Whippet Health

-photo credit: Angie Diehl

Below you will find general information on Whippet Health.  For more detailed Whippet Health Information, and information on how to participate in ongoing health studies of interest to Whippet breeders and owners, please visit the Whippet Health Foundation.  The Whippet Health Foundation, Inc. was founded in 1999 by a group of people dedicated to the long term health of the breed we love so much.  Currently, all WHF directors are also members of the American Whippet Club.  While the WHF is an independent non-profit organization sustained by donations, it has close ties to the American Whippet Club, among which include the organization of the popular health clinics at each year's AWC National Specialty, and the promotion/sponsorship of research projects and studies of interest and importance to breeders and owners of Whippets, which are often publicized via the AWC's two publications--the Whippet News and the Whippet News Annual.  Among current studies listed on the WHF website are studies centering on Mitral Valve Disease, Cleft Palates, Hemangiosarcoma, and other birth defects. The American Whippet Club feels we have a generally healthy breed, but needs everyone's help to keep it so.  Testing for heritable diseases and defects, and the open and honest sharing of results and diagnoses, are key to this effort. Participation in studies, and reporting of results from health testing via the WHF's Database and other online databases such as OFA are encouraged for all owners, whether they intend to breed their Whippet or not. 

The Whippet is generally considered to be among the healthier breeds of purebred dog, with very few health problems that require frequent maintenance or lifelong medication. Given proper nutrition, exercise and veterinary care, most Whippets will live for 12 to 15 years. They are generally not prone to the frequent ear infections, skin allergies, joint problems, food allergies or digestive problems that afflict other breeds in a significant portion of their populations.

--photo by Pat Spinazzola

General Information on Whippet Health

Most Whippets do very well with regular vet checks, vaccination as recommended by your veterinarian, a healthy diet, heartworm and external parasite preventative as recommended for your area of residence, regular nail trims, and attention paid to their dental health. If you cannot brush your Whippet’s teeth or scale tartar yourself, your veterinarian can perform regular dental cleanings. Many owners give raw marrow bones or other chew items to help keep back molars largely free of tartar, but in most cases this alone will not be sufficient, so check your adult Whippet’s mouth regularly to make sure that tartar buildup is not present.

To maintain your Whippet’s health, it is important to feed a quality food, give plenty of fresh water and provide a warm, dry place to sleep. While a Whippet at a healthy companion weight may look thin to people unfamiliar with the sighthound family of dogs, maintaining your Whippet at the proper weight and muscle tone is key to their enjoying an active and healthy life. You should be able to detect at least two vertebrae at the top of the spine, ribs should not protrude but should be able to be easily felt under a thin layer of flesh and hipbones should not be sunk into fat so as to give the appearance of dimples. A Whippet which is given sufficient exercise in the form of long walks, plus off-lead activity such as chasing a ball or flying disc, or playing with another similarly active companion, will have the muscle tone and the strong connective tissue to reduce the likelihood of many of the injuries that can be both painful and expensive to surgically repair.

Hip and elbow dysplasia are essentially unknown in the breed. Arthritis and spinal cord problems such as Fibrocartilaginous Embolism (FCE) afflict some older Whippets, but the Whippet should be a fairly active breed until it becomes geriatric. Geriatric Whippets need additional warmth, which many owners provide in the form of custom-made sweaters and fleece pajamas. This helps them not only maintain weight but also eases the discomfort of any arthritis they may have developed with age. Food may need to be adjusted for the elderly Whippet based on its overall condition, but most Whippets remain remarkably active and youthful in appearance until they are well into their senior veteran years. 

The most common injuries in the breed are skin lacerations and athletic/orthopedic injuries, particularly to the toes. Without a protective coat, the skin of the Whippet can be torn if the Whippet runs fast through underbrush, and a Whippet generally gets the worst of any dogfight. However, suturing results in speedy healing. Toe injuries can be more persistent, and generally require a period of crate rest and reduced activity to heal successfully. Seek the advice of your veterinarian promptly if your Whippet comes up lame or with a swollen toe, and treat lacerations promptly as well.

With regard to vaccination, some breeders have found that Whippet puppies can be sensitive to the Leptospirosis component of some combination shots and recommend that this not be given to puppies. This advice should be tempered by the likelihood of this disease being prevalent in your area…discuss this with your veterinarian if your breeder does not recommend or give vaccines which immunize against Lepto.

Genetic Health Problems in the Breed

Genetic eye defects have been found in the breed, but are still quite uncommon. Because of this threat, the American Whippet Club recommends that all breeders have the eyes checked clear on their breeding stock. Genetic eye diseases resulting in blindness or vision problems to younger dogs are very rare. Very elderly Whippets, as with any other dog, may gradually experience reduced vision and hearing. These dogs usually adjust well to their diminished sensory circumstances if their environment is kept consistent. This is not considered genetic, but a by-product of the aging process in extreme geriatric dogs.

Congenital deafness is also rare, but at least can be spotted in very young puppies. Deaf Whippets can make successful pets if trained to hand signals and kept safe from traffic (which hearing Whippets often ignore as well). The American Whippet Club recommends that all breeding stock be tested for normal hearing in both ears. A small percentage of Whippets have unilateral hearing (i.e. can hear well from one ear but not the other). While such Whippets should not be used for breeding, they make normal pets and generally cannot be distinguished from Whippets who hear equally well in both ears, without the use of the BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) test.

Hypothyroidism is present in the breed, but again, is relatively uncommon compared to what can be seen in some other breeds. A large sample of Whippets evaluated at one of our biggest AWC National shows revealed a very low incidence of thyroid concern. Similarly, idiopathic epilepsy has been found in Whippets, but is similarly sporadic and rare. Idiopathic epilepsy generally shows up between the ages of 1 and 3 years of age, and can be treated with medication. Addison’s disease and certain autoimmune blood and skin disorders are also rare, but have been documented. If you do find that one of your Whippets is diagnosed with any of these rare conditions, contact your breeder to inform them, and consider adding your dog’s diagnosis to the Whippet Health Foundation Database at  www.whippethealth.org. All of the above problems are uncommon in our breed at present, and we would like everyone’s help to keep them so.

Opinion is divided as to whether or not having just one, or no, testicles normally descended in the scrotum should be classed as a health problem, but to be sure, an undescended testicle is at an increased risk for turning cancerous, and should be removed. Most Whippet breeders do not recommend spaying or neutering your companion Whippet until it has completed growth, but at that point, most breeders and veterinarians feel that a Whippet that is not sold or destined for a breeding career should be altered, both to prevent unwanted puppies and to avoid the hormonal influences on behavior that can be difficult for the average owner (not to mention the smell and staining discharge that a bitch in season creates). As most male companion Whippets will be neutered, a male puppy with one or both testicles undescended makes an equally good pet and should not be passed over when choosing a companion.

Cardiac disease in the Whippet is an area of mounting concern, some of it driven by increased sensitivity of diagnostic testing, but also by the perception, widely-held, that cardiac problems have been increasing in the breed in recent years. To that end, the American Whippet Club recommends that breeding stock be given periodic echocardiograms and individuals with significant cardiac disease findings at younger ages not be used for breeding. Since 2004, the American Whippet Club has also been working with a group of researchers on a long-term study of Whippet hearts.

Some Whippet puppies are born with mild murmurs, which they outgrow, but any murmur should be considered serious enough to warrant an echocardiogram by an experienced veterinary cardiologist. Many Whippets have what is known as an “athletic” or “flow” murmur throughout their lives. These murmurs are innocent and an echocardiogram will confirm this, however, a portion of the Whippet population has some degree of minimal to mild mitral valve regurgitation, which can progress to significant mitral valve disease. While many Whippets live a long time with mitral valve murmurs, a percentage of these will progress to congestive heart failure and/or cardiomyopathy at an unacceptably young age. Again, the echocardiogram administered by a cardiologist familiar with Whippet hearts is the way to assess whether or not a murmur heard by your general practice veterinarian warrants medication and follow-up, or whether it is simply a flow murmur. Inform your breeder promptly of any diagnostic findings regarding cardiac health and again, consider adding your results, whether the outcome of the testing reveals cause for concern or rules out cardiac disease, to the Whippet Health Foundation database.

Geriatric Whippets, even those whose hearts have been healthy in their youth, may develop some mitral or tricuspid valvular disease in their old age. Cardiac insufficiency, which shows up for the first time at ages of 12 and up is not considered genetic, but a by-product of the aging process in those dogs which are affected. Many geriatric Whippets live for several years after diagnosis while on one or more of the cardiac medications available.

Cancer is also a problem that is seen in elderly Whippets, along with kidney disease, but it is not a current area of interest in genetic research in Whippets. Elderly Whippets will eventually succumb to something, and whether it is cancer, kidney failure, or cardiac disease, the last and best thing we can do for our beloved companions is to ease their passage when there is nothing more that can be done to alleviate their discomfort. With luck, and the continued dedication of the breeders and the owners of our beloved breed, this is not a decision many of you will have to make until your Whippets have enjoyed a long, healthy and mostly-active life.

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