Treating Your Dog’s Symptoms vs. Treating The Cause

Will treating their symptom(s) make your dog’s problem go away?

Dog Symptoms: Treating Symptoms vs. Treating The Cause

A Google search for how to treat diarrhea in dogs returns 61 million results. I couldn’t count how many times people ask such things on my dog health support group. As I’m writing this, I have a pending question asking how to freshen a dog’s breath.

The question is not whether you should treat your dog’s symptom(s) at home or see a veterinarian. Because veterinarians are sometimes guilty too. That is another topic altogether.

The question is how much can your dog benefit from symptomatic treatment.

Say your smoke alarm goes off. It is scary and it is probably the most annoying sound ever. Can anybody blame you for wanting to make the blaring noise to stop?

Have you ever disable or smash the alarm? Yes, these things sometimes go off for the dumbest reasons. In our last apartment, just the steam from the shower was enough to trip it. And yes, the detector didn’t live to see the light of day. Luckily, we knew what the reason was. A cause is not always as easy to determine. What if there indeed was a fire and you just haven’t found it?

For example, every time we took Jasmine to a vet with chronic diarrhea, we were sent home with medication to calm her system. They did run a few tests but found nothing. So we got Metronidazole which helped for a short while. A week or two after Jasmine finished her treatment, diarrhea returned. We went through this exercise time and time again. The diagnosis? A sensitive system. Try finding that in the Merck Veterinary Manual.

Jasmine was suffering from inflammatory bowel disease.

The symptomatic treatment did calm her gut down a little bit. But when she was finally diagnosed, she had a mass in her abdomen the size of a fist. The immune cells infiltrated her stomach and small intestine, interfering with their function.

When Ella’s mom brought her in a clinic with diarrhea and vomiting, standard tests didn’t show anything. Ella was sent home with nausea medication. Ella kept getting worse. A week later, they diagnosed her with a linear foreign body. By then, she needed emergency surgery to remove 75% of her–now necrotized–intestine. It was too late, and Ella did not make it.

Ella was suffering from linear foreign body in her intestine.

When Bridget kept showing up at an emergency veterinary clinic for severe vomiting and diarrhea, no cause was found. Bridget too kept getting medications to settle her system.

This has gone on for months.

Bridget had chronic pancreatitis.

Symptomatic treatment did nothing for these dogs other than suppressing their symptom and maybe make them feel a bit better. Temporarily.

These were veterinarians with education, experience, and access to diagnostic tests. What chance do you think you have in guessing what the reason for your dog’s diarrhea, vomiting, or other symptoms? And do you think that getting rid of the symptom will get rid of the problem?

Don’t confuse a symptom for a disease.

A symptom is a manifestation of your dog’s body dealing with a problem. Masking the symptom could mean you never finding out what is wrong. Or finding out too late.

Let’s take diarrhea as an example. Your dog can get diarrhea because they ate something they shouldn’t–a dietary indiscretion. If that is the case, diarrhea should be self-limiting–resolve once the system rids itself of what didn’t belong. If the cause is known, mitigating the symptoms can be helpful.

However, your dog’s diarrhea can be caused by an obstruction, infection, poisoning, pancreatitis, liver or kidney disease … the list goes on.

How helpful would be treating the symptom(s) while ignoring the cause?

The symptom itself can be life-threatening, such as severe vomiting or diarrhea. In such a case, your dog needs treatment even if to buy time to diagnose the cause. The rule of thumb, though, should be not to treat until you know what you’re dealing with.

Diagnosing and treating the cause is always the better scenario.

Finding the correct diagnosis is not always easy. Diagnosis is a process. A process that sometimes includes a therapeutic trial.

When Jasmine started coughing, we took her to a vet that day. The veterinarian also discovered enlarged lymph nodes. The dreaded word lymphoma was floating in the air.

A therapeutic trial can sometimes be a good idea.

Sometimes. In Jasmine’s case, it worked out well. She was put on antibiotics because we’d know whether it’s a bacterial infection quickly. Jasmine was already better the next day.

The key is to know what you’re doing and why. Or what your veterinarian is doing and why. Simply wanting a symptom to go away does not qualify, though.

Related articles:
Symptoms: Recognition, Acknowledgement, And Denial
Diarrhea in Dogs
Vomiting in Dogs

Categories: DiagnosesDog health advocacySymptomsTreatments

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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