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Causes of Death

Study examined most common causes of mortality in dogs – by breed, age, and size.

News item by Mary Straus, published in the Whole Dog Journal, June 2011

A new 20-year retrospective study from the University of Georgia examined causes of death in dogs between 1984 and 2004. Researchers looked at records of 74,566 dogs from the Veterinary Medical Database, which includes data from 27 veterinary teaching hospitals. These results may be biased toward more severe, complicated, or unusual causes than the general dog population, but are fascinating nonetheless.

The study grouped deaths by organ system and by disease category (“pathophysiological process”), and analyzed results based on age, breed, and average breed size. Eighty-two breeds with at least 100 representatives were included in breed-based analyses; mixed-breed dogs were considered as one group.

Only conditions that led to death were considered, and if a dog had multiple conditions, only one was deemed the cause of death.

Disease categories

The study found that cancer was by far the most common cause of death in the disease category for adult dogs; cancer was the leading cause of death in all but 11 breeds! Almost a third of adult dogs of all adult dogs were found to have died of cancer. Cancer was designated the cause of death almost three times as often as the next most common category of deaths (trauma).

Interestingly, the frequency of cancer deaths begins to taper after age 10.

Cancer occurred less frequently in small breeds, with the exception of the Boston Terrier and Cairn Terrier (30 and 32 percent respectively of deaths in those breeds were from cancer).

The Miniature Pinscher had the lowest rate of cancer at 3.6 percent. Other breeds with low percentages of death from cancer include Miniature Dachshund (6.0), Chihuahua (7.5), Pekingese (7.9), Pomeranian (7.9), Dachshund (8.9), and Maltese (9.2).

The most common causes of death for puppies (dogs less than one year of age) by disease category are very different than for adult dogs. Puppies were overwhelmingly most likely to die of infection, trauma, or congenital disease. About 60 percent of all puppies died from something in these three disease categories.

Organ systems

When looking at deaths classified by organ system, the gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems were most commonly involved in the deaths of puppies.

In adult dogs, no single organ system was responsible for a dramatic majority of deaths; seven different organ systems had similar results, ranging from about 8 to 12.5 percent of adult dog deaths. The leaders (if we can call them that) were the nervous system (neurologic) musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal systems, followed by the urogenital, hematopoietic, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.

Older dogs are increasingly likely to die from something involving the cardiovascular system, as well as endocrine, neurologic, and urogenital systems. The frequency of gastrointestinal-related deaths remained fairly constant throughout adulthood, while hematopoietic and musculoskeletal deaths declined with age.

Small-breed dogs were more likely to die from neurologic, endocrine, and urogenital causes. The larger the dog, the more likely they were to die of musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal causes.

Most common causes

The table below shows the leading cause of death by organ system, and the top two causes of death by disease category, for each breed.

 
Breed Organ System % Disease Category % 2nd Disease Category %
Afghan Hound Respiratory 16.0 Cancer 35.3 Trauma 9.7
Airedale Urogenital 16.3 Cancer 40.2 Trauma 7.6
Akita Gastrointestinal 21.2 Cancer 20.7 Congenital/Trauma 10.4
Alaskan Malamute Musculoskeletal 15.2 Cancer 34.2 Infection/Trauma 8.9
American Cocker Spaniel Hematopoietic 14.8 Cancer 20.0 Inflammatory 10.5
American Eskimo Gastrointestinal 14.4 Cancer 23.8 Trauma 13.8
Am. Staffordshire Terrier Gastrointestinal 15.6 Cancer 22.0 Infection 21.0
Australian Heeler Musculo/Neuro 12.8 Trauma 20.8 Cancer 19.2
Australian Shepherd Musculoskeletal 12.8 Cancer 23.6 Trauma 17.9
Basset Hound Neurological 15.2 Cancer 37.8 Trauma 8.5
Beagle Neurological 13.0 Cancer 23.1 Trauma 16.0
Bernese Mountain Dog Cardio/Neuro 10.1 Cancer 54.6 Infection 8.4
Bichon Frise Neurological 13.6 Cancer 21.3 Trauma 8.4
Black and Tan Coonhound Gastrointestinal 15.3 Cancer 22.9 Infection 14.4
Border Collie Musculoskeletal 14.3 Cancer 26.1 Trauma 17.5
Borzoi Musculo/Resp 16.3 Cancer 33.7 Infection/Trauma 7.7
Boston Terrier Neurological 22.2 Cancer 30.4 Metabolic 7.4
Bouvier des Flandres Gastrointestinal 14.2 Cancer 46.6 Trauma 8.0
Boxer Neurological 18.2 Cancer 44.3 Trauma 7.0
Brittany Musculoskeletal 12.8 Cancer 26.5 Trauma 15.5
Bull Terrier Gastro/Urogen 14.9 Cancer 21.5 Infection/Trauma 13.2
Bulldog Respiratory 18.2 Cancer 20.4 Congenital 13.5
Bullmastiff Gastrointestinal 14.9 Cancer 44.0 Trauma 9.7
Cairn Terrier Neurological 15.3 Cancer 32.2 Infection/Metabolic 9.5
Cardigan Welsh Corgi Neurological 17.0 Cancer 22.3 Infection 15.2
Chesapeake Bay Retriever Hematopoietic 17.2 Cancer 28.5 Trauma 12.9
Chihuahua Cardiovascular 18.5 Trauma 16.8 Infection 10.5
Chow Chow Gastrointestinal 17.4 Cancer 20.6 Trauma 16.6
Collie Gastrointestinal 12.4 Cancer 26.5 Trauma 12.7
Dachshund Neurological 40.4 Trauma 11.5 Cancer 8.9
Dachshund, Miniature Neurological 39.7 Trauma 12.3 Cancer 6.0
Dalmatian Urogenital 16.2 Cancer 18.1 Infection 10.4
Doberman Pinscher Cardiovascular 17.2 Cancer 26.0 Metabolic 11.8
English Cocker Spaniel Gastrointestinal 15.4 Cancer 24.8 Inflammatory 9.4
English Pointer Neurological 12.2 Cancer 33.7 Infection 16.2
English Setter Neurological 12.2 Cancer 35.7 Infection 14.8
English Springer Spanial Gastrointestinal 11.7 Cancer 29.7 Trauma 10.2
Finnish Spitz Neurological 16.8 Cancer 27.1 Infection 13.1
Fox Terrier Cardiovascular 16.3 Cancer 24.4 Trauma 10.4
German Shepherd Dog Gastrointestinal 15.1 Cancer 27.7 Trauma 11.1
German Shorthaired Pointer Musculoskeletal 14.7 Cancer 27.0 Trauma 15.7
Golden Retriever Hematopoietic 15.0 Cancer 49.9 Trauma 7.8
Gordon Setter Gastrointestinal 22.5 Cancer 38.3 Trauma 12.5
Great Dane Gastrointestinal 25.6 Cancer 22.8 Metabolic 8.9
Great Pyrenees Musculoskeletal 25.5 Cancer 36.2 Trauma 12.8
Greyhound Musculoskeletal 21.4 Cancer 21.6 Infection 16.5
Irish Setter Musculoskeletal 17.5 Cancer 40.8 Trauma 8.0
Irish Wolfhound Musculoskeletal 22.1 Cancer 31.8 Infection 7.8
Jack Russell Terrier Neurological 20.7 Trauma 19.8 Cancer 17.2
Keeshond Gastrointestinal 15.2 Cancer 28.0 Metabolic 9.7
Labrador Retriever Musculoskeletal 14.6 Cancer 34.0 Trauma 14.1
Lhasa Apso Neurological 16.5 Cancer 17.1 Trauma 11.8
Maltese Cardiovascular 21.1 Congenital 9.7 Cancer 9.2
Mastiff Musculoskeletal 17.8 Cancer 30.0 Trauma 12.8
Miniature Pinscher Neurological 22.3 Trauma 19.6 Metabolic 8.0
Mixed-Breed Dogs Musculoskeletal 13.5 Cancer 27.6 Trauma 16.2
Newfoundland Cardiovascular 23.8 Cancer 19.9 Congenital 17.5
Norwegian Elkhound Urogenital 16.0 Cancer 37.4 Infection 10.7
Old English Shepherd Gastrointestinal 13.8 Cancer 36.0 Infection 8.2
Pekingese Neurological 14.6 Trauma 13.0 Infection 8.4
Pembroke Welsh Corgi Neurological 15.7 Cancer 30.4 Congenital 7.8
Pomeranian Gastrointestinal 15.0 Trauma 13.1 Infection 8.6
Poodle, Miniature Neurological 13.9 Cancer 18.5 Trauma 10.8
Poodle, Standard Gastrointestinal 16.7 Cancer 27.1 Trauma 10.1
Poodle, Toy Neurological 16.1 Trauma 11.7 Cancer 11.4
Pug Neurological 27.4 Cancer 12.5 Infection 10.9
Rhodesian Ridgeback Neurological 17.9 Cancer 37.4 Infection/Trauma 8.1
Rottweiler Musculoskeletal 16.8 Cancer 29.6 Infection 14.8
Saint Bernard Musculoskeletal 26.2 Cancer 26.9 Trauma 10.4
Samoyed Gastrointestinal 13.4 Cancer 26.1 Trauma 8.6
Schnauzer, Miniature Urogenital 13.6 Cancer 22.3 Metabolic 8.9
Schnazuer, Standard Urogenital 15.2 Cancer 25.4 Metabolic 8.7
Scottish Terrier Urogenital 17.0 Cancer 47.6 Infection 5.9
Shar-Pei Gastrointestinal 19.9 Cancer 22.9 Infection/Trauma 9.9
Shetland Sheepdog Urogenital 14.2 Cancer 30.3 Trauma 10.5
Shih Tzu Urogenital 13.9 Cancer 15.1 Infection 7.5
Siberian Husky Gastrointestinal 12.5 Cancer 29.5 Infection 13.2
Treeing Walker Coonhound Respiratory 15.1 Infection 25.7 Cancer 18.4
Vizsla Respiratory 13.6 Cancer 36.4 Trauma 13.6
Weimaraner Gastrointestinal 17.6 Cancer 25.0 Infection 10.5
West Highland White Terrier Respiratory 14.1 Cancer 26.3 Infection 10.8
Yorkshire Terrier Respiratory 16.1 Cancer 11.2 Trauma 10.7

Some surprises

Some of the breed differences found were surprising. A higher incidence of cancer in Bernese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Scottish Terriers, and Boxers is well known, but the 47 percent death rate from cancer among Bouvier de Flandres was unexpected.

Cardiovascular disease is known to be common in toy breeds, such as Chihuahuas and Maltese, because of their high incidence of mitral valve disease, but researchers were surprised to find that the rate was almost as high in Fox Terriers. It’s unknown if that’s because Fox Terriers are more prone to heart disease than previously realized, or if they’re simply more protected from other diseases.

A high proportion of deaths from respiratory disease was expected in Bulldogs due to their brachycephalic airways, but finding that respiratory disease accounted for the highest percentage of deaths in the Afghan Hound and Vizla was unexpected.

Examples of organ system problems

The study did not provide details about which diseases are included in each category (my mind boggles at the details left out of published studies), but following are some examples of conditions that are likely to be classified in each organ system:

Following are statistics for canine deaths listed by the primary organ system involved, showing the breeds that had the highest rate of deaths attributed to that cause. The number in parentheses indicates the percentage of deaths within each breed for that category. (No organ system was classified for 20 percent of the deaths; these were not included in the rankings). The first five categories were responsible for most deaths in most breeds.

 
Organ System
Breeds with the Highest Rate of Death (and Percentage of those Dogs) Attributed to each Organ System
Gastrointestinal Great Dane (25.6), Gordon Setter (22.5), Akita (21.2), Shar-Pei (19.9), Weimaraner (17.6)
Neurologic Dachshund (40.4), Miniature Dachshund (39.7), Pug (27.4), Miniature Pinscher (22.3), Boston Terrier (22.2)
Musculoskeletal Saint Bernard (26.2), Great Pyrenees (25.5), Irish Wolfhound (22.1), Great Dane (21.7), Greyhound (21.4)

Cardiovascular (heart disease)

Newfoundland (23.8), Maltese (21.1), Chihuahua (18.5), Doberman Pinscher (17.2), Fox Terrier (16.3)
Urogenital Scottish Terrier (17.0), Airedale Terrier (16.3), Dalmatian (16.2), Norwegian Elkhound (16.0), Cardigan Welsh Corgi (15.2), Standard Schnauzer (15.2), Bull Terrier (14.9), and Lhasa Apso (14.9), Shetland Sheepdog (14.2), Finnish Spitz (14.0), Shih Tzu (13.9), English Cocker Spaniel (13.7)
Respiratory Bulldog (18.2), Borzoi (16.3), Yorkshire Terrier (16.1), Afghan Hound (16.0), Treeing Walker Coonhound (15.1), West Highland White Terrier (14.1), Pomeranian (13.6), Vizsla (13.6)
Hematopoietic Chesapeake Bay Retriever (17.2), Airedale Terrier (15.2), Golden Retriever (15.0), American Cocker Spaniel (14.8), English Cocker Spaniel (13.7), Scottish Terrier (13.2)
Dermatologic (skin) Shar-Pei (5.4), West Highland White Terrier (4.9), Miniature Pinscher (4.5), English Pointer (3.6), Chow Chow (2.9), Shetland Sheepdog (2.8)
Endocrine Fox Terrier (7.2), Miniature Poodle (6.3), West Highland White Terrier (6.2), Miniature Schnauzer (5.7), Bichon Frise (5.6), Old English Sheepdog (5.6)
Hepatic (liver) Scottish Terrier (7.8), English Cocker Spaniel (7.7), Maltese (7.5), Standard Schnauzer (7.2), Pembroke Welsh Corgi (7.0)
Ophthalmologic (eye) Akita (9.9), Cardigan Welsh Corgi (3.6), Collie (3.2), Pekingese (3.1), Australian Heeler (3.0)

Examples of Disease Processes

Examples of conditions that were likely to be classified into the different disease process categories:

Following are statistics for canine deaths listed by disease category, showing the breeds that had the highest rate of deaths attributed to that cause. (Thirty-five percent of deaths were unclassified by a disease category).

Disease Category
Breeds with the Highest Rate of Death (and Percentage of those Dogs) Attributed to each Disease Category
Neoplasia (cancer) Bernese Mountain Dog (54.6), Golden Retriever (49.9), Scottish Terrier (47.6), Bouvier de Flandres (46.6), Boxer (44.3), Bullmastiff (44.0), Irish Setter (40.8), Airedale Terrier (40.2)
Trauma Australian Heeler (20.8), American Staffordshire Terrier (20.3), Jack Russell Terrier (19.8), Miniature Pinscher (19.6), Australian Shepherd (17.9), Border Collie (17.5), Chihuahua (16.8), Chow Chow (16.6), Treeing Walker Coonhound (16.4), Greyhound (16.3), Mixed-Breed Dogs (16.2), Beagle (16.0), German Shorthaired Pointer (15.7)
Infections Treeing Walker Coonhound (25.7), American Staffordshire Terrier (21.0), Greyhound (16.5), English Pointer (16.2), Cardigan Welsh Corgi (15.2), English Setter (14.8), Rottweiler (14.8), Black and Tan Coonhound (14.4), Australian Heeler (13.6), Bull Terrier (13.2), Siberian Husky (13.2)
Congenital Disease Newfoundland (17.5), Bulldog (13.5), Yorkshire Terrier (10.5), Akita (10.4), Maltese (9.7), Pug (8.4)
Degenerative Chihuahua (7.2), Dachshund (6.3), Toy Poodle (5.2), Miniature Poodle (5.1), Pekingese (5.1), Newfoundland (4.5), Maltese (4.1)
Inflammatory American Cocker Spaniel (10.5), English Cocker Spaniel (9.4), Keeshond (7.8), Bernese Mountain Dog (7.6), Airedale Terrier (7.3)
Metabolic Doberman Pinscher (11.8), Keeshond (9.7), Cairn Terrier (9.5), Great Dane (8.9), Miniature Schnauzer (8.9), Standard Schnauzer (8.7), Shar-Pei (8.5), Miniature Poodle (8.2), Bichon Frise (8.0), Miniature Pinscher (8.0)
Toxic Australian Heeler (5.3), Australian Shepherd (5.1), American Eskimo (5.0), Miniature Pinscher (4.5), Norwegian Elkhound (3.7)
Vascular Afghan Hound (2.9), Irish Wolfhound (2.8), Saint Bernard (2.7), Standard Schnauzer (2.5), Mastiff (2.2)

Prevention strategy

You can use this information to help your dog stay healthy.

First and foremost, keep your dog lean! Overweight dogs are more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems, disc disease, diabetes, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer.

Proper vaccination of puppies protects them from most infectious diseases, though frequent revaccination for viral diseases is unnecessary in adult dogs.

Spayed females cannot get pyometra (uterine infection) and neutered males are less likely to develop prostate disease.

Letting dogs off lead only in protected areas helps prevent deaths due to trauma.

Gastropexy (surgery to tack the stomach to the side of the body wall) to prevent torsion and reduce the risk of fatality from bloat can be performed proactively for commonly affected breeds or dogs with close relatives who have bloated, or during bloat surgery.

Recently there has been some discussion of the suggestion that the high rate of cancer in Golden Retrievers can be partly traced to a single “popular sire” who sired over 1,000 puppies and later died of hemangiosarcoma. Because this dog and his progeny were used so extensively, the genes predisposing Golden Retrievers to hemangiosarcoma are now so widespread that it is difficult to breed around them. Breeders can help ensure genetic variation and avoid such outcomes by not over-breeding to a single dog or line of dogs.

Even “doggie dementia” can be helped with appropriate supplements and medications (see “Old and Confused,” December 2008). EPA, DHA, antioxidants, and mitochondrial cofactors have been shown to improve the performance of older dogs on various cognitive tasks in as little as two to eight weeks. EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil. Antioxidants found helpful include mixed tocopherols (vitamin E); vitamin C; flavonoids, such as quercetin and rutin, found in berries and other colored fruits and vegetables; and carotenoids, including beta carotene, lycopene, and lutein, found in vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, and kale. Mitochondrial cofactors include alpha-lipoic acid and l-carnitine. Additionally, SAM-e has been shown to reduce signs of cognitive decline in both dogs and humans, and phospholipids, such as phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine, may also have a beneficial effect.

Environmental enrichment, such as training new behaviors (including tricks), playing with toys, living with other dogs, and going for walks where they can explore, improves learning ability. The combination of supplements and environmental enrichment helps more than either alone. When all else fails, consider Anipryl (L-deprenyl, selegiline), a medication approved for dogs with CCD. One study of 69 dogs showed that 76 percent improved after one month of medication.

The hope is that, armed with this new knowledge, veterinarians and owners can be proactive in watching for these diseases, taking preventative measures and beginning treatment early. The information from this study can also help direct breed-specific research on genetic causes and preventative measures for specific diseases.

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If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me, but I have less time to answer questions than I used to, and it may be several days to a week before I can respond. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or

   


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