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Is my dog sick? Ten signs you need to take your dog to the vet

is my dog sick
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Even with the best possible care, sometimes our dogs will still get sick.  If you’ve noticed changes in your dog’s health and behavior recently, you may be wondering “is my dog sick?”  Being able to spot the early signs of illness is essential so you can get your dog veterinary care in a timely manner. 

Unfortunately, our dogs can’t tell us when they’re sick, and many dogs will keep up with their normal routine even if they aren’t feeling well. So how do you tell if your dog is really sick or just having an off day? These ten common symptoms can all indicate that your dog is sick and needs to visit the vet.

1. Vomiting

Just like us humans, dogs can get an upset stomach once in a while. It’s common for dogs to snack on things they shouldn’t – like that dead frog out in the yard or those tasty chunks in the cat’s litter box – and this can naturally lead to some digestive upset. But if your dog’s vomiting lasts for more than 24 hours, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as abdominal pain, fever, loss of appetite, or diarrhea, it could be a sign that your dog is sick, and needs to see a vet. 

Vomiting is especially concerning if you notice anything other than food – like blood or bits of foreign material like plastic or cloth.  Unproductive retching – when your dog tries to vomit but can’t produce anything at all – is often a sign of an emergency situation and should be addressed immediately.  If you’re concerned, take your dog to your vet or the local emergency hospital right away.  

2. Diarrhea

Most dogs experience a little diarrhea at some point in their lives, but some cases can be more severe than others. Diarrhea can be caused by dozens of different conditions, including parasites, infections, dietary indiscretion, or even cancer. Most cases of diarrhea resolve on their own in 24-48 hours. If your dog’s diarrhea is persistent, profuse, or bloody, then you should see a veterinarian right away. Your vet may ask you to bring along a sample of the diarrhea, which can be used to test for parasites and some other illnesses if necessary. For more advice find out how to help a dog with diarrhea.

3. Loss of appetite

Some dogs are naturally picky eaters, but others never miss a meal. If your dog suddenly loses interest in the best dog food that he usually wolfs down, it could be a sign that he’s feeling sick. 

A loss of appetite is even more concerning when it is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, fever, lethargy, or pain, all of which can make your dog less inclined to start eating again. The longer your dog goes without eating, the more likely it is that other problems will develop, so it’s important to stay on top of changes in appetite. Our article 11 Things to check when your dog is not eating has some further tips to help.

4. Accidents in the house

It’s normal for a new puppy to have a few accidents in the house during the potty training process.  But if a previously well-trained adult suddenly starts urinating or defecating in the house, this is often a sign of a medical problem such as a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, or other underlying illness. Accidents in the house may also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as straining to urinate or blood in the urine. Your vet will likely ask you to bring in a sample of your pet’s urine, which will be evaluated for bacteria, crystals, and other 

5. Itching, scratching, and licking

Skin conditions are one of the most common reasons dogs go to the veterinary clinic every year. Frequent scratching, licking, hair loss, and rashes are all signs that your dog may have a problem. While it may be tempting to try to treat your dog with over-the-counter products or home remedies, these methods rarely work because they do not address the underlying cause of the itch. Problems like common allergies in dogs, parasites, or skin infections must be appropriately treated by your veterinarian to fully improve, so it’s important to seek medical attention sooner rather than later.

is my dog sick

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Changes in drinking and urination habits

Does it seem like your dog is constantly thirsty? Or has he started asking to go to the bathroom twice as often? Increased drinking and urination are symptoms of many common medical conditions, including hormonal imbalances like Diabetes Mellitus and Cushing’s Disease. These changes can be subtle, so it’s important to keep an eye out for them, especially in senior dogs that are more prone to developing these types of illnesses.

7. Pain and decreased mobility

Just because your dog isn’t crying, doesn’t mean he isn’t in pain.  Signs of pain can be very subtle and may include minor changes like a reluctance to get up, exercise intolerance, limping, hiding, tiring more quickly, or difficulty with certain activities. Although it can be tough to see your pet in pain, never give your dog any over-the-counter medications or human pain medications – many of these are extremely toxic to dogs. Your vet can prescribe a medication for your dog that will safely address the pain and inflammation he is experiencing.

8. Coughing and sneezing

Coughing, sneezing, and changes in breathing are common symptoms of many respiratory conditions. Coughing and heavy breathing can also occur with many types of heart disease. While coughing and sneezing can sometimes be symptoms of a mild upper respiratory infection – not unlike a human catching the common cold – it’s still important to have your dog checked out by a veterinarian to ensure it’s not something more serious.

9. Bad breath

Bad breath is more than just stinky kisses. Bad breath can be a sign of painful dental disease, esophageal reflux, or digestive upset. Look for other signs such as pawing at the face and mouth, difficulty chewing or swallowing, or copious drooling, which can point to a bigger problem. Your dog may need professional veterinary dental care to address any diseased teeth and get his mouth smelling fresh again.

10. Changes in behavior

Pain or discomfort can lead dogs to become more irritable, withdrawn, or even aggressive. Some illnesses can also cause neurologic symptoms that can make your pet appear lost, disoriented, or not like himself. Senior dogs can even experience a condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, similar to human senility, in which they may forget some of their training and fail to recognize familiar people.  Any sudden change in your dog’s behavior should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Even if the problem turns out to be mental, rather than medical, your vet can still help you work through the issue to get your dog feeling like his old self again.

Don’t delay medical treatment when your dog is sick

You know your dog better than anyone.  If you suspect your dog may be sick or injured, it’s best to seek veterinary care right away.  Although it may be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, this can lead to more serious illness and more costly medical bills down the line!  For your pup’s health and safety, we recommend seeking the advice of a veterinary professional as soon as possible to help get your dog back to his old self.

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.