Dogs are full of boundless joy and love, but that doesn't make them immune to illness and injury. If only it would!
So, when your fur baby is feeling a little under the weather, you're naturally going to be concerned. Is it minor, or is it serious? It can be hard to tell sometimes, but taking action quickly can be very important in some situations (or an overreaction in others.) So, how do you know when you should take your dog to the vet, and when they just need rest, water, and love?
Here are 12 signs you should bring your fur baby to the vet ASAP.
Dogs love food, so when your fur baby turns their nose up at it, halfheartedly licks it, or takes a few bites and can't handle more, it's probably cause for concern.
Loss of appetite can be caused by a wide range of problems, some of them much more serious than others.
General infections and illness. Just like we feel under the weather and can't eat much more than soup, our fur babies are the same way and won't have the energy to eat when they're not feeling well.
Stomach issues. Ulcers, bowel obstructions, and other issues can make it painful to eat or make them feel full, so they don't want food.
Dental problems. When your fur baby has a toothache, abscess, or other dental issue, the prospect of eating can be too painful.
Stress. Changes in environment, emotional stress, changes in routine, and other problems can make your pup less interested in food, but this will usually clear up in short order.
Generally, if your fur baby refuses to eat for more than a day or two or if loss of appetite is coupled with other signs on this list, you should take them to the vet.
If your pup has a subtle decrease in appetite over time, chat with your vet at their next appointment.
2: Your Fur Baby is Throwing Up
Vomiting and diarrhea are both symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. Sometimes, it's as simple as eating something that doesn't agree with them, usually when you're out on a walk, and they get into something they shouldn't, or when they get into the pantry unsupervised. Other times, it can be something like a stomach bug, a parasite, a cleaning product, or a disease.
Vomiting is usually not a cause for concern if it’s only happening when you get in the car. Younger pups and those that are more on the anxious side may feel nauseous during a car ride leading to vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Taking regular short trips can help an anxious dog get used to the car and there are some changes you can make (such as withholding food beforehand) to reduce your pup’s motion sickness. If all else fails talk to your vet about medications that can soothe a car sick tummy.
Check out this 2 min video for tips to help your car sick pup:
Vomiting is also pretty common as a one-time reaction to eating something bad. Your fur baby might love the idea of taking a bite of that roadkill, but their stomach won't like it and will send it right back up. One-off instances of loose stool or vomiting aren't usually a cause for concern, but if you notice blood, if your pupper is lethargic, or if they have other symptoms on this list, consult your vet and see if you need to bring them in.
3: Your Fur Baby Doesn't Have Much Energy
Lethargy is the scientific name for having a lack of energy or being disinterested in their normal day-to-day routine. You might find that your pup is weak, sleeping more, and not interested in their favorite stuffy.
Lethargy is not when your pup collapses on their bed after a long day at the beach or an extended session of fetch.
Unfortunately, lethargy is a frustratingly non-specific kind of symptom. On the one hand, it can be as simple as a bit of a puppy cold or a side effect of a medication. It can be a symptom of pain or as a result of a fever or infection.
On the other hand, lethargy can be a symptom of something more serious, like diabetes, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, anemia, organ dysfunction, or a serious injury. Please bear in mind that these health conditions have other symptoms that may also be present.
Lethargy can also be a symptom of acute poisoning or a severe allergic reaction. If your pup hasn’t gotten into anything unusual, you can likely rule this cause out. If you suspect your pup has consumed something unusual, reach out to pet poison control for guidance.
4: Your Fur Baby is Having Trouble Breathing
Trouble breathing is one of the scariest symptoms you or your pup can experience. The air is right there, but somehow it isn't enough. What's going on? Not getting enough oxygen can also lead to other problems, including collapsing.
Look out for different types of difficulty breathing. Rapid breathing is normal for a dog on the run, but once they catch their breath, it should slow down. If it doesn't, that's a cause for concern. Shallow breathing can be a sign of something going wrong with the lungs or with general pain in the abdomen. Nostrils flaring and your fur baby extending their neck out to try to open their airways can be a sign of an obstruction.
Sometimes, your fur baby is just having an allergy attack and can get over it quickly. Other times, it could be something serious like heart conditions, heatstroke, injury, or a growing tumor in the chest putting pressure on the lungs. Any severe, sudden, worsening, or dramatic trouble breathing is cause for a vet trip.
5: Your Fur Baby Can't Stop Coughing
Coughing can be related to trouble breathing and can cause trouble breathing, but it's usually its own thing.
Dogs with a cough can have different kinds of coughs, too.
Dry coughs are harsh and hacking, but nothing comes out. Kennel Cough is a kind of dry cough and is the most common cause of coughing in dogs.
Productive coughs are coughs that "produce" mucus or phlegm. They're gross, wet, and usually indicate some kind of infection such as canine influenza or a lung problem.
Honking coughs are loud and almost comedic since they sound like a goose honk each time they happen. Unfortunately, they aren't funny at all and can indicate a tracheal collapse, which needs immediate attention.
Sometimes, all you need is to call your vet for a prescription and give your fur baby some medicine, but other times, you'll need more detailed intervention, so consider that vet trip when you hear coughing.
6: Your Fur Baby is Limping or Favoring a Leg
Limping, lameness, and mobility issues can come from a lot of different sources. Mostof the time, if your fur baby is limping, they've probably injured themselves.
Maybe they strained or sprained a muscle when they were running around and playing. Maybe they stepped on something sharp and cut a paw or pulled out a claw. Maybe they fractured or broke a bone. All of these are acute issues that need attention but can be solved with care and time.
On the other hand, there are some more serious, slower, and more insidious causes. Some infections can attack the joint and cause arthritis-like symptoms. Arthritis itself, of course, can affect older dogs and lead to limping and mobility problems.
There are also a few common types of canine cancers that cause tumors in and around the joints, which can also lead to mobility problems.
If you're lucky, your fur baby is just faking an injury to get some attention or to sympathize with your own injuries.
7: Your Fur Baby Isn't Acting Like Themselves
It can be very scary when your dog isn't acting the way they usually do. A chipper, happy dog suddenly acting aggressive, a friendly and outgoing pup suddenly hiding from strangers, a calm dog being restless; any dramatic, sudden shift in behavior can be a sign that something is wrong.
Watch out for signs of sudden aggression, fear, withdrawal from normal behaviors, restlessness, anxiety, destructive behavior, irritability, or aversion to touch. These can all be caused by things like pain, injury, stress, fear, or neurological problems. Your vet will need to perform an exam to figure out what's wrong.
8: Your Fur Baby is Drinking a Ton or Needs to Pee Constantly
Two related issues here are called polydipsia and polyuria (PD and PU). They're just the fancy medical names for excessive thirst and excessive urination.
Drinking a lot can be fine, like when your fur baby is playing a lot or spending a lot of time out in the heat. And, of course, peeing a lot comes with drinking a lot. All that liquid has to go somewhere!
On the other hand, there are a bunch of different issues that mess with the body's equilibrium and can cause it to desire or expel excessive amounts of liquid. Kidney disease, unchecked diabetes, urinary tract infections, some medications, and stress can all cause both PD and PU.
Often, this isn't cause for concern on its own. But, if it's sustained over multiple days, or if it's accompanied by any of the other issues on this list, call your vet. You probably don't need to rush them in for an emergency visit, but a close appointment is a good idea.
9: Your Fur Baby is Bloated
In us people, bloating usually just means we ate a lot of beans or something we have a sensitivity, and the result is the excess production of gas in our bellies. In dogs, that's not really how it works. Swelling and bloating of the abdomen can be a lot more dangerous in dogs than it is in people.
A distended or swollen abdomen is the more common and concerning sign. They may also be restless, drooling, and have difficulty breathing. Additionally, they could be trying to cough or vomit without success.
This issue is most common in large dogs with deep chests, like Boxers, German Shepherds, and Great Danes. It's also usually caused by a "twisted stomach," a problem where a gassy stomach twists in the abdomen and cuts off the tubes leading to and from it, which is an emergency and may need immediate surgery to correct.
"It is estimated that 40% of Great Danes will develop GDV at some point during their lifespan; prophylactic gastropexy significantly reduces this likelihood." – VCA Animal Hospitals
If you have a breed that is at higher risk of developing GDV, your vet may recommend a preventative gastropexy surgery often called “stomach tacking” where the stomach is sutured to the abdominal wall to prevent it from twisting. My sister has had Great Danes for many years, and this is a surgery she always has done to help reduce the risk of GDV.
10: Your Fur Baby Can't Stop Scratching
Scratching excessively can be caused by anything from a mild allergic reaction or contact with something like poison ivy to parasites like fleas or mites to hot spots and other skin issues. Also, sometimes hormonal issues and even some rare cancers can cause excessive itching and scratching.
Usually, this isn’t something you would need to take your fur baby in for an emergency visit, however you'll want to call your vet, describe the problem, and ask what they think. Check out another post I wrote if you want to learn some of the most common reasons why your pup is scratching.
11: Your Fur Baby's Face is All Gross
By gross here, I mean they've got runny or sticky discharge coming out of their eyes, nose, and/or mouth.
Eye discharge can be allergies, infections like pink eye, more severe infections, or tear duct issues. Nose discharge can be infections, allergies, sudden changes in humidity and temperature, excitement, infections, or even trauma if they got their nose injured by sticking it somewhere they shouldn't have. Mouth discharge could be anything from excessive drooling to foaming.
If the color is something other than clear, and especially if there's blood in the discharge, a vet visit is needed. If it gets worse over time, or if it's accompanied by other items on this list, speed up that visit.
12: Your Fur Baby is Losing Weight Fast
When weight loss is not planned as a part of a monitored diet, it is a cause for concern.
Sudden weight loss can be a sign of disease or parasites that interfere with absorbing the nutrients in food. It can also be a sign of infections, digestive issues, or injuries. In extreme cases, it can also be a sign of a severe metabolic disorder or cancer.
Rapid weight loss deserves a rapid trip to the vet, though again, it's probably not emergency vet material. Save that for acute injuries and life-threatening problems, and just schedule an appointment as soon as you can.
Keeping Your Fur Baby Healthy
One of the many great things about dogs is that when they aren’t feeling well, they'll show it. They aren't like cats, who hide their symptoms until they're so bad they can’t hide it anymore. Dogs with sudden issues may need a trip to the emergency vet or just a call and an appointment sometime in the next week or so.
Ensuring your pup has a full annual exam is the best way to stay on top of any lurking health issues. Periodic bloodwork can tell you a lot of information before symptoms develop, so follow your vet’s recommendation when it comes to testing.
Have any questions? If so, I'm always more than happy to help you out however I can. Just leave me a comment down below, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more