One of the worst feelings a pet parent may have is when they suspect their sweet pup might be feeling sick. Since our dogs can’t explain to us how they are feeling, when they simply stray from their daily routine or we notice a change from their normal behavior, pet-parent-panic can set in. Seeing your dog exhibit some abnormal physical symptoms can really get your human heart racing, too! It can be difficult to decipher what is an emergency and what is less urgent, but here are some very common symptoms that dogs will display and hints as to what they may mean and how serious they could be.
What is Normal?
First things first, what are considered normal vital signs for a dog? Some astute pet parents are willing to assess some physical parameters at home in order to gauge if the changes they notice in their pooch may be accompanied by other, more subtle changes. Here are a list of “normals” for some physical exam parameters in dogs.
Rectal Temperature: 101-102.5℉
Heart Rate/Pulse: 70-120 beats per minute at rest (lower for large dogs, higher for smaller dogs)
Respiratory Rate: Typically less than 30 breaths per minute while relaxed and resting, breaths should be easy, quiet, and smooth
Mucous Membranes: Your dog’s gums should be light pink in color (unless black pigment is present), slimy with saliva, and if you press on the gums with your finger the pink color should return within 1-2 seconds
Skin Tent: A gentle pull and release of the “scruff” with your fingers should be followed by the skin flattening quickly
Eyes: The surface of the eye should be clear and shiny and the white of the eyes showing no sign of redness or swelling. Eyelids should be fully open and symmetrical between both eyes, and some clear to brown-tinged discharge or the occasional “eye crusty” can be normal (nothing yellow or green)
Gait: Walks with weight distributed evenly on all four legs, willing to walk/jog/sit/lay down freely and without hesitation, wagging tail
Skin: Full, shiny haircoat (normal to be thin over abdomen, inner thighs and armpits), minimal to no odor, skin should soft and a light shade of tan or white, no lumps or bumps (except elbow calluses, bony prominences, and nipples – a feature of both boys and girls!)
Ears: Underside should be a light tan or white color, minimal or no debris or discharge, smooth to the touch, no odor, minimal itching/scratching/head shaking
If you are seeing some abnormalities in the above parameters, it is time to chat with an AskVet veterinarian or follow up with your family veterinarian. Some dogs may stray from the “normal” and not have a concerning issue, so being familiar with your pup’s personal “normal physical exam” is important!
What Is Abnormal?
Other than spending time with you, often the highlight of a dog’s day is probably eating and treats. Dogs tend to enjoy their routine, so if your pooch misses a meal or declines the treats that she usually loves, it may indicate that she is not feeling well. While something as simple as a change in outdoor temperature (like a sudden heatwave!) may be responsible, refusing favorite foods can also indicate that she is experiencing an upset stomach and intestinal discomfort, pain, or a variety of other issues.
One missed meal is likely not cause for concern unless you are noticing other symptoms too (discussed below). However, if you are noticing a pattern of eating less or rejecting meals, this could indicate that something might be bothering your pup. Keep in mind that young puppies less than six months old who are refusing to eat should be evaluated right away since their blood sugar can drop quickly and they become dehydrated very easily.
Vomiting and Diarrhea
Occasionally dogs will have a single episode of vomiting or softer poop, and sometimes this is not a big deal. Dogs tend to eat random things off the ground frequently, and this often results in an episode of gastrointestinal upset. Introducing new treats and changing foods can also upset their sometimes-sensitive digestive tracts. Eating meals too quickly can cause a quick re-appearance of what they just ate in the form of regurgitation, too!
Vomiting and diarrhea become concerning if it is known that your dog ate something toxic or a non-food item like a sock or toy, and/or your dog has repeated vomiting episodes. Dogs showing additional symptoms such as diarrhea, not wanting to eat, repeatedly vomiting food and water, acting restless or panicked – or the opposite, being lethargic and having less energy — or any blood seen in the vomitus or stool is very concerning and should be evaluated by a veterinarian right away.
Drinking More Water
This can be a tough one to spot! Sometimes your pup may seem to be feeling fine, but perhaps you’re noticing that you are filling their water bowl more often than usual, or that he is drinking from odd places like puddles outside, and even the toilet bowl (EW!). You may notice that your dog just can’t seem to drink enough to satisfy his excessive thirst!
Unfortunately, drinking more water may hint at several fairly common metabolic issues like Cushing’s disease, kidney disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, or bladder/urinary issues. Sometimes the most noticeable symptom is your pup’s increased urination and accidents in the house before you realize that he is actually drinking a lot more too. Keep on the lookout for changes in your dog’s drinking and urinating, and follow up with your veterinarian if you have any concerns.
Changes in Urinary Habits
Changes in your dog’s urinary habits can sometimes be the first clue that your pup has a health condition. Your dog might be having a urinary tract issue, if he is:
–Producing more, less, or no urine at all
–Straining to urinate
–Having uncharacteristic accidents in the house
–Asking to go outside more often
–Peeing smaller amounts
–Dripping urine while walking around
–Passing visible blood in the urine (pink tinge to the urine color or bright red blood)
Any of these symptoms may indicate an issue with your pooch’s urinary tract. Common causes of these symptoms include bladder infections, bladder stones, kidney issues, urinary incontinence, dehydration, or metabolic problems.
Urinary issues can be very uncomfortable and do need to be evaluated in a timely manner by your veterinarian. Often, testing your dog’s urine (urinalysis), taking x-rays (radiographs) to look for bladder stones, and bloodwork to evaluate for kidney, blood sugar, or possible internal organ abnormalities are common recommendations to get to the source of your pup’s peeing problem.
Weight Loss and Gain
When we see our pups daily, changes in their body weight can be difficult to detect, especially if it happens slowly over time with no other worrisome symptoms. If your pup is looking thinner, or you are feeling ribs, hip bones, or the spine where you could not previously, this may be an indication that your dog has lost weight.
On the contrary, if your pup is looking rounder, seems to have a bigger belly, has lost some body contours, is moving slower, or feeling heavier than before they may also have put on some weight. While diet quality, exercise level, and treats may contribute to both weight loss and weight gain in dogs, they can also be a symptom of an internal problem that warrants further investigation by your veterinarian.
Sleeping More or Less
Don’t worry too much because most dogs sleep A LOT! Sleeping 12-18 hours a day and then lounging in bed for a few hours on top of that can be normal for a dog depending on their age, breed, size, and activity level. However, when dogs don’t feel well, sleeping more and acting tired are one of the first things pet parents pick up on. Skipping meals due to sleeping, having trouble laying down or getting up from bed, laying in bed more than normal, lagging behind on walks, and/or acting lethargic, might mean that a health issue is causing a decrease in energy.
On the flip side, if your pup seems restless, uncharacteristically wakes up during the night, is pacing or acting uncomfortable during times that they typically sleep; these are also significant signs. Dogs with fear/anxiety, arthritis or neurologic pain, discomfort from an internal issue, and senior dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome may sleep less, change their sleep cycles, pace through the night, or not want to lay down.
While doggie breath can seem endearing, it is often the sign of potentially severe issues going on inside your dog’s mouth. Gingivitis, rotten teeth, and tooth root abscesses in the jaw bones are very painful for dogs and can all carry a distinctive gag-inducing odor. Your vet will check the condition of your dog’s mouth, teeth and gums at their annual appointments and make recommendations for dental cleanings under anesthesia. If any teeth are infected or broken, oral surgery will be recommended as well. If your pup’s breath can clear a room, or if their eating patterns have changed, an oral exam is recommended.
Just like us, the occasional “food or water down the wrong tube” may result in a gag-cough or cough-vomit. Single episodes of coughing or reverse sneezing (a funny sound often confused with coughing and breathing problems) are usually not a big deal–although they always seem to catch our attention!
When pet parents notice coughing bouts overnight or repeatedly during the day, especially for multiple days in a row – this can indicate that there could be a health issue causing the cough. Common ones include upper respiratory infections like kennel cough, tracheal issues, pneumonia, heart problems, and lung problems too. Dogs that are coughing but otherwise feeling well are less urgent than dogs that are struggling to breathe, not wanting to eat, and have decreased energy. Any time a dog is struggling to breathe, this is an emergency and needs immediate veterinary care.
Limping is another issue that can cause alarm and panic with pet parents. Sometimes the cause of the limp is apparent: an injury during playtime, an accidental roll off the bed, or an ambitious jump that resulted in a yelp. Occasionally, pups will come up limping seemingly out of the blue too, without a known obvious cause. If a dog is limping, keeping them rested and restricted from running, stair climbing, and jumping will help give the body a chance to heal itself or prevent further injury before the vet visit.
Any limping that lasts more than a few days without improvement, or that seems to be worsening, would benefit from a physical exam and maybe even some X-rays to check the health of those bones, joints, and soft tissues. Pups experiencing intense pain, are not putting any weight on a leg, or cannot stand and walk should be examined urgently due to the possibility of a fracture or spinal issue.
Itching and Scratching
Grooming their luscious coats and keeping themselves pretty are considered normal dog behavior. However, when scratching and licking become noticeable, a foul odor is detected, the coat appears thin and patchy, the skin is pink, inflamed, bleeding or scabby, normal grooming has crossed into the realm of abnormal.
Excessive scratching, licking, and itching is a strong indicator for skin allergies in dogs, a flea infestation, a bacterial or yeast infection, and possibly other parasites too. If you are noticing your dog licking, itching, scratching or shaking their head more often than normal, and/or you see changes in her ears, coat and skin, this is a strong indication that there is a skin condition that needs to be addressed.
Eye Goop and Squinting Eyes
Eye problems in dogs are common and range from mild chronic tearing (“epiphora”), to severe corneal ulcers and conditions endangering eyesight. Eyes are complicated and the consequences of an untreated eye issue can have long-lasting, painful effects. Any time a dog is exhibiting any squinting, discharge from the eye, redness in the eyelids or eyeballs, or a cloudy/blue appearance of the eye, a veterinary exam is recommended.
In order to accurately assess the severity of your dog’s eye symptoms, your veterinarian may require several tests to assess their ocular health. These include measuring your dog’s ability to produce tears, measuring the pressures within each eyeball, and checking for stain uptake on the surface of the eye indicating ulcers and scratches. Of course, your veterinarian will also examine each internal structure of your dog’s eye for abnormalities and the presence or absence of normal reflexes. Checking your dog’s upper, lower, and 3rd eyelids for swelling, stray hair growth, and the occasional trapped piece of plant or grass awn is also very important.
Some eye problems can be less urgent than others, but unfortunately ruling out more severe issues is necessary first before settling on a lesser cause.
Waiting it Out Versus Seeking Veterinary Care
Don’t we wish our pups could talk us through their issues? Since they can’t, your AskVet veterinarians are here to help you decode the signs and decide whether the changes you observe in your dog are indicators of illness! We can also assist you in figuring out how concerned we should be about the changes you may be noticing in your favorite pooch. The veterinarians at AskVet are poised 24/7 to field your questions, listen to descriptions for what you are seeing, check photos and videos, and provide a kind and professional opinion for what may need to happen next, whether that be seeking emergency care immediately, monitoring at home, or a routine follow-up appointment with your vet. AskVet is standing by to help during your time of need!
Allison Ward, DVM
Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.