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Health Concerns in the Retired Racing
by Judy Kody
Paulsen, Founder, GCNM
(Excerpt from Winter/Spring 2002/2003 issue of GCNM News)
(Photos of some of the greyhounds
succumbed to various diseases over the years have been placed throughout
this article as a memorial.)
Since the inception of retired
racing greyhound adoption, we've probably all heard at least once, the
comment that greyhounds are not likely to develop some of the more common
canine diseases since they are "athletes" and "bred to
be healthy". We don't hear of hip dysplasia and various other maladies
that tend to strike some of the large-breed dogs, and generally speaking,
the greyhound is capable of living to the ripe old age of about 15. However,
during a racing greyhound's career, it is exposed
to many things that threaten the longevity and immediate health of this
magnificent breed. There are basically three main concerns
of health risks for the racing greyhound: environmental, infectious and
Veterinarians who are familiar with the conditions these dogs are subjected
to during breeding, training, and racing are likely to recognize the subtle
signs and symptoms necessary to diagnose and treat some of the obscure
ailments with which racing greyhounds can be afflicted. Unfortunately,
the majority of veterinarians who care for these dogs after placed into
adoptive homes are far less likely to consider some of the less common
Finding a veterinarian who is qualified to care for retired racing greyhounds
is not as easy as asking "Do you have any experience with racing
greyhounds?", as the most typical answer will be "Absolutely,
I trained on greyhounds in vet school!". The truth is, yes, most
vets have trained on greyhounds because of the common practice of disposing
of unsuccessful or injured racing greyhounds by giving them to vet schools.
But the training is not in diagnosing and treating the dogs; the most
common exposure vet students have to greyhounds is in what are called
"terminal" practices, meaning the dogs are given general anesthesia
in order to practice surgical techniques or anatomical identification,
then they are not revived. The skill of diagnosing and treating racing
greyhound ailments is not acquired during training of this type.
States that do not have greyhound race tracks will be in especially short
supply of greyhound experts, so it may be your responsibility to obtain
information for your veterinarian that will assist in caring for your
retired racer. Acquiring a copy of Care of the Racing Greyhound, by Blythe,
Gannon and Craig, will give you and your vet an excellent source of general
information regarding diagnosing and treating retired racing greyhound
injuries and illnesses. This book can be ordered through The National
Greyhound Association at 1-785-263-4660. Although this comprehensive reference
book is lacking in some of the more recent research findings alluding
to racing greyhound disorders, it is loaded with valuable knowledge.
Of help to your veterinarian is having some type of history regarding
what states the dog has been in so that it may be determined whether he
has been in areas endemic with specific diseases. If this information
is not available, it is safe to assume the dog has been in several states
as they are frequently transported to different tracks, depending on their
performance rating. Tick-borne disease is one such illness that is more
common in some areas than others and can often be overlooked as a differential
diagnosis when vets are not accustomed to seeing animals in their area
affected with these elusive illnesses. At one time, many adoption programs
were routinely testing greyhounds for tick-borne disease, but the expense
and controversy over when, how or if a dog should be treated slowly eliminated
this as a common procedure unless the dog was exhibiting symptoms suggestive
of "tick fever".
The late Rolf
Gazella and his beloved Allie & Taja (both deceased)
Alabama Rot and Valley
as "Alabama Rot" and "Valley Fever" are rarely considered
by vets unfamiliar with a racing greyhound's history. Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis
not to be confused with Coccidiosis, which is an intestinal disorder),
can produce vague symptoms such as coughing, joint swelling, neurologic
dysfunction, weight loss and radiographic findings that mimic bone cancer
(osteosarcoma). Most common in Southern California, Arizona and southwest
Texas and less prevalent in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, this disease
is caused by inhalation of a soil borne fungus and is treatable.
Alabama Rot (Idiopathic cutaneous and renal glomerular disease) has been
reported only in greyhounds and is believed to be associated with toxins
produced by bacteria such as E. coli, which is commonly found in the raw
meat racers are fed. The earliest and most notable sign of this disease
is skin lesions which begin as reddened, crusty, slow-healing ulcers and
are found mainly on the hocks, stifles or thighs and occasionally on the
front legs, chest and abdomen. Unfortunately, there is no medical treatment
for this disease and renal failure occurs in about 25% of the cases.
Ventral Comedo Syndrome
Numerous skin diseases found in racing greyhounds and not common to other
breeds can make dermatologic complications a concern among greyhound adopters.
Misdiagnosis of some of the benign types of skin
abnormalities in greyhounds accounts for a great deal of unnecessary,
expensive, invasive procedures, and worry for adopters.
One such anomaly in greyhounds is "ventral comedo syndrome"
and is quite common in adult greyhounds of either sex. This condition
results from frictional and pressure-point contact with dirty and/or abrasive
bedding. A greyhound's deep chest in association with harsh or soiled
bedding can often result in a condition that is commonly characterized
in humans as "blackheads". Diagnosis is generally not difficult
since this syndrome is visually distinct on the deepest part of the chest
and appears in clumps or individual dark deposits just under the skin.
Scrapings, cultures and biopsies should not be necessary to diagnose this
benign, superficial condition. Occasionally, some pustules may accompany
the comedones (blackheads) and can be treated with systemic antibiotics,
but considering the negative effects of overuse of antibiotics, the necessity
of treatment should be carefully evaluated. Keep in mind that this skin
condition is of more concern to the observer because of its visual appearance
than to the patient. The dog is no more aware of the presence of this
than you are of comedones anywhere on your body.
Bald Thighs Syndrome
thighs syndrome" is a condition that has puzzled the greyhound community
since the beginning of dog racing. Initially thought to have been caused
by friction created when the dog moves about in its crate and rubs against
the sides, it is now thought to be of a metabolic nature. Most noticeable
after greyhounds begin an intensive training program for racing, it is
now believed that the stress of racing and/or training may cause the baldness
as a result of chronically high concentrations of cortisol (a hormone
produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress). Although there has
been speculation that hypothyroidism may contribute to this condition,
supplementation with levothyroxine sodium is not consistent in resolving
the bald thighs syndrome. As with ventral comedo syndrome, this condition
is of concern to adopters mainly because of its cosmetic appearance, but
does not appear to have any systemic effects on the dogs and there has
been no consistently effective treatment. Occasionally the bald patches
may resolve after a long break from the stress of racing, but in some,
the hair may never completely regrow.
Pemphigus/Symmetrical Lupoid Onchodystrophy (SLO)
A fairly common autoimmune disease in greyhounds is pemphigus, also know
as symmetrical lupoid onchodystrophy (SLO), which causes loss of the toenails.
Pemphigus also involves the footpads and interdigital skin (between the
toes), whereas true SLO involves only the nails. Treatment of these diseases
can be frustrating and is often misdiagnosed as fungal or bacterial. Unfortunately,
the only way to definitively diagnose pemphigus/SLO is by amputating the
end toe bone, including the nail, as a pathologist can make the diagnosis
only by observing the skin/nail junction. But this unnecessary and expensive
approach is somewhat radical when there are other solutions.
Treatment with prednisone to target the underlying autoimmune disorder
is by far the most effective and can result in dramatic improvement in
comfort within the first few weeks of treatment. Combined with chorphenerimine
(an antihistamine) to control the itching of the skin around the nails,
the use of prednisone can make a marked difference in this disfiguring,
uncomfortable disease. The most popular dosage for this in greyhounds
is 15 mgs of prednisone daily for a week and then tapering to 5 mg every
other day for long term. The chlorphenerimine is in 4 mg tablets. (This
information is from Suzanne Stack, DVM, of Arizona. Dr. Stack has been
involved in the treatment of racing and retired racing greyhounds for
Hypothyroidism and Possible Causes
in greyhounds is a subject of much discussion and disagreement.
It has long been recognized that normal thyroid concentrations in greyhounds
differ from those in the general canine population - often being in the
low normal reference range or even slightly below the low end of normal
thyroid panel values.
Many drugs administered to
racing greyhounds, including corticosteroids, which suppress the immune
system; phenylbutazone - an anti-inflammatory drug; trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole
- an anti-bacterial/sulfa drug; anti-convulsants; and testosterone (routinely
given to females to prevent them from coming into season) can influence
blood tests that determine thyroid function. According to Dr. W. Jean
Dodds, director of HEMOPET animal blood bank in Irvine, CA, most cases
of hypothyroidism result from a process known as autoimmune thyroiditis.
Her theory is that the above mentioned drugs and/or exposure to viruses,
can trigger the autoimmune disease process.
Dr. Dodds keeps 150 retired racing greyhounds at her facility (after a
year of being blood donors, they are adopted out) and thus has ample opportunity
to evaluate their blood characteristics.
Dr. Dodds is an advocate for limiting the frequency of vaccinations if
your dog may be susceptible to autoimmune disorders. State laws govern
the frequency of rabies vaccinations and these can vary anywhere from
annually to every three years, depending on the state. She always allows
at least two weeks between vaccinating for rabies and any other disease,
so as not to over-tax the immune system. In Dr. Dodd's opinion, after
the age of 10 years, booster vaccines are generally not needed and might
be inadvisable if obvious signs of aging or disease are present. Discuss
this with your veterinarian, as it is usually a matter of professional
Other illnesses may also influence thyroid panel results and ideally should
be eliminated before testing. It is also believed that a smaller dose
of thyroid supplementation than typically used in other breeds can maintain
a greyhound. A diagnosis of hypothyroidism should
be based on a patient's clinical signs and history combined with supporting
laboratory data, rather than blood values alone.
Blood values in greyhounds have been shown to differ from those of other
breeds. As discussed above, thyroid levels are an example of this. Because
of the hematologic characteristics in racing greyhounds, blood abnormalities
may be incorrectly diagnosed in the retired racer. The diagnosis of a
blood disorder can be a valid one, but occasionally the diagnosis is based
solely upon laboratory results rather than actual clinical findings. Unless
a greyhound exhibits actual signs of a blood disorder, invasive diagnostic
techniques and treatments should be carefully considered before implementing.
and "Bart" Paulsen
A condition referred to as
thrombocytopenia (reduction in the number of platelets in the blood) can
result in bleeding into the skin, spontaneous bruising and prolonged bleeding
resulting from injury or surgery. When clinical signs (bruising or abnormal
bleeding) are evident, there is most likely cause for concern as this
can indicate the presence of disease or poisoning. However, some veterinarians
may consider a greyhound to be thrombocytopenic purely on the basis of
comparing a greyhound's bloodwork to standard reference ranges in blood
values and may perform extensive, unnecessary workups to rule out disease,
even when no clinical symptoms or findings are present.
Studies have also confirmed that greyhounds can have significantly lower
white blood cell counts (WBC) than what is considered normal for other
breeds. These laboratory findings can produce heightened concern in the
veterinarian and thus the adopter, and the pursuit of seemingly endless
tests and procedures that can be avoided if the greyhound is without clinical
signs of illness. Other values that have shown to be different when compared
to the average dog are: higher PCV (packed cell volume); lower serum total
protein concentration; lower serum albumin concentration and higher RBC
(red blood cell count).
The bottom line here is that
if your greyhound is not symptomatic of any blood disorder but a routine
blood test has revealed suspicious results, be sure to advise your vet
of the peculiarities of the greyhound before agreeing to any further testing.
Certainly if your greyhound is ill and has any signs of a bleeding disorder,
further tests should be conducted to rule out the presence of disease.
Remember, too, that ingesting certain forms of poisons can elicit a bleeding
response and immediate treatment will increase your dog's chance of survival.
Hemorrhaging of any nature should be taken seriously and it is urgent
to have the dog evaluated by a veterinarian.
Frequent episodes of "kennel flu" (also called "blowouts")
can affect a greyhound's overall health and the ability of the immune
system to ward off illness. Kennel flu is a vague
term that encompasses many forms of sickness greyhounds contract during
their careers as racers. Often the result of eating meat contaminated
with disease-causing bacteria, various symptoms will occur throughout
the kennel where the diseased meat has been consumed. Vomiting, diarrhea,
high fever and sometimes death will result from ingesting contaminated
meat. Giardia, E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella and Listeria
are the most common disease-causing organisms found in the diets and environments
of the racing greyhound.
Many of these organisms can lie dormant in the dog's system until certain
stressors (training, racing, transporting, relocation, surgery and anesthesia)
produce illness. Clinical signs can vary from poorly formed stools to
mucousy, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Frequent de-worming while at the
track and use of multiple products and perhaps too much of any given product
can produce diarrhea and other symptoms.
with Claire Simpson
Inflammatory bowel disease
(IBD) is a group of gastrointestinal disorders characterized by inflammation
of the small or large intestine. Food allergies and protein sensitivities
can produce this disease and it can be controlled with proper diet once
the specific form of the disease is diagnosed. Management of IBD requires
patience on the part of the adopter as relapses are common and many food
trials are often necessary to get the disease under control again. Infectious
agents such as giardia, salmonella and campylobacter have all been implicated
as possible causes for this disease. Various dietary approaches have been
used to control these disorders along with antibiotics.
Occasionally, after a greyhound has been relocated, if their diet is changed,
or with overuse of muscles, a discoloration of the urine will be evident.
Many types of stress can trigger this event in racing or retired racing
greyhounds and its mechanism is not yet fully understood when there is
no obvious trauma.
This syndrome has been an observation of particularly astute greyhound
trainers and adopters. Even though anecdotal in nature when it occurs
in relocated greyhounds, it bears mentioning as it can be the source of
much consternation to the new adopter. Urinalysis will most certainly
reveal increased levels of bilirubin in the urine, however, the condition
usually will resolve spontaneously and without intervention of treatment.
The initial observation of dark, brownish urine in a newly adopted greyhound
is most likely benign in nature and will respond favorably to removing
the greyhound from the stressful environment of training and racing. However,
if the greyhound is exhibiting other signs of illness and the discoloration
of urine persists after a few days, further evaluation by a veterinarian
should be conducted.
Chronic Superficial Keratitis (Pannus)
CSK is a chronic, progressive disease of the cornea of the eye. CSK can
result in blindness over a period of years, but can be treated to retard
the progression of the disease. Treatment ranges from steroids to artificial
tears to topical immunosuppresive drugs.
diagnosis of this progressive disease can be difficult in racing greyhounds
due to their history of corneal irritation resulting from debris being
kicked into the eyes during racing.
Differentiating between old corneal irritation/infection and CSK can fool
even the most discerning veterinarian's eye. CSK presents as growth of
blood vessels onto the cornea (the window-pane of the eye) from the temporal
(outer) aspect of the sclera (the white of the eye). This blood vessel
growth is accompanied by a thickened, dark pigment and occasionally some
evidence of grayish scarring. In certain dogs, hyperpigmentation is present
and does not indicate CSK if it is non-progressive.
racing, the greyhound's eye is exposed and collects a considerable amount
of debris that hits the cornea with amazing force. Immediately
following the race, it is customary for the eyes to be flushed out with
water to dislodge this debris. Unfortunately this process is often done
under careless, hurried conditions and rather than using sterile irrigating
solutions, water from drinking buckets is suctioned into a non-sterile
device which then is squirted forcefully onto the eyes. Abrasions from
debris and the occasional scraping of the irrigation device across the
cornea are not uncommon. Infectious organisms harbored in the water, suction
device or the debris can infiltrate these abrasions and create permanent
scarring resulting from infection.
Scarring from infections can produce a strikingly similar appearance to
the vessel growth and whitish opacities seen in CSK. Be sure your veterinarian
is aware of the above described frequent, mechanical irritation of the
racing greyhound's eyes so that this may be taken into consideration when
a diagnosis of CSK is being contemplated.
Anesthesia in Greyhounds
Most veterinarians know that barbiturates should not be used in greyhounds.
Even the ultrashort-acting barbiturates have prolonged action in this
sensitive breed. Greyhounds do not metabolize toxins as readily as other
breeds and for this reason, certain drugs can produce liver dysfunction.
For surgery requiring general anesthesia, inducing anesthesia with ketamine
and diazepam and maintaining them on isoflurane is the preference of most
vets with extensive experience in greyhounds. Some vets prefer the slower
recovery time of halothane to reduce the risk of injury from post-anesthetic
excitement, especially in orthopedic procedures, but halothane can be
toxic to the liver.
Be sure your veterinarian is familiar with the sensitivities of the greyhound
before scheduling any procedure requiring general anesthesia.
Accidental Poisoning of Greyhounds
By far, the most common threat to a greyhound's
life and health is the casual attitude of the adopter who uses pesticides,
fungicides, herbicides and chemicals used for lawn and garden maintenance.
It cannot be emphasized enough that greyhounds are hyper-sensitive to
environmental toxins. Even the most conscientious user can unintentionally
poison their animal companion. Improper dilution of products can make
them extremely toxic, and in cases where the adopter relies on the expertise
of a lawn, garden, or pest control service, there would be no way of determining
if this grave error has been committed.
Common symptoms of an animal suffering from exposure to toxins are: hypersalivation
(drooling); vomiting; diarrhea; constricted pupils; ataxia (staggering,
unsteady gait); depression; dyspnea (labored breathing); muscle tremors;
bradycardia (slow heart rate); seizures and sometimes, death. Not all
of the symptoms may be present and occasionally, there may be what is
termed "sympathetic stimulation", where the symptoms may be
reversed (dilated pupils rather than constricted; rapid heart rate rather
than slow; hyperactivity rather than depression, etc.).
Severson and "Sassy" Slezak both amputees
Many toxicants can produce
the above described symptoms and therefore toxicity should always be considered
as a diagnosis when a dog presents with any combination of these findings.
Immediate attention by a veterinarian is required. Any history of toxic
substances the animal may have had contact with is necessary in order
for your vet to make an accurate diagnosis and treat the animal accordingly.
Sometimes symptoms are not apparent until a few days after exposure to
the toxin, so be sure to think back to the previous few days in your dog's
life when recounting the history to your veterinarian.
Avoiding the use of all environmental
toxins is the best protection for your animals. Even chemicals that have
been approved for use around animals (flea collars, powders, etc.) can
prove deadly for some animals. Always have your dog on a leash when outside
your own property and do not allow your pet access to other yards - national
forests and open space areas are also targeted for use with traps and
poisons to control certain pests and non-native plants. Remember that
greyhounds cannot tolerate many substances that would not pose a risk
for most animals. Treat your greyhound as you would a human infant - don't
expose them to toxic chemicals of any nature.
The nature of a racing greyhound's life is that of regular training and
competing. It is rare for a racing greyhound
to escape a career of racing without injury. The most common
injuries are fractures of the leg bones; toe injuries and muscle tears
are prevalent also. Some injuries can become chronic in nature.
Fractures of the scapula (the shoulder blade) or spine of the scapula
(the wafer-thin bony ridge running down the length of the shoulder blade)
occur with a blow to the shoulder when the greyhound lunges from the starting
box or strikes fences, rails or posts at the track (or similar objects
after going into adoptive homes). Calcified deposits over the shoulder
blade are usually unrelated to fractures in this area and are a result
of lying on hard surfaces in crates for extended periods. These calcifications
are usually movable upon examination and do not cause pain. Removal of
these is unnecessary and if done, would be only for cosmetic purposes.
Be sure to provide your greyhound with plenty of soft bedding, especially
if they have signs of this mechanical irritation.
Numerous types of injuries to the right hind limb result from running
counter-clockwise on a circular track, thus producing extreme stress on
this area as they propel themselves through the first curve. "Hock
problems are the number one bone breakdown racing injury in greyhounds.
The hock is the most complicated set of bones and joints in the body -
it is the same as the ankle joint in humans and sustains the same high
incidence of sprains", according to Care of the Racing Greyhound;
Blythe, Gannon and Craig.
Veterinarians interested in
and experienced with racing greyhounds will attain a greater rate of success
recognizing the varied musculoskeletal injuries (acute or chronic) and
will be more likely to recognize when surgery is needed and whether it
will produce the desired outcome. A veterinarian that has not seen a lot
of racing greyhounds will most likely have trouble recognizing the common,
chronic problems arising from the trauma of training and racing and perhaps
will be puzzled by their appearance and what approach to take in treatment.
A second opinion by a widely respected expert in the field of treating
racing greyhounds, even if out-of-state, will likely cost less than a
surgical procedure performed by a veterinarian not well-versed in racing
Osteosarcoma (Bone Cancer)
Without a doubt, the most insidious, deadly disease
commonly found in greyhounds, is osteosarcoma (bone cancer).
This is a malignant form of cancer that can manifest with a slight limp
and progress to extreme discomfort with visible swelling at the site of
the cancer or may present with minimal symptoms of tenderness and become
suddenly critical with a pathologic bone fracture (a bone break that occurs
with little or no trauma to the area). There is a high percentage of lung
metastases with osteosarcoma. The long-term prognosis for a dog with this
type of cancer is poor.
This disease has become a
major focus for a few specialized veterinary groups who have recognized
its prevalence since the proliferation of retired racing greyhound adoptions.
Several studies are currently being conducted to investigate frequency
of occurrence and possible causes for what appears to be a cancer that
has become endemic among retired racing greyhounds.
Current modes of treatment
include amputation of the affected limb and/or types of chemo- or radio-therapy
with or without amputation. Another less common approach is a type of
bone graft to salvage the limb, but this procedure is available at a very
limited number of animal treatment centers and still considered somewhat
experimental. As with humans, chemo-therapy can often have undesirable
side effects, and adopters should take this into consideration when evaluating
the various options.
Initial X-rays may not reveal
the typical appearance of osteosarcoma and in the instance of a bone fracture,
repairing the break may be suggested if cancer is not suspected. For this
reason, a thorough history of how the break occurred is necessary in order
to differentiate between a traumatic fracture and a pathologic one. Repair
of a broken bone that is cancerous will ultimately result in another break
at or near the original site, at which time repeat X-rays of the site
most likely will be definitive in diagnosing osteosarcoma.
Usually, veterinarians prefer
to have a bone biopsy to confirm the presence of cancerous cells. However,
it is important for the adopter to understand that the biopsy in itself
is an invasive procedure which produces considerable pain with possibility
of infection during the post-biopsy period while awaiting pathology reports
(at least several days) to verify the sample is indeed osteosarcoma.
ultimate goal in the case of osteosarcoma (and all diseases) should be
to relieve discomfort and promote a good quality of life. The
dogs age and response to pain should be of utmost concern when determining
which approach to take. Some adopters choose pain management over surgical
intervention until the dogs quality of life is visibly diminished.
Your veterinarian can prescribe narcotic pain relievers for maximum effect
should you decide to take this route. Depending on how advanced the cancer
is and the degree of discomfort exhibited, euthanasia may be the best
approach and certainly the least traumatic for the dog. It is we humans
who fear the loss and have difficulty letting go, but the kindest and
most humane treatment may be to give them eternal freedom from pain rather
than prolong the inevitable.
Seeking a second opinion should always be considered
in any situation where you are being advised to take radical steps to
treat a problem in your greyhound. At any time you feel uncomfortable
with the approach or answers your veterinarian provides, don't hesitate
to go elsewhere to confirm a diagnosis, treatment or symptom. Be sure
to take all medical records with you to each veterinarian consulted -
this is invaluable in making sure certain results and tests are not overlooked
and for many other reasons, too. Your greyhound deserves the best care
and you deserve answers in a compassionate, respectful manner - whenever
this is absent, it's time for a change. Ask for referrals from the adoption
program that co-ordinated the adoption of your greyhound. Be informed
and seek the care of veterinarians who are open to learning about this
unique dog and it's most unusual background as a racer - you'll be glad
you took these extra steps.
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