By Dr. Karen Becker
When our dogs don’t feel well, or we suspect they don’t, it would be such a relief if they could just tell us, wouldn’t it? It’s incredibly stressful to have a dog who, for example, is clearly miserable judging by her hunched posture, tucked tail and sad eyes, and there’s no way to gauge what’s going on, how long it might last or how serious it is.
Even if you’re very disciplined about taking your dog for regular veterinary checkups, it’s still very important to be alert for changes in her health or behavior between visits. After all, you know your furry best friend better than anyone, and you’re her first line of defense when there’s a problem brewing beneath the surface.
The Morris Animal Foundation lists common signs to watch for in dogs that should always prompt a call to your veterinarian.1
1. Skin lumps or bumps — Most of the time, lumps and bumps on a dog’s skin are harmless, though they can be unsettling and ugly. However, it’s important to have new growths evaluated by your veterinarian. It’s rare that a growth requires emergency action, however, occasionally a mass like an abscess or cyst may require urgent care.
My recommendation when you find a growth is to monitor it. If it’s growing or changing quickly, you’ll want to see your veterinarian as soon as possible. However, if you notice, for example, a discoloration on the skin or what looks like a skin tag that doesn’t get bigger or change over the course of days, weeks or months, then just mention it to your vet at your pet’s next wellness exam.
2. Sudden collapse — this is an emergency! — When a dog collapses, it means he experiences a sudden loss of strength that causes him to fall and not be able to get back up. If a collapsed dog also loses consciousness, he has fainted. Either of these situations is an emergency, even if your dog recovers quickly and seems normal again within seconds or minutes of the collapse.
All the reasons for fainting or collapsing are serious and require an immediate visit to your veterinarian. They include a potential problem with the nervous system (brain, spinal cord or nerves), the musculoskeletal system (bones, joints, muscles), the circulatory system (heart, blood vessels, blood) or the respiratory system (mouth, nose, throat, lungs).
3. Dramatic weight gain or loss — If your dog seems to be gaining a lot of weight, it’s most likely a result of what she’s eating (e.g., a dry diet), how much she’s eating and a lack of physical activity (most dogs — no matter their size or age — don’t get nearly the exercise they need).
However, it’s also possible that a tumor in her abdomen can make your dog appear to be gaining weight or getting fat, so it’s best to give your veterinarian a call if your dog is getting bigger and you don’t know why.
On the flip side, often a loss of appetite is the first sign of an underlying illness in dogs. There can be many reasons your dog isn’t hungry or refuses to eat, but not eating can begin to negatively impact his health within 24 hours. And for puppies 6 months or younger, the issue is even more serious.
Weight loss is the result of a negative caloric balance, and it can be the consequence of anorexia (loss of appetite) or when a dog’s body uses or eliminates essential dietary nutrients faster than they are replenished. Weight loss exceeding 10 percent of your dog’s normal body weight will be a red flag for your veterinarian. There can be several underlying causes, some of which are very serious.
4. Changes in chewing, eating and drinking habits — If your dog is having difficulty chewing, there’s something painful going on in his mouth that needs investigating. Possibilities include dental or gum disease, a broken tooth or tooth resorption.
Changes in your dog’s appetite or eating habits can signal any number of underlying problems, from oral disease to a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder to cancer. If your dog is suddenly drinking his water bowl dry, it’s also cause for concern. Excessive thirst (along with excessive urination) are symptoms of several disorders, including urinary tract problems and kidney disease.
5. Non-healing sores or wounds — If your dog has a sore or wound that isn’t healing, the most immediate concerns are pain and the potential for infection. There are many nontoxic therapies that can successfully treat these wounds, including manuka honey, negative pressure wound therapy (NPWT), shockwave therapy and laser therapy.
Since sores that won’t heal can also be a sign of a more serious underlying disease such as cancer, I recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.
6. Loss of energy — A lethargic dog will appear drowsy, “lazy” and/or indifferent. She may be slow to respond to sights, sounds and other stimuli in her environment. Lethargy or exhaustion is a non-specific symptom that can signal a number of potential underlying disorders, including some that are serious or life-threatening. If your pet is lethargic for longer than 24 hours, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
7. Bleeding or discharge from any orifice — “Orifices,” or openings into and out of your dog’s body, include the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, anus and urethra. If you notice bleeding or unusual discharge from any of these openings, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Be aware that digested blood in your dog’s poop will appear as black tarry stools. Fresh blood in the stool indicates bleeding in the colon or rectum. Either situation is cause for concern and should be investigated as soon as possible.
Blood in your dog’s urine, called hematuria, can be obvious or microscopic. There are a number of serious disorders that can cause bloody urine, including a blockage in the urinary tract, a bacterial infection and even cancer. Vomited blood can be either bright red (fresh) or resemble coffee grounds (indicating partially digested blood). There are a variety of reasons your dog might vomit blood, some of which are relatively minor, but others are serious and even life-threatening.
8. Persistent cough — Coughing in dogs, unless it’s a one-and-done situation, generally indicates an underlying problem. Examples include a possible windpipe obstruction, kennel cough, bronchitis, pneumonia, heartworm disease, heart failure, and tumors of the heart and lungs. All causes of coughing require investigation, and in most cases, treatment.
9. Change in breath or body odor — A common cause of stinky breath in dogs is dental or gum disease, which is entirely preventable in the vast majority of cases. If your pet’s mouth has reached the point of emitting a foul odor, it’s past time to make an appointment with your veterinarian for an oral exam.
Poor skin and coat condition can cause unpleasant body odor in dogs, as can a yeast infection. If your pet’s normal “doggy smell” suddenly turns sour, give your veterinarian a call.
10. Persistent lameness, stiffness or limping — Mobility problems in dogs are always a sign of an underlying, often painful condition such as arthritis. There are many things you and your veterinarian can do to either resolve or effectively manage the disorders that inhibit your dog’s ability to move around comfortably, so it’s important to have him seen by your vet as soon as possible.
11. Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating — A dog in respiratory distress will have labored breathing or shortness of breath that can occur when he breathes in or out. Breathing difficulties can mean that not enough oxygen is reaching his tissues. Additionally, dogs with heart failure may not be able to pump enough blood to their muscles and other tissues.
Respiratory distress often goes hand-in-hand with a buildup of fluid in the lungs or chest cavity that leads to shortness of breath and coughing. If your dog has sudden undiagnosed breathing problems or appears to be breathing harder, heavier or faster than before, he should see a veterinarian immediately.
Difficulty urinating includes discomfort while urinating, straining to urinate and frequent attempts to urinate with little success. If your dog cries out while relieving himself, seems preoccupied with that area of his body or is excessively licking the area, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. There are several underlying causes of urinary difficulties, some of which can result in death within just a few days.
Your dog should poop at least once every day because it’s an important part of his body’s natural detoxification process. He’s constipated when he either has difficulty pooping (and the stool he produces is dry and hard), or he isn’t pooping at all. This is why it’s so important to keep an eye on those daily “deposits.” The quantity, color, texture and smell, along with the presence of mucus or blood in your pet’s feces (and urine), are all indicators of his general well-being.
Often, what passes from (or in the case of constipation, doesn’t pass from) your pet’s body is the first sign of a health problem, so you should regularly monitor your dog’s potty area and familiarize yourself with what “normal” looks like for your pet.
On potty walks, constipated dogs tend to look like they’re trying to go or need to go, but nothing’s happening. If after a few minutes of hunching and straining your dog doesn’t go or produces poop that is small, hard and dry, you can reasonably assume he’s constipated.
Sometimes constipated dogs appear bloated and painful, especially when trying unsuccessfully to poop. The stool a constipated dog does manage to pass is often darker than normal and may contain mucus, blood or strange debris. If your dog seems constipated, make an appointment with your veterinarian so she or he can check for underlying conditions.
12. Vomiting or diarrhea — Unless your dog vomits or has a bout of diarrhea as the result of eating something she shouldn’t have, which you have identified, it’s cause for concern. Chronic vomiting or diarrhea are red flag signs of an underlying problem that requires your veterinarian’s attention.
13. Eating more than normal — If your dog suddenly becomes food-obsessed (or more food-obsessed than usual), a relatively unlikely but potentially serious possibility is the presence of an underlying medical condition that causes excessive hunger, no matter how much he eats.
I recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian if your dog seems to be extra hungry even though he’s eating well, and especially if he’s also losing weight.
14. Excessive drinking, panting, scratching or urination — A brewing bladder infection, other types of infection, a metabolic problem such as Cushing’s disease and diabetes can cause excessive thirst and water consumption. Some forms of cancer cause pets to drink more. If your dog is drinking more water than normal, you should have her checked by your veterinarian to rule out an underlying condition.
Normal panting typically occurs when your dog’s body is overheating and is considered a natural, healthy response. Abnormal panting, on the other hand, may be a sign that your dog has a physical or emotional issue that needs further investigation.
Abnormal panting is excessive compared to your dog’s normal panting behavior and occurs during times when she isn’t overly warm and doesn’t need to cool her body down. It doesn’t sound quite like normal panting — it may be louder or harsher, for example, and requires more exertion.
If your dog suddenly starts panting at inappropriate times or the panting seems heavier than usual, you should be concerned, but there’s no need to panic. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss your pet’s symptoms and have her checked out.
If your dog is scratching a lot, there can be any number of causes, all of which deserve investigation. A chronically itchy dog feels miserable, and in addition, underlying causes of itching almost always get worse over time when they aren’t diagnosed and effectively treated.
Excessive urination in dogs typically goes hand-in-hand with excessive thirst as discussed above. Both situations are clear signs of an underlying disorder that requires a vet visit.