dogs. These include Wandering Jew, Deadly Night Shade and other toxic weeds. In addition, like humans, Westies can suffer from hay fever in spring when many plants produce pollen.

It is important that your Westie is not clipped too short. Their coat is intended to protect them from the elements and plants that may harm or irritate their skin, so shaving a Westie's coat exposes their skin to irritants that would normally be blocked by their fur.

Food Allergies
Westies can be allergic to Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Corn, Wheat, Dairy and Pork. If you suspect your Westie has a food allergy, strip back the type of food you are giving them until you can identify the trigger. Start with eliminating grains from their diet. If you are on a chicken based diet and you strip it back to only giving them plain chicken and they still have a problem, then may be allergic to chicken.

Cook their food yourself where ever possible, so that you can control what they eat. If you must use commercial pet food read the ingredients carefully. Avoid giving them table scraps, especially pasta.

It can take up to 6 weeks to see the results of a change in diet, so don't expect to see a change after one meal.

Read our Dietary Considerations in Westies article for more information.

Treating Skin Issues
To ensure you are receiving the right treatment for your Westie, ask your Vet to do a tape test on your Westie's skin. They can then look at it under a microscope and see whether it is a yeast infection or a bacteria on the skin and if so, what type of bacteria. This will help them to determine the correct treatment and/or medication required. Depending on the result your Westie may require antibiotics, medicated shampoo and/or topical cream to treat their condition.

Once the course of medication is completed, it is advisable to return to the Vet for a recheck to ensure the problem is completed cleared up, as it may reoccur as soon as the medication is stopped.

Eliminating the cause
Treating skin problems will ease your Westie's discomfort, but if you do not eliminate the underlying cause of the issues, they will continue to return.

For flea issues, mark your calendar to treat your Westie monthly to protect them from a new outbreak.
For plant related issues, check your garden for any toxic or allergy causing plants and either remove them or block your Westie from accessing them. If pollen is an issue, check with your Vet to find a suitable antihistamine that your Westie can take.
For food related allergies, if you cannot identify the trigger, ask your Vet to get a blood test done to scan for allergies and you will receive a report identifying the items that your Westie is susceptible to. Once you know what is causing the problems, you can eliminate the allergy triggers from their diet.

Dietary Considerations in Westies

Ideally your Westie should have a balanced diet of dry food (kibble/biscuits), meat (chicken, lamb, fish, kangaroo or venison) and vegetables.

Be careful when feeding your Westie beef as in many cases it contains hormones that can cause hot spots on their skin and lead to skin issues.

In some circumstances, probiotics and prebiotics can be used as additives to maintain a heathy balance of bacteria in their gut, particularly if they have been on a course of antibiotics. This could be as simple as adding a tablespoon of plain Greek Yoghurt to their food.

When using commercially produced food, always read the ingredients list to make sure that there is nothing that cause trigger allergies and where possible, avoid grains such as wheat, maize (corn) and rice.

Beware of dog treats sold in supermarkets, as many of them are high in sodium.

Westies love fruit and vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, pumpkin, celery, apples, pears and sweet potato.

Never feed your Westie onions, grapes, sultanas, raisins, mushrooms or chocolate as these are poisonous to any dog.

Raw Food
Many people advocate feeding only natural raw food to their Westies. This is fine, but you need to consider how it is handled and stored. Pet food does not have to meet the same health standards as human food and if it is not kept at a suitable temperature or if it is packed in unsanitary conditions, then it can be a breeding ground for bacteria.

Desexing your pet Westie

There are many reasons why you should have your pet Westie de-sexed.
For females:
- Heat periods can be messy and embarrassing. During a heat period, the genitals swell. She will have a bloody discharge, which can stain her coat, your carpets furniture and clothes. She may spend a lot of time licking her private parts. She may flirt shamelessly with other dogs (even other females), presenting her rump and encouraging other dogs to mount her. She may mount other dogs herself or hump pillows or stuffed toys.
- Heat periods require vigilant confinement. If your dog is in heat, you can't leave her alone in the yard for a single minute. A female in heat can be smelled from a long distance away and fences mean nothing to a lust-crazed male. Indeed, you may have to curtail walks altogether.
- Heat periods can upset your own plans. Friends and relatives may not appreciate a visit when your dog has a discharge or will leave tempting scents on their doorstep. Vacations and trips may have to wait, since most kennels will not accept dogs that are not de-sexed and they certainly won't want one that is in season. And leaving an unspayed female with a pet sitter is extremely risky because of the extreme requirements for vigilance.
- Desexing prevents uterine infections and reduces the risk of breast cancer.
- What if something goes wrong? If the bitch has problems during labour, caesarean sections are expensive. What if no one is home when she goes into labour? You could lose your Westie and all of the puppies.
- What are you going to do with the puppies? ? It takes a lot of time, work and money to produce a healthy litter. You have to nurture and socialise the puppies and find good homes for them. The problem is most people who could provide good homes would prefer a puppy from a registered and reputable breeder, rather than a backyard breeder who is offering unregistered puppies of questionable quality.

For males:
- Entire males, driven by testosterone, tend to lift their leg everywhere to mark their territory. Even if they are toilet trained, they will tend to spray inside your house. They also tend to lick their genitals excessively and often hump pillows, soft toys and people's legs.
- Desexing reduces dominance and agression. Westies are not known as an aggressive breed, but two entire males can be aggressive toward one another, especially if there is a female in season nearby. Even if your Westie is not aggressive at all, an entire male is more likely to be attacked by other entire males who see him as a rival. Westies don't tend to back down when challenged, which may cause an issue when confronted by a larger more aggressive dog.
- Desexing prevents testicular cancer and reduces the risk of prostate disorders.

In both cases (male and female):
- Reduced license fees. In most areas license fees are lower for desexed dogs, than entire dogs. Some local governments will not grant a license unless a dog is desexed, unless the owner is a registered breeder.
- Desexing prevents your dog from breeding. What if your Westie breeds with a dog from another breed or a cross-breed? What if one of the parents passed along genes for a health problem? It is ethically irresponsible to allow any dog to breed who hasn't been tested and cleared of certain health problems known to be hereditary. Imagine a puppy who must live with a painful or debilitating health problem because one or both of the parents was allowed to breed when they shouldn't have.

At what age should I get my Westie desexed?
Most Vets will recommend that your Westie is de-sexed at 4 to 5 months. There is a growing school of thought that it is better to wait until they are 10 or 11 months old (or around a month after their first season for females) as the additional growth hormones that their bodies produce will help you strengthen their bones and make them healthier in the long run.

The down side to waiting is that you will have to be vigilant to ensure your female does not come into contact with any entire males when she comes into season.

Talk to your Vet and make the choice that you think is best for you and your Westie.

Urinary Tract Infections

If you notice your Westie trying to pee frequently with little or nothing coming out, then they may have a UTI.

A UTI should be treated by a Vet. Most likely they will prescribe an antibiotic and possibly an anti-inflammatory as well. Follow the Vets instructions and keep an eye on your Westie once the course of medication is complete, if the behaviour returns soon after then they will need to stay on the medication a bit longer until the condition clears up.

Yeast Infections in Westies

Yeast occurs naturally on canine skin and ears. A yeast infection occurs when conditions on the skin surface change causing a proliferation of the yeasts. This is often due to an increase in skin oils caused by an allergic flare up from flea and/or food allergies.

The signs of a yeast infection include:
  excessive scratching,
  drooping or over-sensitive ears,
  a yeasty smell (like corn chips).

In mild cases, the infection can be removed using a medicated shampoo, such as Maleseb. Be sure to lather it up and leave it on the skin for 10 to 15 minutes before rinsing off. This will need to be done every 3 or 4 days for 2 weeks and then weekly until the condition clears. If no improvement is shown, seek advice from a Vet as medication may be required to help combat the infection.

For all skin issues, it is recommended that the Vet take a swab or perform a tape test to view the sample under a microscope to confirm the diagnosis before prescibing any medication.

In the case where infections are constantly reoccurring, investigate the cause. Consider changing your Westie's diet to rule out any food allergies.

Car Sickness

If your Westie is not used to being in the car, then going for a long drive and/or on winding roads can end up with them being car sick.

The first sign is usually excessive salivation and the end result is a vomiting dog.
Things to consider are, how often does your Westie ride in the car? If they are not comfortable with it, take them on regular short trips to help them become accustomed to it. Make sure you have plenty of towels with you in case they do get sick.
Make sure you have a bowl and some water because if they have been sick, they will be dehydrated.

The second thing to consider is where are you taking your dog? If the only time your Westie gets to go in the car is to go to the Vets, then they probably dread the thought of getting in the car.
Make sure you mix things up by taking them to places that they will enjoy, like a park or the beach or friends houses, so that they don't associate car travel with negative experiences.

Consider how you are securing your Westie in the car. No dog should be left to wander around inside a moving vehicle. They should be either be wearing a harness that connects to a seat belt or inside a crate that is secured down and won't fly around inside the car injuring both you and your Westie if you brake suddenly. Making them comfortable in the car will help relax them and reduce any stress-induced sickness.

If your Westie is not a good traveller, make sure take some old towels or blankets with you, so that if they do get sick you can clean it up without too much fuss. Don't try to give your Westie travel sickness pills made for humans. Always speak to your Vet before giving your Westie any kind of medication.

Remember not to leave them in an unattended car, especially in summer when a car can be a death trap for a dog.

White Shaker Syndrome in Westies

White Shaker Syndrome is a condition that causes full body tremors in small dogs. Despite the name, it does not only affect white dogs. It can sometimes be mistaken for anxiety or low body temperature (hypothermia).

White Shaker Syndrome is most often associated with a mild central nervous system disease. Your Vet will need to take blood and urine samples for diagnosis and check for any other underlying conditions or infections.

The primary treatment is the use of corticosteroids such as prednisone, which will reduce the inflammatory response in the body. Most dogs will recover within a week of the commencement of treatment. As the dog responds, the medication level can be reduced over the course of a few weeks or months depending on the severity of the issue and the treatment can be reinstated if symptoms reoccur.

Cranio Mandibular Osteopathy

Cranio Mandibular Osteopathy (CMO) is bone disease seen in young dogs. Sometimes referred to as Lion Jaw, it manifests between 4 to 8 months of age with symptoms including swelling of the jaw, fever, lack of appetite, pain, difficulty opening the mouth and difficulty swallowing. It usually presents as bony lesions on the jaw.

Signs of the disease usually resolve with time, when the growth period is finished. There is no known treatment to stop or prevent this condition and therapy is targeted at reducing any pain and swelling to relieve the dog’s discomfort until the condition resolves itself.

Cranio mandibular osteopathy is an autosomal recessive disease in West Highland White Terriers, which means both the male and female must be carriers of the gene for it to present in a puppy and even if both parents are carriers, there is only a small chance that any of their puppies will be affected.

There is no test to identify affected dogs or carriers of the gene. Affected dogs and their relatives should not be bred from since they may produce affected offspring if mated with another affected dog or a carrier.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a deformity of the hip joint where the ball of the femur cannot fit properly into the hip socket, that occurs during an animal's growth period. It is common in many large dog breeds, but it can also occur in Westies and other smaller breeds.

It normally presents by 2 years of age as a lameness and pain with difficulty in jumping and running.

In mild cases, diet, limited exercise, and pain medication combined with anti-inflammatories can reduce the impact. In more severe cases, surgery is required to either manipulate the femur back into the socket or remove the head of the femur allowing a functional "false joint" to form. If neither of these options are successful or possible a full hip replacement may be required.

Environmental factors such as overfeeding and excessive exercise in growing puppies (e.g. repetitively chasing thrown objects, causing them to stop or change direction when running at full speed) can increase the risk of the condition developing.

Legg Perthes

Legg Perthes disease is a disorder of hip joint. In Westies, it is most often seen between the ages of 4 months to a year.

Legg Perthes results when the blood supply to the head of the femur is interrupted resulting the death of the bone cells, followed by a period of re-establishment of the blood supply and bone re-growth which usually results in an irregular fit in the hip socket. The process of cells dying and fracturing followed by new growth can lead to stiffness and pain.

Symptoms are lameness and pain in the affected hip; Irritability; Chewing at hip of flank region; Stiffness of affected limb; Atrophy of muscles of affected limb. In some cases these symptoms may be mild and even go unnoticed and in others the pain can be severe causing great discomfort to the dog. It can take six to eight weeks from the first signs of lameness / limping to continuous carrying of the leg. Xrays of the hip joints can confirm the diagnosis.

In mild cases, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can relieve the symptoms. In more sever cases removing the head and neck of the femur, is required to eliminate the bone on bone contact that is the source of the pain and discomfort. Through the healing process and with therapy, a new false joint is formed by muscle and tissue and the dog may have a complete recovery.

Legg Perthes is believed to be an inherited disease, so impacted dogs should not be used for breeding.