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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)

"Is my dog sick?" is a question we hope never to ask. We all wish our dogs could stay healthy forever, but sadly, even with the best care our pups will sometimes get 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

One of the most obvious and dramatic signs that your dog is sick is vomiting. 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. 

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. Nausea, abdominal pain, or just general malaise can all make a dog less inclined to eat. 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

If a previously housebroken dog suddenly starts having accidents in the house, many pet owners are quick to dismiss the problem as bad behavior or  “acting out”. But having accidents is often one of the first signs of a urinary tract infection or other medical problem. 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 signs of urinary tract disease.

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

Dogs are experts at hiding pain. Many pet owners think that if their dog isn’t whining, he must not be in pain. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Signs of pain can be very subtle and may include minor changes like a reluctance to get up, exercise intolerance, limping, hiding, 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. 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

If your dog displays the symptoms described above, it’s best to seek veterinary care right away. While it may be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, delaying care can lead to more costly medical bills later. When your dog is sick, quick intervention is best to ensure the condition doesn’t progress. With your vet’s help, your dog will soon be back to his usual routine!