How to Tell If Your Dog is Sick

Dogs are a man’s best friend, our loyal companions through the ups and downs of life. Just like their owners, dogs can fall victim to serious bouts of illness. In fact, they are more vulnerable to ill health because they age faster than humans do. This makes us that much more invested in ensuring the health of our furry friends.

Owing to the fact that dogs can’t convey their feelings even if they are battling a health issue, the responsibility lies with us to constantly be on the lookout for any untoward changes in the dog’s habits, appearance, and behavior. These warning signs are our only hope to catch any sickness at its onset and initiate proper remedial measures to help our four-legged friends out.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that dogs are inherently conditioned to conceal any signs of illness as a form of self-protection; it’s in their make. This makes it all the more important for the owners to be wary of any physical or behavioral changes in their pet pup.

This isn’t a tall order given most dog owners are so well versed with their pet’s daily life that even the most minor aberration tends to stick out. Moreover, a prior knowledge of the signs of the most common diseases that afflict dogs can make all the difference.

Staying attentive to any anomaly in the body language of the dog can go a long way in seeking timely medical help. This proactive approach can help prevent your pet from needless distress, lets you save treatment costs, and can even prove to be a lifesaver in case the ailment has progressed to a dangerous degree.

Know that Your Dog Isn’t Well

Here are 10 signs and symptoms that your dog is sick.

1. Vomiting

Dogs tend to vomit every now and then, which can be due to too many table treats or anything that they pick up during a walk that doesn’t sit well with their system. Occasional vomiting is fine as it helps the system cleanse itself of unwanted, toxic things that the dog may have ingested. However, if your pet is vomiting several times a day, take it as a warning signal.

Some of the serious causes of vomiting episodes include ingestion of certain toxins, foreign bodies in the gastrointestinal tract, gastric ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, viral infections, parasite infections, pancreatitis, liver failure, and kidney failure.

Several vomiting episodes in a day, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like lethargy and lack of appetite, mean that your dog needs medical attention.

Blood in the vomit is another cause for concern.

Because vomiting is often accompanied by dehydration, which can further deteriorate the pet’s condition, it is absolutely essential to encourage your dog to drink as much water as possible in case of a vomiting episode.

2. Diarrhea

Just like vomiting, it is fine if your dog suffers from small amounts of diarrhea once in a while. Occasional diarrhea indicates that your pet has been munching on things that he shouldn’t eat, and it usually gets better quickly.

In fact, both diarrhea and vomiting are a relatively common occurrence in the lives of young dogs. While the first few months of a dog’s life are particularly marred by frequent episodes, the incidence of diarrhea and vomiting has been found to vary significantly between different breeds of dogs.

Furthermore, a dog that is predisposed to diarrhea has an increased susceptibility to vomiting spells as well.
These twin problems tend to occur more frequently in males and in dogs living in urban areas.

You can get a quick analysis of your dog’s inner workings simply by looking at his/her stool. If you find yourself cleaning up your pet’s watery stool multiple times a day or if there are changes in its color and consistency, take it as an indication that your pet is not well and needs help.

If the watery stool contains blood or becomes dark in color and/or “tarry” in consistency, also known as melena, and/or the diarrhea is accompanied by fever, vomiting, or not eating, take your pet to the veterinarian immediately.

Such symptoms can indicate food poisoning, ingestion of a foreign body, gastrointestinal illnesses, parasite infections, inflammatory bowel disease, bacterial or viral infections, kidney or liver disease, cancer, hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, colitis, and parvovirus.

Conversely, an unusually dry, hard stool can be indicative of some underlying health problem, dehydration,or dietary issues.

When going to see a vet, it is recommended to take a fresh stool sample with you.

3. Coughing or Honking

Just like humans, dogs also suffer from coughs. You may have noticed your dog coughing when he has got something lodged in his throat. With some coughing and honking, the foreign body usually works its way out.

While this type of coughing is good, persistent coughing is not a good sign, especially if it lasts more than 24 hours and disrupts the dog’s sleep pattern.

Incessant coughing can indicate a foreign body in the esophagus, kennel cough, minor bronchitis, heart disease, heartworms, lung disease, tracheal collapse, tumors, or congestive heart failure.

Similarly, if your furry friend is showing signs of labored breathing without any vigorous activity, it’s a bad omen for the pup’s overall health. Under normal circumstances, dogs should breathe about 15 to 20 times per minute at rest.

It is recommended to always count your pet’s respiration while they are at rest, as activity can cause the respiratory rate to be increased temporarily.

Inspiration and expiration are counted as one breath; count the number of breaths in 15 seconds and multiply this number by 4. This will give you the number of breaths per minute. Respiratory rates can range from 30 to 40 breaths per minute when awake and 15 to 20 breaths per minute at rest.

Labored breathing can suggest a number of health conditions ranging from a chest infection/pneumonia and colds to allergies and other respiratory problems. Pain is also an indication for labored breathing.

In addition to severe coughing, noisy breathing or nasal discharge containing mucus or blood should tip you off to get your pet to the vet.

If your dog is struggling to breathe, check the color of the gums and tongue. If you notice a bluish or pale/white tint rather than pink, consult your vet immediately.

4. Change in Appetite

Dogs take their food very seriously and very eagerly. Their food schedule and menu are often well established and strictly adhered to by their owners and are usually not subject to any changes. If, however, your dog begins to display noticeable changes in appetite, you should be concerned.

Dogs may experience an increase or decrease in appetite, which can be symptomatic of a common cold, fever, stress, pain, and many other possible issues.

A change in appetite, especially when it leads to weight loss or gain, can indicate a serious illness, such as liver problems, kidney failure, cancer, infection, dental disease, and pain.

Do not delay and your veterinarian if your dog no longer comes running at feeding time or seems to be eating a lot less than usual for more than 24 hours.

In the same vein, you must keep an eye on your pet’s water intake. Drinking too much or too little can indicate a problem that requires veterinary attention.

5. High Body Temperature

Canines can run fevers just like humans. In fact, a fever is a clear sign of illness in both animals and people.

Feel your dog’s nose and behind their ears to see whether they feel hotter than normal. If you suspect a fever, get a more accurate temperature by using a digital rectal thermometer designed specifically for dogs.

Your dog’s normal body temperature ranges between 101.5 F and 102.5 F. If his temperature is 103 F or higher, it means he has a fever. Always bear in mind that a body temperature above 104.5 F is indicative of a heat stroke and can jeopardize your dog’s life.

Along with a high body temperature, your four-legged friend may show other signs of illness like lethargy, shivering, depression, vomiting, coughing, and a runny nose. Your pet may even refuse to eat food and show signs of increased thirst.

Seek advice from a vet when your pet has a fever. Antibiotics or other treatments may be needed to clear up the source of the infection.

6. Excessive Scratching

Dogs have a habit of scratching their body, but if they suddenly start scratching their body more frequently (also known as pruritus), it can be a sign of a health problem.

Excessive scratching is a typical sign of fleas, ticks, or mange mites. It can also be due to an allergic reaction to something in the environment or food that is creating an itchy sensation.

Stress and anxiety can also generate a scratching response in dogs.

If the dog scratches at his mouth more than any place else, this can be seen as a sign of dental discomfort.

Scratching can also indicate endocrine or hormonal problems as well as fungal, yeast, or staph infections, which often cause itchy skin and hair loss.

Regardless of the cause of the scratching, this problem warrants a prompt response or else it can lead to further infection. A visit to the vet can help in getting a proper diagnosis and the requisite treatment. In the meantime, give your pet a nice bath, maintain proper hygiene, and try giving your pet a supplement to ensure optimum nutrition.

7. Prolonged Lethargy

Showing signs of low energy and tiredness after a busy day or a long run at the park is nothing to worry about. A quick nap and your “good boy” will be up and running again.

But a consistent drop in your dog’s energy level is not a good sign. Prolonged lethargy combined with reduced exercise tolerance or general weakness and disinterest in playing, going for a walk, and other activities that the dog hitherto enjoyed should all be taken note of.

Prolonged lethargy can indicate several serious medical conditions, including heart disease, parvovirus, distemper, kennel cough, heartworm disease, liver disease, diabetes, and hypoglycemia.

Unusually low energy levels over two or three days are reason enough to consult a vet for what may be causing this general inactivity.

Just like low energy levels, extremely high levels of energy can also be a problem that needs medical attention. If your dog’s usually genteel demeanor takes a turn for the worse such that even the slightest touch and petting elicit an aggressive response in the pet, this can be read as a sign of some painful ailment that is causing your pet distress.

8. Excessive Drooling or Bad Breath

Excessive drooling (ptyalismor hypersalivation) or bad breath (also known as halitosis) is another sign that your pooch is not doing so well. In fact, it may indicate some kind of oral problem. Excessive drooling can also indicate a disease affecting salivary gland and metabolic or neurological disorders.

Bad breath in dogs is generally attributed to the bacteria that form plaque on your pet’s teeth.

If unchecked, these harmful bacteria can travel into the nasal passages and sinuses of the dog, giving rise to much more serious respiratory problems. Your dog may even have trouble chewing.

If the bacteria make their way into the bloodstream, they can cause severe damage to the liver, kidney, and heart.

Make sure to brush your dog’s teeth daily and give him treats or toys made especially for dental hygiene. If you can’t brush your dog’s teeth for any reason, get them cleaned regularly by a professional.

9. Dry, Red, or Cloudy Eyes

Do not ignore symptoms like dry eyes, discharge and crusty gunk, red or white eyelid linings, cloudiness or change in eye color, tearing, tear-stained fur, unequal pupil sizes, squinting of one or both eyes, and apparent difficulty in seeing in your dog as these could indicate an eye infection or disorder.

Dry eye (also known as KCS), corneal ulcers, conjunctivitis, cherry eye, and glaucoma are some of the common causes of eye-related problems in dogs.

Runny eyes, on the other hand, are commonly associated with allergies, which can be a source of great discomfort to your dog.

Cloudy eyes can be interpreted to mean cataracts, diabetes if it is accompanied by increased drinking and urination, and, lastly, nuclear sclerosis.

If you notice any eye-related symptoms in your dog, consult your veterinarian for prompt diagnosis and treatment. The importance of timely treatment for an eye injury or disorder cannot be stressed enough, because in its absence, your dog can suffer full-fledged blindness.

Long-haired breeds are usually more prone to eye problems as their hair may get in their eyes and cause irritation.

Make sure to trim the hair around your dog’s eyes from time to time. Also, keep your furry companion’s eyes free from gunk by gently wiping the area around the eyes with a damp cotton ball. Be careful not to touch your dog’s eyeball.

10. Urinary Changes

A change in your dog’s urination pattern is something you should take seriously. Urinating more or less frequently for a day or two may simply correspond to an increased or decreased water intake, respectively.

However, urinary changes that continue for a few days can indicate many health problems. Changes in either the frequency or the color of the urine can be an indication of an illness.

If your house-trained dog is suddenly exhibiting urinary accidents within the house, is drinking excessive water, or needs to go out more often than usual, it may be a sign of many health problems, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, adrenal gland disease,and urinary tract infection.

Conversely, in the event that your dog is trying to urinate but is unable to do so, a trip to the vet is warranted as it can indicate some form of blockage, which can be a serious problem in the long run.

Blood in the urine is another telltale sign that your dog may be suffering from a bladder infection and needs immediate medical attention.

Additional Tips

  • A dog’s ears may droop if he feels sad or has an ear infection.
  • If your pet’s normally pink gums have black patches, it indicates serious dental problems.
  • If your dog keeps chasing her tail, it can indicate an inner ear infection called labyrinthitis, which often impairs the pup’s balance, coordination, and posture.
  • Runny eyes or nose may be signs of respiratory problems, as are gasping and shortness of breath.
  • Progressive changes in weight over two to four weeks can also indicate health problems.
  • Swelling in a dog’s stomach area may indicate constipation, gas, and bloating or a more serious condition known as gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV).
  • Excessive aggression can indicate a rabies infection.
  • If your dog is exhibiting stiffness or lameness, it may indicate hip dysplasia, arthritis, disc disease, or ruptured ligaments.
  • Nosebleeds (also known as epistaxis) can indicate trauma, ingestion of rodenticide, tumor or certain cancers, or parasites within the mucous membranes in the nose.
  • Keep your vet’s phone number handy in case of an emergency.
  • If you’re not sure whether or not your dog is sick, seek your vet’s advice anyway to rule out any potential cause of concern.


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Published by
Brandi Kleeger, Lead RVT in ER/ICU Department

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