Brown and white Beagle getting examined at vet

What are Common Health Problems of Rescued Dogs & Strays?

Last updated on February 18th, 2023 at 06:02 pm

Health problems of rescued dogs are very common once they have arrived at the shelter. So, if you are considering adopting a dog from a shelter or taking in a stray, you may wonder about how healthy your potential new dog may be.

The most common type of health problems that rescued dogs and strays face can be lumped into a few major categories: malnourishment, parasites, communicable diseases, and skin problems. These are mostly due to poor care and living conditions. Additionally, some dogs may have physical injuries or chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.

The good news is that the majority of initial health problems and injuries can be treated successfully. Chronic conditions can often be successfully managed with treatment and ongoing care.

Common Health Problems of Rescues and Strays

Rescue dogs have many common health problems. Much of it is due to their prior living environment and poor care. Although shelter staff usually provide initial medical care, some conditions may require ongoing care and intervention for rescued dogs to recover. See the key health concerns that are often reported by rescue organizations:


This is probably the number one problem seen in stray and rescued dogs. Strays struggle to find enough to eat and often resort to combing through garbage cans to find food.

Dogs who are rescued from neglectful or abusive situations such as puppy mills or hoarding situations are often underfed or given food that lacks the nutritional value required by a growing dog. Dogs may be underweight and suffer from poor coats, skin, and immune systems.

Fortunately, when taken into a home or shelter, these pups can be slowly brought back to health with good nutrition, immune system support, and skin care. Many strays and rescued dogs begin to thrive pretty quickly once they are cared for and fed a good diet.


Dogs who have been living outside or in unsanitary conditions often pick up a variety of parasites. The most common ones are:

  • Ticks
  • Fleas
  • Heartworm
  • Tapeworm
  • Roundworm
  • Hookworm
  • Whipworm

Fleas can cause itchy and irritated skin leading to a skin infection. Ticks can carry many diseases including Lyme disease and lead to more serious illnesses if not treated. Dogs who have become infested with fleas and ticks can be really miserable and need to be treated immediately with flea baths and the removal of all ticks.

Heartworm is an intestinal parasite introduced via mosquitoes and can severely damage the heart and blood vessels if not treated.

Intestinal worms–tapeworm, roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm can cause malnourishment, diarrhea, malaise, and generally poor health.

The good news is that all of these parasites can be irradicated and a dog can be successfully treated in the majority of cases if caught in time

Stray sick dog.

Skin Problems

Skin problems can be caused by various factors such as allergies, dry skin, sores, hair loss, rashes, and mange. Some of these problems can be related to living conditions and stress. Dogs who become overly anxious may chew at their legs or feet causing sores and infections

Mange is a skin condition caused by microscopic mites. Dogs raised in healthy conditions have a more robust immune system and can fight off these bugs. But dogs living in unhealthy environments are more prone to be infected and developing severe skin issues. Mange can be easily managed with topical creams and antibiotics.

Communicable Diseases

Dogs who are living in packed quarters or shelters often pass diseases to one another, especially if they have not been vaccinated. The common ones include:

  • Parvo Virus
  • Distemper
  • Kennel Cough
  • Canine Flu
  • Rabies

Parvovirus, distemper, and kennel cough can be very serious and life-threatening. Puppies are more prone to these illnesses but adult dogs can get them as well.

Canine flu is generally shorter-lived and less serious, however, it can be life-threatening for a dog who is not in good health.

Rabies is passed through dog bites. It is a horrible viral disease that attacks the brain and spinal system causing neurological damage. Dogs become rabid and will aggressively attack other dogs and humans. It is more common in street dogs or dogs who have been used in illegal fighting rings. Rabies can be reversed if treated immediately following a bite.

Sadly, most of these illnesses can be entirely prevented. If puppies are vaccinated early in life and raised in a healthy environment, they can avoid these problems. Be sure to see my post about vaccinations that most dogs should get.

Do Shelter Dogs Have More Health Problems Than Other Dogs?

Initial Health Conditions

Shelter dogs may have more initial problems than other dogs due to their prior living situation. And, some, sadly, never recover or even die by the time they reach the shelter. However, the majority of rescued dogs can be treated and saved and usually do not have long-term problems.

Some dogs who have been injured through neglect or through an accident may be helped through successful surgeries and treatments. Many rescue organizations and shelters have remarkable veterinary support that provides surgery and medical treatment when dogs arrive.

Chronic Health Conditions and Diseases

Even though rescued dogs may have more health problems initially, they are usually just as hardy as any other dog. In fact, mixed-breed dogs may even be healthier. Jesse Taylor responded to a Reddit Forum question on September 23, 2019, regarding the general health of shelter dogs:

Often, but usually only at first. They have been under a lot of stress and exposed to a lot of other dogs, so yes. BUT……BUT……most shelter dogs are mutts. Crossbred animals have the advantage of what is called “hybrid vigor,” which means a lot of the nasty genetic issues that purebred dogs have will not be expressed …. in simple terms, they are often healthier genetically and have less problems in the long run. May take a few weeks, but they deserve a few weeks of your time, right?

Additionally, shelters also have many purebred dogs as well–up to 25% in some shelters. So, just because a dog is from a shelter does not necessarily mean he will have more health problems.

However, any dog can have a chronic disease such as heart problems, diabetes, or kidney disease. Just as with humans, some of this can be genetic but can also be impacted by environmental factors.

Final Thoughts

owner taking new shelter dog to vet
Owner taking new shelter dog to vet.

When dogs are first rescued they often have many common health issues. However, shelters and rescue facilities provide medical treatment and care to help them recover. Additionally, foster families sometimes continue to care for dogs with ongoing medical conditions and help prepare them for adoption.

So, don’t be afraid to adopt a shelter dog even if you need to continue some medical support. If you find a stray and take him in, just be sure to get a full medical exam as soon as possible. You will be saving a life and adding a loving, furry friend to your household.

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