Health Articles

The Health of the Bichon Frise

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

Based on a recent health survey, the primary health problems in the Bichon are:

  1. Skin and allergy / atopy
  2. Bladder infections and stones
  3. Orthopedic (primarily patellar luxation, also disk degeneration)
  4. Dental disease (gingivitis, early tooth loss)
  5. Eye diseases (primarily cataracts)
  6. Cancers (primarily lung, hemangiosacroma and liver)
  7. Cardiac (primarily mitral valve disease)
  8. Disease of the liver (primarily liver shunt)
  9. Gastrointestinal problems (chronic vomiting, diarrhea, gastritis)
  10. Metabolic diseases (primarily diabetes, pancreatic, Cushings)

The following is a brief overview of diseases that are known to occur with some frequency in the Bichon Frise. To see ten diseases listed may be alarming to the pet owner, especially one who has recently acquired a Bichon or anticipates acquiring one. The diseases listed as the top five continue to be in that order of frequency. The remaining five conditions may have changed position in ranking but all remain relatively infrequent and some may be signs of temporary upsets rather than diseases. We need to address the question of general health in Bichons. The breed is recognized as being reasonably healthy. Let's discuss what "reasonably healthy" means.

There are some breeds that have a high predisposition to specific fatal diseases. This cannot be said about the Bichon. They do have a predisposition to allergies, as do many white breeds (and as do human blondes and redheads). Dental disease is another problem that we see rather often. Both of these can be easily controlled in the majority of Bichons if the owner pays attention to their care. A few Bichons having such severe allergies or whose dental disease is allowed to get out of control may develop life-shortening debilitating problems.

Of the diseases listed above, only allergy is found in most Bichons. The majority of those with allergy or atopy (skin) problems can be treated successfully. Dental care can be managed with brushing the teeth and annual professional cleaning as recommended by your veterinarian. This is important because gingivitis germs may be carried to organs via the bloodstream. The remainder of the conditions listed above MAY occur in about 10 - 15 per cent as inherited illness. All these diseases can be treated and life prolonged with correct treatment. A few may be fatal in their worst forms. Unfortunately some carelessly bred Bichons end up with multiple inherited diseases which cause them numerous health issues throughout their lives.

The Bichon Frise Club of America, Inc. has been acknowledged in the past as being in the forefront of dog clubs having an eye on disease and its ramifications and in distributing information on the diseases most frequently seen in the breed. We have conducted health surveys among our members/breeders and have shared data with veterinarians who have also responded to surveys about dogs seen in their clinics. Our most recent survey was done in 2006/7.

Our original BFCA web site (www.bichon.org) used an interactive response system that allowed pet owners to contact members of the health committee for advice or information. From these contacts, we broadened our understanding of health issues and increased our data pool. Now we have a second web site devoted exclusively to health (www.bichonhealth.org) which continues this work. The BFCA site still exists and continues to offer general information and training guidance. The health site grows and has at least 75 articles regarding health issues and management of diseases found in the Bichon Frise. In addition we provide surveys for you to complete health history and death details that enable us to increase our data. YOU contribute each time you submit either a Health Incident Report or a Death Report on line.

Your best source for acquiring a healthy Bichon puppy is through a responsible breeder. The term "responsible breeder" may be new to you. We consider a breeder to be responsible when he or she knows, understands and uses the health history of several generations of ancestors when planning a breeding program. This means knowing the health background of both the sire and the dam and the resulting health of any previous puppies from either of the potential parents. You will see that this involves records being kept and pedigrees being studied so as to avoid breeding a pair of Bichons that each carry genes likely to produce a genetic fault, including inherited disease. We provide an article, BEFORE YOU BUY YOUR PUPPY, to educate the potential buyer and to aid in knowing which questions to ask of the breeder before you purchase a puppy.

Bichons can reach the age of 16 or 17 in relatively good health and a number of Bichons reach age 18. While 19 years and above is less likely, it has been more common in recent years as we have better understanding of what does and what does not lead to longer life. By studying the means to a healthy lifestyle for your dog, you can expect to add months and probably years of very healthy life.

We encourage you to read the articles provided here to educate you as a Bichon owner. You also have a responsibility to the breed to neuter or spay your pets so that you do not inadvertently add to the gene pool of animals that carry defective genes. Appreciate your pet, give him a good home and leave the breeding to those who educate themselves about genetics, diseases and the rearing of puppies. The following is an overview of diseases covered in longer articles on this site. Underlined disease names will indicate articles available (see Index at www.bichonhealth.org/Health.htm)

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Cancers can occur in any older animal. Two of the most prevalent are prostate in the male and mammary gland carcinoma in females, with neutering and spaying making these less likely to occur. Although cancer is the number one killer of dogs, we are pleased to note that it appears far down on the list in Bichons. When cancer does occur, there is no cancer that is breed specific in Bichons. Lung and liver cancers may be secondary to other cancers. Hemangiosarcoma is a form of cancer arising in the circulatory system. It can rapidly spread throughout the body, affecting multiple organs.

Dental care can prevent early tooth loss and gingivitis, which can lead to infections in the bladder and kidneys, as well as other organs. Professional scaling is recommended at least once a year in younger dogs and twice a year as they age unless frequent brushing has reduced buildup of tartar. Because germs from the mouth are carried throughout the body via the blood stream, dental care is a very important disease prevention technique.

Except in extreme cases, allergies do not have to be treated with steroids. Antihistamines or special baths can help. Heavy steroid use can precipitate other (sometimes fatal) diseases, such as diabetes, liver and pancreatic problems and weakens natural immunity. Be creative in finding the cause of any allergic reaction. It is usually an inhalant (trees, grasses, molds, etc.) and may be seasonal. Try bathing more often or less often to see which works best and rinse thoroughly. Diet changes and higher quality foods may help and fatty acid supplements can improve the immune system. Flea allergy is an inherited trait and fleas are more common in certain parts of the country. You must get rid of the fleas before treatment can succeed. Articles on preventives will teach you how to use these wisely. An article about side effects from using prednisone should be studied to understand both the benefits and the dangers of this medication.

A condition called primary ciliary dyskinesia, found in some Bichons, is an autoimmune condition that is hereditary and affects the respiratory system. The dog will have multiple signs with frequent respiratory problems, including pneumonia, excessively runny nose and repeated respiratory infections that never seem to go away. If your dog has a constant "cold", suspect this condition and seek veterinary help to understand it.

Immunizations may affect the long term health of any dog if given all at once. In Bichons we strongly recommend that Rabies vaccine be given at least 4 weeks before or after any other vaccine. New recommendations indicate that the combination shot should be limited to core vaccines only, unless local conditions warrant the use of non-core vaccines. Under any circumstances, the current protocol allows for boosters to be given every 3 years and research may soon extend the interval. Even better is to use vaccine titers to determine the level of protection. Research proves that every unnecessary assault on the immune system can weaken it so you will want to have a discussion with your veterinarian about the accepted protocol prior to any additional booster shots. In addition to reaction to certain non-core boosters, we know that a few Bichons have reacted poorly to certain preventives (those carrying multiple ingredients beyond heartworm prevention) and you can read more about their use on line as well. While all dogs need heartworm prevention, there is no need to use PLUS type preventives that may include preventives that may not be necessary in YOUR area.

Plenty of available fresh water is essential to prevent bladder and kidney disease. Watch for bloody urine and plan to take a fresh urine sample along for each annual visit to check urine pH and for the possible presence of white blood cells and/or crystals. To collect a urine sample, be creative. You can use a paper cup held in the right spot, a ladle or even use plastic wrap as a diaper for collection. The sample must be fresh or refrigerated until taken to the clinic.

Bichons are prone to loose stifles (knees) and may suffer luxating patellas and injury to cruciate ligaments in the knee. Perhaps dogs that are injured are not getting good walking exercise or are too fat, though genetic predisposition is also a factor. Watch your Bichon's weight! Obesity is a concern with any orthopedic problem and can be a factor in other health problems.

On the increase are diabetes and other metabolic diseases and you need to understand how to aid in preventing these conditions which may have an inherited tendency but can be prevented with attention to diet and improved general health. Heart disease and kidney disease can be inherited or acquired but with better long term health, it is less likely these will show up in old age.

Temperament is not a disease but can be inherited. Most shy Bichons can be brought around by socializing, gentle training and love - but not by overprotecting them! Tucking an animal into your chest to avoid contact with others only increases the problem since they perceive being cuddled as approval for any behavior. Instead encourage contact by letting the puppy sniff the hand of approaching strangers, allowing the pup to make contact on his own. Never chase a puppy or adult! It frightens them and they run from you, increasing the chance that the next time your pup may run into the path of a car! Mostly give your Bichon love, build up his confidence and provide for his needs. You will have a happy, healthy and contented friend for life.

We do encourage you to report any serious illness to us, using the forms available on line. The information we provide on this web site is based on experience, data collected over the years and research. However your veterinarian is your dog's best friend after you. We only attempt to assist you in determining if signs of illness are common and temporary or to alert you to the need for professional attention.

This article was updated in March 2011 and reflects our policy of continually reviewing and updating all articles on Bichon health."   -- BFCA Health Committee