When you stare deeply into your beloved pet’s eyes, it may seem almost as if he or she could talk. Of course dogs can’t talk, but their body language can be very eloquent. The better you know your dog—his or her habits, appearance, and behavior—the more apparent these signs will be. Acting promptly at the first signs of illness can help prevent suffering, save money, and even save a life.
The following are common ways in which dogs tell us they’re sick. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it a substitute for professional veterinary advice. Please note that these symptoms are more worrisome in a very young, very old, or otherwise frail dog, since they have fewer defenses when illness strikes. If your dog’s behavior or appearance worries you, always consult your vet.
You know your dog best. And if your dog behaves strangely, he is probably telling you something. Here are some indications that your best friend may be sick as a dog:
- Needy or clingy behavior
Every dog vomits and has diarrhea now and then—whether it’s from too many table treats or unmentionables scavenged off the sidewalk. When your dog has these symptoms, especially in combination with lethargy and poor appetite, be sure to contact your veterinarian:
- Repeated vomiting that lasts over 24 hours.
- Repeated or profuse diarrhea that lasts over 24 hours
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Bloody diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Repeated dry heaves, restlessness, and distended belly may be a sign of “bloat,” a life threatening condition more typical in large breed dogs. Seek emergency treatment immediately.
The signs of respiratory illness range from the obvious to the subtle. Call your vet if you notice:
- Persistent cough that disrupts sleep or lasts more than 24 hours
- Persistent nasal discharge, especially with mucus or blood
- A honking cough
- Wheezing or noisy breathing
- Persistent gagging
- Labored breathing
- If your dog is struggling to breathe, check the color of the gums and tongue. They should be pink. If you notice a bluish tint, seek emergency care immediately.
Changes in your dog’s bathroom habits can indicate a problem. Consult your veterinarian if you notice:
- Increased volume or frequency of urine
- Trouble passing urine
- Trouble defecating
- Urinary accidents in a previously housetrained dog
- Fecal accidents in a previously housetrained dog
Physical changes are often the most noticeable. You know your dog best. If it’s enough to make you worry, then it makes sense to call your vet:
- New lumps and bumps
- Sudden changes in old lumps and bumps
- Lumps or sores that are bloody or oozing
- Sudden weight loss
- Sudden weight gain
- Hair loss
- Persistent itch
- Persistent shaking of head or scratching at ears
Fever often accompanies illness. Conventional wisdom states that a healthy dog should have a cold, . and that a warm, dry nose means trouble. This is a common misconception. The appearance or feel of a dog’s nose is a poor indicator of health or body temperature. Taking your dog’s temperature with a thermometer is the only real way to diagnose a fever (see box, below). If your dog is acting sick and has a temperature above 103 F, it’s time to call the vet.
Note that a body temperature above 104.5 F is consistent with heat stroke and is a life threatening emergency. Institute cooling measures and seek veterinary care immediately.
A dog may yelp in pain when you go to touch her injured paw or sore back, but it’s even more likely that she will suffer in silence. Most dogs in pain don’t vocalize at all. Any of the following signs warrant a trip to the vet. Never give pain medicine unless it was specifically prescribed for your dog. This includes over-the counter-human pain killers, which can be very toxic to dogs. Here are some signs that your dog may be hurting:
- Lameness or stiffness that lasts more than 24 hours
- Reluctance to move, jump or walk
- Obvious bone or joint swelling that is warm to the touch
- Trouble chewing, drooling
- Guarding of a body part by growling when you approach
- If your dog has been hurt in a car accident, a fall from a height, or attacked by a larger animal, or if there is uncontrolled bleeding, seek veterinary care immediately.
Finally, the following signs indicate nervous system trouble, all of which warrant a visit to the vet:
- Heat tilt
- Repetitive twitches
- Repetitive circling
- Loss of consciousness, however briefly, is an indication for immediate veterinary care.
Seeking prompt help for a best friend in need is the best way to show you care.
How to take your dog’s temperature:
- There are two methods: taking your pet's temperature rectally or through the ear.
- The ear thermometer is potentially easier and less invasive, but the rectal thermometer is more accurate.
For the rectal method:
- Use a digital (never mercury) fever thermometer. An electronic thermometer with a flexible tip may be especially suitable for patients who are likely to struggle or squirm.
- Lubricate the thermometer tip with Vaseline or lubricant jelly.
- Place your dog in a standing position. It’s great to have a helper for this.
- Gently lift your dog’s tail. The anus is the puckered hole right below the tail base.
- Gently insert the thermometer into the anus. Rotate it gently to ease it in.
- Gradually guide the thermometer to a depth of approximately one inch.
- Wait until a beeping noise indicates the temperature has registered.
*A normal dog’s rectal temperature is 100-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the ear thermometer method:
An ear thermometer uses light to measure the temperature of the ear drum, which is a good representation of core body temperature. Inaccuracies occur due to the probe’s position or material in the ear. It’s best to compare the rectal and ear temperatures for the first few times to ensure your readings are accurate.
- Position your dog in a comfortable position on the floor or in your lap (small dogs).
- Place the thermometer probe as deep as you comfortably can into the dog’s ear canal.
- Wait for the thermometer to beep.
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Disclaimer: This website is not intended to replace professional consultation, diagnosis, or treatment by a licensed veterinarian. If you require any veterinary related advice, contact your veterinarian promptly. Information at DogHealth.com is exclusively of a general reference nature. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment as a result of accessing information at this site.