How to Tell If Your Dog Is Sick: Early and Emergency Signs

Dogs are also experts in hiding pain. 

Unfortunately, in most cases, the health issue might have progressed when signs of illness become obvious. 

In this guide, we’ll walk you through behavioral and physical pointers on how to tell if your dog is sick and what steps you can take to help them feel better.

The sooner you recognize the signs, the better outcomes. 

Signs of Illness in Your Dog

  1. Changes in Appetite and Drinking Habits
  2. Lethargy and Lack of Energy
  3. Vomiting or Diarrhea
  4. Coughing and Sneezing
  5. Noticeable Weight Loss or Gain
  6. Changes in Urination
  7. Unusual Behavior
  8. Bad breath 
  9. Grooming changes

Changes in Appetite and Drinking Habits

Typically, dogs stick to consistent eating routines. However, a substantial shift in appetite is a warning sign that something might be off. 

Reduced Appetite

If a dog suddenly loses interest in food, it could imply an underlying health problem including:

  • infections, 
  • gastrointestinal issues, 
  • dental conditions, 
  • systemic diseases 

Dogs with reduced appetite might display other signs of lethargy, weight loss, or diminished enthusiasm, and in this case, you need to take them to the vet. 

Increased Appetite

A significant surge in food intake might also signal an issue. 

Increased appetite (polyphagia), could be linked to conditions like: 

  • diabetes, 
  • Cushing’s disease, 
  • hormonal imbalances,  

While puppies and young dogs commonly exhibit hearty appetites, sudden excessive eating in adult dogs requires veterinary assessment.

Drinking Habits

Increased water intake (polydipsia) often acts as the body’s mechanism to eliminate toxins or address imbalances. Frequent urination may accompany heightened drinking.

Vigilance over a dog’s drinking habits is equally crucial, as excessive thirst or shifts in water consumption can hint at diverse health problems.

Elevated Water Intake:

If a dog consumes more water than usual, it may point to: 

  • diabetes, 
  • kidney disease,  
  • Hyperthyroidism, 
  • UTI,  

Reduced Water Intake:

Reluctance to drink water and persistent signs of dehydration may also be red flags. Dehydration can lead to severe complications, particularly if linked to fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or other conditions causing fluid loss.

Changes in appetite and drinking habits can differ based on breed, age, activity level, and surroundings. 

However, any abrupt or significant alterations in these behaviors require a thorough veterinary examination. 

Lethargy and Lack of Energy

Lethargy is a state of extreme tiredness and sluggishness. It can manifest as a dog being unusually reluctant to move, play, or engage in activities they usually enjoy. 

A lack of enthusiasm and reduced interest in their surroundings are typical signs. If you notice your dog consistently lying down, sleeping excessively, or appearing disinterested, it’s a cause for concern.

Lack of energy goes hand in hand with lethargy. 

Typically, dogs are curious and active creatures. They exhibit excitement when it’s time for walks, play, and interactions. However, a sick dog might lack interest in these activities. They might seem unenthusiastic even when prompted with their favorite treats or toys. 

This decrease in energy is often due to the body’s response to an underlying illness, which can range from infections and pain to more serious medical conditions.

Occasional tiredness is normal, but persistent lethargy and a significant reduction in energy levels are not typical behaviors. 

Vomiting or Diarrhea

An occasional upset stomach due to dietary changes might lead to vomiting and diarrhea, but persistent episodes could indicate an underlying problem. 

Infections, such as parvovirus or bacterial gastroenteritis, can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs. Parasites like roundworms or hookworms might also lead to gastrointestinal upset. 

More severe conditions like pancreatitis, where the pancreas becomes inflamed, or even foreign objects ingested by the dog can result in vomiting and diarrhea. Prolonged episodes can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and weight loss

Therefore, consult a veterinarian if these symptoms persist.

Coughing and Sneezing

Kennel cough, caused by a complex of viruses and bacteria, is a common culprit for persistent coughing. 

Canine influenza, a contagious viral infection, can lead to coughing and other flu-like symptoms. 

Allergies might cause dogs to sneeze or have nasal discharge. 

Heartworm disease can lead to coughing, as the parasites affect the heart and lungs. More severe cases might involve pneumonia, where the lungs become inflamed due to infection. 

Noticeable Weight Loss or Gain

Unexplained weight loss could indicate an underlying issue that affects the dog’s ability to absorb nutrients, such as parasites like tapeworms, which consume a portion of the dog’s nutrients. 

Thyroid disorders can also lead to weight loss due to disruptions in metabolism. Conditions like diabetes can result in weight loss alongside increased thirst and urination. 

Weight gain might result from overeating or conditions like Cushing’s disease, where excessive cortisol production leads to weight gain and other symptoms.

 Monitoring your dog’s weight, discussing any changes with your veterinarian, and addressing the underlying cause are essential steps in ensuring your dog’s health.

Changes in Urination

Increased urination might be associated with conditions such as diabetes, where the body’s inability to regulate blood sugar leads to increased water consumption and urination. 

Kidney disease can also result in increased urination as the kidneys struggle to filter waste. 

Urinary tract infections can cause discomfort and increased frequency of urination. 

On the other hand, difficulty urinating or blood in the urine could signify urinary stones, infections, or even more serious conditions like bladder cancer.

Common signs your dog needs a vet visit:

Unusual Behavior

Dogs generally exhibit consistent behavior patterns, so any sudden changes can indicate an underlying problem. 

Lethargy and Unresponsiveness, where a dog is exhausted and lacks energy, might stem from pain, systemic infections, or various diseases affecting different body systems. 

Restlessness, pacing, or inability to settle might signify discomfort or pain. 

Excessive vocalization could be due to distress or anxiety. 

Aggression or irritability might arise from pain or neurological issues. 

Confusion and disorientation might be linked to conditions affecting the brain. 

Withdrawal could be a sign of pain. Your dog might seek quiet and secluded areas and try to avoid contact with you. 

Excessive Sleeping in senior dogs is somewhat expected, but if your dog suddenly sleeps a lot, it indicates the natural attempt to ease the pain and recover from issues. 

Bad breath

Bad breath in dogs, also known as halitosis, is not just a minor inconvenience but can also be an important indicator of underlying health issues. While it’s common for dogs to have some odor in their breath, an unusually foul or persistent bad breath might point to an array of potential health problems.

One common cause of bad breath in dogs is dental disease. The accumulation of plaque and tartar on the teeth can lead to bacterial growth, resulting in an unpleasant odor. Dental disease, if left untreated, can progress to more severe conditions such as periodontal disease, which affects the gums and can lead to tooth loss. Dogs require dental cleanings and regular brushing.  

However, bad breath isn’t limited to dental issues.

In some cases, bad breath could signal gastrointestinal problems. If a dog has ingested something indigestible or suffers from gastrointestinal infections, the resulting stomach upset can contribute to foul-smelling breath. 

Diseases affecting the respiratory system, such as respiratory infections or sinus issues, can also cause bad breath.

Certain metabolic conditions like diabetes and kidney disease can lead to a distinctive odor on the breath due to the accumulation of waste products that the body cannot effectively eliminate. Liver disease can also result in foul-smelling breath due to the accumulation of toxins in the body.

Grooming changes

Changes in grooming behavior can often serve as early indicators of underlying illness. Here are some grooming changes to be aware of:

Excessive Scratching or Licking

Skin conditions like allergies, infections, fleas, or ticks can cause itching and discomfort. Persistent scratching can lead to hair loss, redness, inflammation, or even open sores.

Dull or Matted Coat

A dog’s coat reflects its overall health. Coat becoming dull, dry, or matted could indicate nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, or underlying health problems. 

In some cases, kidney or liver issues manifest as changes in coat texture and appearance.

Excessive Shedding

While shedding is a natural process, a sudden increase in shedding might be due to stress, poor nutrition, allergies, or underlying medical conditions. Hormonal imbalances, like thyroid problems, can also lead to abnormal shedding patterns.

Changes in Fur Color or Pigmentation

Changes in fur color or pigmentation could indicate skin disorders, allergies, or even more serious conditions. White dogs might develop reddish-brown stains around their eyes and mouth, known as tear staining, which can signal underlying eye or respiratory issues.

Neglected Grooming

If your dog neglects their grooming routine, it might be due to pain or discomfort. For instance, joint pain from conditions like arthritis could make grooming difficult. A sick dogl might become lethargic and lose interest in grooming.

Excessive Paw Chewing

Dogs that chew at their paws could be experiencing allergies or skin irritations. This behavior might make paw pads red, swollen, or cracked.

Changes in Tail Position or Wagging:

If your dog suddenly holds their tail in an unusual position or shows less enthusiasm in wagging it, it might indicate pain or discomfort in the lower back area.

Changes in grooming behavior aren’t definitive proof of illness, but they can serve as valuable clues. 

It’s important to understand that these symptoms can overlap and indicate various conditions, ranging from mild to severe. Consulting a veterinarian is the best action if you notice any of these symptoms in your dog. 

Is My Dog Sad or Sick?

While dogs can experience sadness, persistent behavior, appetite, and energy changes could indicate sickness. Take your dog to the vet if its mood doesn’t improve or worsens over time.

What do dogs like when they are sick?

  • Comfortable Resting Spots
  • Appetite for Mild Foods
  • Gentle Attention
  • Easy Access to Water

Home Care for Your Sick Dog

After taking your dog to the vet and hopefully receiving treatment and advice on the medical side, you can help additionally let your dog:

  • Isolate and Rest: Create a quiet, cozy space for your dog to recover and rest.
  • Monitor Food and Water Intake: Ensure your dog eats and drinks.
  • Maintain Hygiene: Keep your dog clean and dry to prevent secondary infections.
  • Administer Medications: If prescribed by a vet, administer medications as instructed.
  • Maintain a Comfortable Temperature: Keep your dog warm but not overheated.
  • Offering heartbeat toys: These toys have calming and anti-anxiety effects.

Insert toys

How To Tell If Your Dog Has A Fever

To check for a fever, use a rectal thermometer. A dog’s normal temperature is around 101 to 102.5°F (38.3 to 39.2°C). If the temperature is above this range, contact your vet. Signs of pain include restlessness, whimpering, aggression, and reluctance to move.

Emergency signs of illness in dogs