The Signs of a Sick Dog and What to Do

illustration of signs your dog is sick

Illustration: Kelly Leigh Miller. © The Spruce, 2018

You love your dog and want him to be happy and healthy. If you're the worrying type, you may find yourself wondering how you will know if something is wrong. This might make you feel like you need to call the vet if your dog acts just a little "off." There's nothing wrong with calling the vet for help. You might sleep a little better at night, though, if you know what to look for and when you need to call your vet.

You may be the easygoing type of owner who thinks your dog will be able to show you he is sick. This might cause you to miss the subtle signs of illness that your dog may show when he first starts to feel poorly. Learning how to interpret subtle sights can help you address health issues before they get really bad.

How to Tell If Your Dog Is Sick

Sometimes, it is difficult to tell if a dog is sick or injured. Our dogs cannot communicate with us in words, so we must rely on their actions and attitudes to guide us. You know your dog better than anyone else, so you may be the first to notice that something is wrong. On the other hand, family and friends who do not see your dog every day may notice subtle changes that can sneak up on you.

It's important to understand that dogs do not generally exhibit signs of illness when they first start to feel bad. It is believed that they instinctively hide their illness as a form of self-protection (appearing weak would have made them vulnerable in the wild). Also, dogs do not seem to experience some of the emotional effects associated with illness the way humans do (fear of mortality, for example), so they are more likely to act normally when they feel a little under-the-weather.

Body language clues are usually subtle, at least at first, but they can give us some information if we pay close attention. There are specific symptoms that dogs will exhibit when they can no longer hide their illness. You should watch for these signs so you can get your dog to a veterinarian promptly. Be sure to find the right veterinarian and establish a good relationship with that vet so you are more comfortable calling when something comes up. 

Signs of Illness in Dogs

Here are some signs to watch for that might indicate the need for veterinary attention. Please note that this is not a complete list. When in doubt, don't wait. If your pet exhibits any signs that do not seem normal, call your vet right away.

Immediately contact your veterinarian or go to an emergency clinic if you observe any of the following signs:

  • Blue or very pale gums
  • Labored breathing
  • Collapse or loss of consciousness
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Severe vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Inability to walk
  • Extremely bloated abdomen
  • Trying to vomit repeatedly but nothing comes up
  • Severe wounds or bleeding
  • Seizures
  • Signs of acute severe pain (such as crying out very loudly and excessively, acting aggressive when touched, or guarding a part of the body intensely)
  • Body temperature over 104 F or under 99 F (normal is typically 100.5 F to 102.5 F)
  • A sudden and extreme change in mental state or cognitive function

Contact your veterinarian during normal business hours if you notice any of the following signs, particularly if they last for more than a day or two:

  • Appetite changes
  • Bad breath or other odd odors
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Mild vomiting
  • Mild diarrhea
  • Lameness
  • Minor wounds or sores
  • Excessive salivation
  • Excessive thirst (increased water intake)
  • Frequent and/or inappropriate urination
  • Constipation or incontinence
  • Excessive scratching or dull, dry, or flaky hair coat
  • Frequent panting
  • Nasal discharge or congestion
  • Displays of mild to moderate pain (such as whimpering or resistance when a specific area is touched or action is taken)
  • Dizziness, imbalance, or circling
  • Not acting like his normal self

You should contact your vet if you notice any signs that you deem abnormal for your dog. It is better to be cautious than to wait. In some cases, your vet may be able to tell you over the phone if something does not need to be addressed right away. In other situations, your vet may advise you to make an appointment or to go to an emergency clinic, depending on the urgency. Above all, follow your veterinarian’s advice.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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