West Highland Terrier health problems

Craniomandibular osteopathy ('lion jaw' or 'westie jaw')

Craniomandibular osteopathy, otherwise known as “lion jaw” or “westie jaw”, is also seen more in West Highland Terriers than other breeds. This is a disease that affects the jaw causing swelling, reduced appetite, drooling, pain on opening the mouth and, in some cases, a fever.

Affected animals may seem reluctant to open their mouths and can show difficulty with chewing and swallowing food and the mouth will not be able to be fully opened, even under anaesthesia.

This condition usually occurs in growing puppies between the ages of 4 and 8 months and diagnosis is usually made on clinical signs and radiographs. Treatment for these animals is usually palliative and symptoms will regress at around one year of age or when skeletally mature (fully grown).

They are usually managed with anti-inflammatory medication and a soft, high calorie and protein-rich diet.

In some cases, the disease can leave permanent damage to the jaw, restricting movement and eating. These can sometimes be treated surgically but those severely affected may need to be put down if the condition affects their welfare.

As there is no known cause for the disease it is not preventable, but those affected should not be bred from.

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Eye problems

Keratoconjunctivitis or 'dry eye'

Keratoconjunctivitis or 'dry eye' is a condition where the dog’s natural tear production is reduced. The tears are important in maintaining lubrication of the eye and preventing damage to the surface of the eyeball known as the cornea. Animals with dry eye may have excessive sticky discharge around the eye, inflamed eyes and may suffer from corneal ulcers.

Ulcers can be very painful and if left untreated can cause loss of vision and/or perforation of the eye. The most common cause of this disease is the animal’s own immune system attacking the glands that are responsible for tear production.

Those affected are usually diagnosed on clinical exam and by testing the animals tear production using a Schirmer tear test at the vets. Treatment usually involves immuno-suppressant eye drops or eye lubricants.

There is no preventative treatment for this disease but its high occurrence in Westies suggests a genetic link and therefore animals affected should not be allowed to have pups.

Skin problems

Atopic Dermatitis or 'Atopy'

West Highland White Terriers with atopic dermatitis are allergic to something in their environment. This can be things like pollens, grass, or dust and tend to cause mild to severe itching. A dog’s feet, ears, armpits, belly and groin are commonly affected. They will often appear red and sore with hair loss and may develop an infection if they lick and scratch at the area frequently.

It is a lifelong condition but can be managed with the appropriate veterinary care and treatment. Unfortunately, this is not a condition that can be prevented, but animals that are affected by this should not be bred from.

Walks can be timed for when the pollen counts are lowest to minimise exposure to allergens. In some cases, it may be necessary to bathe with cool plain water after walks to wash allergens out of the coat.

There are ear cleaners, special shampoos and supplements that vets can recommend to keep the skin healthy and prevent flare-ups of itchiness.

Bone and joint problems

Legge Perthes

Legge Perthes is a condition that occurs more commonly in the Westie. This disease is characterised by a degeneration of the hip joint caused by a lack of blood supply to the head of the femur bone.

Those affected may show lameness, reluctance to put weight on the affected limb, show pain on examination of the hip or exhibit some muscle loss in that leg. Diagnosis is usually made with x-rays of the hip joints.

As the disease seems to have an increased prevalence in certain breeds such as the West Highland Terrier, it seems to suggest it might have something to do with a dog’s genes. Those affected should not be bred from to prevent passing this disease on to their pups.

It’s also important to not over-exercise these puppies early on so not to add unnecessary strain onto their joints.

Cases are often managed with anti-inflammatories although most will require surgical intervention, most commonly the surgical removal of the hip joint. When acquiring a West Highland Terrier puppy, it is important to ensure you use a responsible breeder who knows the history of both the mother and father and are sure that there are no known health conditions that could be passed to their pups.

A responsible breeder will be aware of these conditions and will ensure that any dogs that have been diagnosed with these are not used in any breeding programme.


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