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Successful treatment requires identifying and addressing the underlying cause. While many cases of vaginitis eventually resolve on their own, adult-onset vaginitis requires conservative treatment based on the primary underlying disease process.
What Is Vaginitis in Dogs?
Vaginitis quite literally translates to inflammation of the vagina.
Vaginitis can affect any female dog whether they are spayed or intact. Dog vaginitis can affect female dogs of any breed and age. But vaginitis is still divided into two main categories: canine juvenile (or puppy vaginitis) and adult-onset vaginitis.
While vaginitis is a relatively rare condition, it can cause chronic, frustrating symptoms and may signal a more serious issue.
What Causes Vaginitis in Dogs?
Examples of possible causes of vaginitis include:
Immature reproductive tract
Viral infection (e.g. canine herpes virus)
Structural abnormalities affecting the reproductive tract
Urinary tract infection (aka UTI)
Foreign bodies (e.g. grass awns)
Certain medications (e.g. hormone cream)
Idiopathic vaginitis (i.e. no identifiable underlying cause)
This is not a comprehensive list of potential causes of canine vaginitis. But we will discuss some of the more common causes in greater detail.
With juvenile vaginitis, many puppies experience this condition because their immune systems and the functionality of their vaginas are not fully developed. Fortunately, many cases of vaginitis eventually resolve on their own once a dog undergoes puberty. This is in part because of changes in estrogen levels. And as a dog grows, the conformation of her vagina will change as well.
In cases of bacterial vaginitis, infection often occurs due to contamination with bacteria from the lower urinary tract or feces. A healthy dog’s vagina normally contains a population of certain bacteria. But antibiotics can alter the types and proportions of bacteria in the vagina. Thus, some predisposing factors for bacterial vaginitis include recent antibiotic administration or disruption in hormone levels and nutrition. It is also important to note that dogs with vaginitis can have a concurrent urinary tract infection, making it difficult to determine which infection occurred first.
Another specific type of bacteria that causes infectious canine vaginitis is Brucella canis. In addition to causing symptoms of vaginitis, brucellosis often results in abortion and infertility. It is important to test for Brucella in high-risk dogs, particularly because this disease can also infect people.
Canine vaginitis can be caused by anything interfering with normal urine flow. This is because urine accumulation increases abnormal bacterial growth. Possible conditions that can lead to urine retention and vaginitis include structural abnormalities in a dog’s reproductive anatomy (e.g. persistent hymen, vaginal narrowing, ectopic ureters), vaginal tumors, or foreign bodies.
Female dogs with conformational problems like a recessed vulva are also at greater risk of developing vaginitis.
Symptoms of Vaginitis in Dogs
Many dogs with vaginitis, especially puppies, may not have noticeable clinical signs or symptoms.
Possible symptoms of vaginitis and other clinical signs in dogs include:
Excessive licking the vulva or groin region
Scooting or rubbing the vulva on the ground (a sign of pruritus or itching)
Vaginal inflammation of the vulva in the form of redness and swelling
By far the most common symptom seen with dog vaginitis is vulvar discharge, present in up to 90% of cases. Depending on the underlying cause of vaginitis, vulvar discharge can range from white to yellow and contain mucus, pus, or a mixture of both.
If a dog has a secondary skin infection associated with her vaginitis, signs of inflammation and itching will be more pronounced. Additionally, clinical signs and symptoms of vaginitis are often aggravated if a dog has other existing, systemic health issues.
Owners should be prepared that vaginitis symptoms in puppies may wax and wane. Furthermore, even if symptoms are intermittent, they can be chronic. This is because vaginitis can develop as early as 8 weeks old and last until 1 year of age depending on the timing of their first heat cycle.
An important distinction between vaginitis and other differential diagnoses is the lack of systemic symptoms in pets solely suffering from vaginitis. Therefore, if a female dog is exhibiting the vaginitis symptoms listed above but also has signs like fever, lethargy, or decreased appetite, we must consider other possible conditions such as pyometra.
How Is Vaginitis in Dogs Diagnosed?
The diagnostic process is vital in order to identify the true underlying cause of a dog’s vaginitis. This is crucial because if the primary cause of a dog’s vaginitis cannot be identified and addressed, her vaginitis may not resolve or if it does, it is very likely to recur.
While we do not typically view a dog’s history and physical exam as tests, these pieces of the puzzle are incredibly valuable diagnostic tools.
For instance, a dog’s age and spay status affect what underlying conditions are most likely and which tests your veterinarian will prioritize.
The history and physical exam will also reveal what symptoms and predisposing factors are present, all of which guide the diagnostic process.
Common recommended tests for suspect dog vaginitis:
Vaginal bacterial culture
Urine bacterial culture
Digital vaginal exam
Depending on your dog’s history and physical exam, your veterinarian will prioritize certain tests over others. For example, many young female dogs with vaginitis eventually recover on their own over time. Thus, the diagnostic process for puppies with vaginitis may need fewer tests and instead, may need careful monitoring through puberty.
A cytology will allow your veterinarian to see what type of cells are lining your dog’s vagina and present in her vaginal discharge. For intact female dogs, the cytology helps determine what stage of estrus she is in. Your vet will also look for any inflammatory cells, cancerous cells, complete blood count, and infectious microorganisms like bacteria.
A bacterial culture of the vagina can detect a bacterial infection. However, vaginal culture results must be interpreted carefully since even a healthy vagina naturally contains bacteria.
Urine analysis and bacterial culture are performed to check for a UTI. Unfortunately, these diagnostic tests will not tell us what developed first: vaginitis or UTI. But they are necessary to detect a concurrent UTI since the vaginitis will not fully resolve unless both conditions are treated.
Your vet will use her finger to perform a digital vaginal exam. This is necessary to palpate for any abnormal structures such as vaginal narrowing, masses, or foreign bodies.
While the digital exam uses touch to check for structural abnormalities, a vaginoscopy involves the use of a scope to visually look for irregularities.
Your veterinarian may recommend further advanced testing. For example, if she suspects a subtle structural defect, your vet may discuss imaging your dog’s uterus with an ultrasound or x-rays.
Treating Vaginitis in Dogs
Regarding vaginitis in dogs, treatment recommendations depend on the cause and medical history.
Oftentimes, puppy vaginitis does not require treatment. Juvenile vaginitis is usually self-limiting, meaning it tends to resolve on its own once the puppy matures and reaches sexual maturity.
For puppies with mild vaginitis symptoms, I recommend that the pet parent use non-alcoholic, unscented baby wipes to gently clean the vulvar area daily. This will help prevent secondary bacterial infections or yeast skin infections while you are waiting for your dog to undergo puberty.
As long as symptoms are mild, puppies with juvenile vaginitis can be monitored for improvement which should occur by their first heat cycle. However, if symptoms are severe, puppy vaginitis treatment with antibiotics may be indicated.
If your dog has a bacterial infection affecting the vagina, your vet will prescribe antibiotics based on culture results in order to treat vaginitis properly. Similarly, if a concurrent UTI is present, your dog will need an effective antibiotic based on urine culture results.
In severe cases of Brucella, treatment can be challenging. Brucellosis can spread to other canines and also presents a public health risk since it can infect humans. It is vital to isolate to prevent disease spread. Brucellosis treatment includes spaying, a long course of antibiotics, and bloodwork monitoring.
If vaginitis is due to a viral infection, the virus must run its course. However, viruses can stay latent, meaning the dog never fully clears the infection. If this occurs, the virus can flare up during times of stress, which can cause vaginitis symptoms to resurface.
In these cases, completely curing vaginitis in dogs may not be possible. Therefore, the best thing you can do is minimize sources of stress for your dog.
When treating vaginitis in dogs with a structural abnormality, for most cases, surgical treatment is ideal. For example, dogs with recessed vulvas often benefit from vulvoplasty surgery to address problematic skin folds.
Vaginitis can also be caused by urinary incontinence. There are different forms of urinary incontinence in dogs. Depending on the cause of incontinence, your pet may benefit from certain medications or surgery.
When we cannot identify a cause for a dog’s vaginitis, it is referred to as idiopathic vaginitis. This situation presents a bit of a challenge since there is no specific underlying cause to treat. However, supplementation with oral estrogen may improve clinical signs in these cases.
In addition to promoting good hygiene, an important aspect of managing canine vaginitis is preventing self-traumatization. If your dog continues to lick her vulva, she may perpetuate inflammation or promote infection. An Elizabethan collar (aka E-collar) is a useful tool to prevent your dog from licking and delaying healing.
How to Prevent Vaginitis in Dogs
Although it is impossible to completely prevent every cause of vaginitis, there are certain measures you can take to decrease the risk of certain types of vaginitis in your dog.
One cause of vaginitis is poor hygiene as seen with fecal contamination of the vagina. For example, a senior dog with limited mobility may have difficulty defecating and urinating on her own.
Similarly, a young puppy may sit or lay in her own feces for extended periods of time. Regular, gentle wiping of the outer vulvar area with an unscented baby wipe is a good way to keep the region clean without causing excessive irritation.
Some dogs develop a habit of licking their vulva, which may start off as a behavioral issue. But consistent licking will eventually lead to inflammation and possible skin infection. This will cause itching which will perpetuate the licking behavior.
So, if your dog seems to lick her vulva out of boredom or as grooming behavior, you might want to consider using an E-collar to prevent this behavior from leading to vaginitis.
Oral antibiotics are known to disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in the body. So, I always encourage owners to give their dogs probiotics whenever their dogs require a course of antibiotics. Probiotics should help minimize changes to the healthy microflora and hopefully prevent problems like vaginitis.
While this may not necessarily prevent vaginitis, careful and consistent monitoring of your dog’s urination habits and vulvar region will support early recognition and treatment if vaginitis occurs. underlying
An intact female dog with vaginitis may or may not be bred depending on the underlying cause of her vaginitis. If her vaginitis is due to the bacterial agent Brucella canis, she is likely to experience abortion and infertility. Furthermore, a dog with Brucella should not be bred since a primary route of disease transmission is sex.
Chronic adult-onset vaginitis is more common in spayed dogs than in intact females. As with all cases of vaginitis, treatment depends on the underlying cause.
Additionally, using an E-collar will prevent your dog from perpetuating inflammation and infection by licking her vulva. Some cases of chronic canine vaginitis may also benefit from oral probiotics and estrogen.
It is difficult to definitively say whether dogs with vaginitis experience burning during urination.
However, given the inflammation that is present with vaginitis, it is possible that these dogs feel some level of discomfort when urinating. This discomfort may be more severe with certain underlying causes, such as a UTI.