Monday, July 20, 2009

When Good Tonsils Go Bad!

(A true story from a few years ago. I decided to pull it out b/c I just suggested tonsillitis to someone saying her dog appeared to have sudden "jaw pain.")

“It’ll hurt if I swallow!” This past April, if my dogs could talk, that’s exactly what they would have been saying.

Most of us have experienced tonsillitis at some point in our lives, likely as children. We’re familiar with that stabbing, “Get me some ice cream, QUICK!” pain that, when reoccurring, usually results in the removal of the offending glandular tissue.

Turns out, although rare, dogs can develop tonsillitis too. Like in humans, dog tonsils are an important part of the immune system. They can be found on either side of the throat – one section protruding into the throat and the other part sitting under a mucous membrane, in a pouch called the tonsillar crypt.

Because tonsillitis in dogs is considered rare, and because my dogs – both of them – experienced such extreme symptoms, I wanted to share the experience with fellow Club members so that, should you find yourselves in similar circumstances, you might not be sent on the same Wild Goose Chase that I was while in search of an accurate diagnosis.

It started innocently enough. Following a hike, I bathed both my dogs and began dispensing a post-grooming treat. When Quiz (my Golden) turned his head to eat the treat (a long, dehydrated chicken strip), he cried out. He held his head funny for a second and then proceeded to gingerly eat the treat. My immediate thought was that he had somehow tweaked his neck, which he is prone to doing, thanks to his super high-drive, Kamikaze ways. I kept a close eye on him. He’d reach out to pick up a Nylabone and cry as he tried to put it in his mouth. The same thing happened with a toy. When he would yawn, it was a definite truncated yawn. I phoned our chiropractor and scheduled an appointment for the following day. I tried to dispense Arnica, and he cried when I manually opened his mouth to pop in the pills. I assumed he had something pinched in his neck.

A trip to the chiropractor revealed little. The next morning, out of the corner of my eye, I caught Zoie (my Whippet) doing the same little, truncated yawn. Assuming I was imagining things, I called her over to me so I could manually open her mouth, certain all would be fine. Instead, she screamed!

Now I was really worried. This also served as clarification that the issue with Quiz was not likely to be his neck. I called my regular vet’s office and, because it was a Saturday, was referred to Animal Surgery & Emergency Center (ASEC) in Los Angeles to see a specialist. I phoned, expecting to simply make an appointment for Monday, but when I explained the symptoms, they advised me to bring the dogs in, saying it sounded as though they had tetanus!

I arrived, signed in, and gave my name, to which their response was, “The possible tetanus dogs are here!” (Insert personal panic attack here!) My dogs were immediately whisked away to the back. I should add that, by this time, Quiz had stopped eating, was throwing up, and was running a fever. Zoie seemed fine, except for the obvious pain upon opening her mouth.

We met with a Board Certified Emergency Medicine vet, who explained that they had ruled out tetanus. With tetanus, they expect to see a tightening of facial features, the ears will prick up, the lips will draw up into a “grin”, etc. However, they were stumped as to what was causing the now extreme symptom of pain upon opening of the mouth. Zoie would cry if you opened her mouth more than an inch. Quiz wasn’t much better. She had consulted with her fellow Board Certified vets as well as conducted a VetMed search, all to no avail. Her recommendation was to try broad-spectrum antibiotics for a few days and go from there.

To make this now long story a bit shorter, we spent the weekend on antibiotics. Zoie continued to show no symptoms other than this strange “jaw pain”. She’d eat as long as I watered down her food to the consistency of runny oatmeal. She was happy to run around, go outside, etc. Quiz, on the other hand, is my delicate child who became extremely lethargic, didn’t eat for more than 48 hours, was throwing up and had bouts of bloody diarrhea. He and I made another trip to ASEC on Saturday night to address the vomiting and diarrhea.

By Monday, the dogs were about the same. We returned to ASEC. By now, I was almost certain that Quiz would need to be admitted, as he hadn’t eaten more than a bite or two of food since Friday. We signed in and waited to see Dr. Bonnie Werner, a Board Certified Internist. The drawback of going to an emergency center like ASEC is that cases are triaged, so we had to wait several hours before being seen. While waiting, I finally got Quiz to eat some Koo Koo Roo turkey. As far as I was concerned, it was magic turkey and I’m almost certain that passersby thought I was insane as I cheered him on while he ate the turkey!

After waiting almost six hours, we were finally seen by Dr. Werner. By now, they had both been on antibiotics for just over 48 hours and Dr. Werner was able to open their mouths enough to see that both dogs had visibly swollen tonsils. We had our answer: tonsillitis! We ran blood work just to be on the safe side and increased the number of days they’d be on antibiotics. They were both fine within the week.

I can laugh now – about all the different things we came up with as possible diagnosis or things to test for. Thoughts ran the gamut from various autoimmune disorders to possible jaw fractures. It’s almost embarrassing to think that from the beginning, throat pain from tonsillitis was mis-diagnosed as jaw pain. However, for as silly as it sounds, I can add that all the vets I’ve spoken with – and it’s been many – have all said that they’ve NEVER seen tonsillitis dogs present with pain upon opening their mouths. It’s common for dogs to not want to swallow and thus, not want to eat, but the pain upon opening the mouth (due to the severe inflammation of the tonsils) really threw them.

I’ll never know for sure what caused the tonsillitis. My suspicion is that both dogs came in contact with some type of bacteria in standing water that they encountered while on the hike. Hopefully you’ll never encounter such symptoms with your own dogs, but if you do, remember our experience and make sure that tonsillitis isn’t behind what’s being diagnosed as “jaw pain”.
© Stephanie Colman


  1. Thanks for the informative blog Steph. Although most likely they were infected days earlier. You probably don't know what you did a day or two before back then though. Sounds like maybe they had strep throat, did they do a throat culture? Poor pups, glad you got to the bottom of it. How fortunate also that you had 2 dogs. That most likely saved you a whole lot of more random testing for that neck pain!

  2. Just had my 12 year old Newfoundland to the vet because she had stopped eating for three days , refused to ride in my husbands golf cart , and would not get up to "chase our cat in play". I must admit we expected the worse as she has hip,heart and eye problems. Relieved to hear she has inflamed tonsils and meds given.