We don’t normally think about tonsil health in canines, but like us, dogs do have tonsils. Sometimes they become inflamed, which makes a dog feel very uncomfortable. Knowing the symptoms of tonsillitis can help you get your pet medical attention to ease his discomfort.
Two tonsils, one on each side of the mouth, are located at the back of the throat. Their primary function is to provide protection from bacteria and viruses. The tonsils are similar to lymph glands, and you normally can’t see them because when the tonsils are healthy they are hidden inside a pouch known as a crypt. Since their job is to fight infections, the tonsils can become infected. When that happens, it’s easier for us to see them because they become red, swollen, and are no longer contained in their pouch.
One of the more common ways dogs can get tonsillitis is from a buildup of tartar on the teeth due to poor dental hygiene, or a gum infection. Tonsillitis can also be caused by an irritation of the mouth or throat. Sometimes an infection from somewhere else gets into the mouth, and bacteria is able to get into the throat area. Most of the time, the cause is from bacteria normally found in the mouth that multiplies.
Tonsillitis is typically seen more in young, small dog breeds rather than larger ones. The good news is that it isn’t a common problem, but it is something to be aware of if your dog is small. When tartar has a chance to build up on the teeth, it can cause periodontal disease, which in turn leads to infections in the mouth. Other causes of tonsillitis can be fungal, viral or bacterial infections in the respiratory tract, chronic vomiting, coughing from allergies that irritates the throat, or a foreign object, like a stick, that’s become lodged in the throat. Dogs that like to play fetch with sticks, or chew on them, can get splinters of the stick stuck in their mouth or throat, which can cause the tonsils to become infected.
Symptoms of tonsillitis include gagging, coughing, exaggerated or difficulty swallowing, pain, drooling, lip licking, a lack of appetite or refusing to eat even though he appears to be hungry, unusually tired, a discharge from the eyes or nose, halitosis, hiding, or pawing at the mouth. A fever may be present, but it’s not a common symptom like it is in humans. If you’ve ever had a really sore throat or tonsillitis, you can imagine how your pet feels.
In order to treat tonsillitis, the cause of the infection needs to be found. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat any infection. If the tonsils are inflamed because of tartar buildup, the teeth need to be cleaned, and periodontal disease will need to be treated. Sometimes it’s an infected tooth that needs to be pulled. A cough suppressant may be prescribed for excessive coughing. If there’s a foreign object lodged in the mouth or throat, it needs to be removed.
A tonsillectomy is an option only if the dog doesn’t respond to antibiotics or other treatment, or has recurring tonsillitis. Because the tonsils play an important role in fighting infections of the mouth and throat, it’s better to not remove them unless absolutely necessary. If your dog develops tonsillitis, check his anal glands to make sure they aren’t the cause. Excessive grooming of infected anal glands can spread the infection to his mouth.
The only time tonsillitis is contagious is if it’s been caused by an unusual infection. Strep throat isn’t something dogs or cats can get, but it can produce a mild sore throat in pets. A dog or cat that has been infected with strep throat by a human member of their family can become a carrier of the bacteria which will reside in their respiratory tract. Your pet can infect human family members even though it doesn’t affect him. If someone develops strep throat, it’s important to make sure your pet gets a round of antibiotics so he doesn’t spread the bacterial infection.
Tonsillitis is most often secondary and caused by another condition or disease that affects the throat or mouth. Sometimes it is primary where there is no underlying cause. Regardless of what caused the tonsils to swell up, it can be extremely uncomfortable for a dog. If you notice any symptoms or suspect your dog may have developed tonsillitis, call your vet. It’s a sign he’s fighting some kind of infection that needs attention.
Top photo by smerikal
Middle photo by ActiveSteve
Bottom photo by Randy Robertson
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