Symptoms: Recognition, Acknowledgement, And Denial

a symptom n. an abnormality caused by a disease that is observable in a sick animal. ~Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-veterinarian

Symptoms: Recognition, Acknowledgement And Denial

The above definition points out two important things. A symptom is an abnormality, and it can be observed.

Note: Technically–as it was pointed out to me by my book editor–the more accurate term is signs, rather than symptoms. A sign is something that can be objectively observed, such as diarrhea or vomiting, while a symptom is subjective, such a headache. After a lot of deliberation, though, I decided not to split hairs.

However you want to label it, the job of recognizing that something is off about your dog falls on you.

You’re in the position of intimately knowing your dog and what is normal for them. You’re the one who needs to pick up on such things.

Well, of course, you know that that is a no-brainer, isn’t it? But what if it is not?

Observing doesn’t automatically mean understanding.

Roxanne Hawn of Champion of My Heart wrote a heartfelt article on the subject, Fearful Dogs and Medical Warning Signs. You can get so used to specific existing abnormalities, such as fear, that it is easy to miss their medical significance.

If you had a confident dog, who suddenly became fearful, you’re likely to take notice. But what if your dog is already fearful?

Knowing what is normal

Knowing what is normal is something nobody else can do for you.

Some symptoms are hard to miss because they hit you right in the face–explosive diarrhea, vomiting, bleeding, severe itchiness…

Things are not always as obvious. That doesn’t mean that they are any less important.

As in Lilly’s case, there was an increase in fearfulness. But things like summertime increase in fear was normal for Lilly. Even though it was followed by a decrease in activity and stamina it didn’t raise the needed red flag. Hiding behavior and change in elimination habits. Hair loss. Lilly’s tapeworm infection almost got missed.

Beware of rationalizations

I think it is our tendency to nurture denial. A decrease in activity and stamina is easily attributed to weather, being tired from (fill in your rationalization), or simple aging. “He just matured and slowed down.” There is no such thing in dogs. Dogs don’t slow down because they matured, they slow down because being active had become difficult and/or accompanied by pain.

Even pain is sometimes considered normal for a senior dog!

When I joined hubby and our guys at the friend’s farm recently, it was just a couple of days after Jasmine started favoring her front left leg again. I was upset about it and we had an appointment scheduled with her chiropractor.

The friend was complimenting on how great Jasmine was looking (and she was) and how well she was doing. I agreed but noted I was concerned about her front left leg.
“Well, she’s eight years old,” the friend said.

Yes, she is, but she was eight years old three days ago too and was pain-free!

Age doesn’t hurt. Disease does.

Pain is not normal at any age! Pain is a symptom and needs to be addressed. Slowing down, not wanting to jump up on the couch, reluctance to play … are not signs of maturity, they are symptoms of pain.

JD’s buddy at the farm, Griffin, used to be his play buddy since JD was a pup. They’d play and play all day until they’d drop. Griffin is a Labradoodle and he is 6 years old now. He suddenly doesn’t want to play with JD anymore (which is breaking JD’s heart).

What do you think? Had Griffin became too mature for silly play or should he be examined for signs of arthritis or other health problem?

The frog in boiling water

Gradual changes are the hardest to notice. Because they happen a little bit at the time they kind of became the new normal. Just like the frog placed in cold water that is slowly heated will not jump out. It doesn’t work out so great for the frog!

Any signs that could be attributed to aging should be examined.

I think using what your dog was like when they were younger can serve as a good baseline. Symptoms of arthritis, Cushing’s disease … are all too often contributed to aging.

Straight out denial

a denial n. refusal to admit the truth or reality ~Source: Merriam-Webster

Nobody wants bad things to happen to their dog. Denial is really hoping that what you’re seeing isn’t what you fear it might be.

The first time Jasmine got up and was limping on her rear left leg, both hubby and I hoped her leg just fell asleep. Maybe her leg just fell asleep. Maybe she just laid wrong. Maybe she’s just a little stiff. Hubby, an eternal optimist, God bless his soul, is always trying to offer one of these explanations. But my experience taught me otherwise.

Beware of “maybe it’s just” explanations for what you’re seeing

Maybe it’s just heat was the first thought of Duncan’s parents when he became lethargic and listless. Three days later he collapsed upon arrival at the emergency hospital and was diagnosed with Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA).

Our neighbor’s though it was just the heat when their dog collapsed. He died at the emergency hospital of heart failure.

Even just the heat can be deadly for your dog!

Know what is normal for your dog!

Know what is normal for your dog. Note and acknowledge any deviations from it. Noticing and addressing early symptoms can make a world of difference, and, in some cases, it can mean the difference between life and death.

Resist denial and rationalizations. The only way to deal with a problem is by facing it. And if by some chance you do end up in the veterinarian’s office with a false alarm, trust me, it’s the better alternative.

Here is a scary proposition.

It is possible that a veterinarian might dismiss your concern. I have seen it too many times. How often do you think the dog parent was right? Most of the time.

You might not need to rush your dog to a vet because their hair is going a different way than it did a couple of months ago–yes, that happens too. Could something like that be significant? Perhaps not. However, if you’re concerned, there is likely a good reason. If your veterinarian isn’t able to provide an explanation you are satisfied with, get a second opinion. I would.

22 Comments
  1. FiveSibesMom

    I love your statement “Age doesn’t hurt, disease does.” With four senior Huskies now, one who is 14, I SO agree! Our dogs can be healthy, no matter the age…and we sure do know when something is amiss with our pups. I won’t just dismiss limps and loss of fur or decline in appetite due to age…I always check and take steps to be sure all is well physically (I just had my vet house call for all four Huskies for their annual spring checkups, bloodwork, and Lyme vaccines!) and, with arthritis issues in two, to be sure I offer them comfort, and if need be, meds.

    • Yes, wellness exams can reveal things hidden from plain sight. Very important. House-call vets are awesome, aren’t they?

  2. This is a great reminder! All of my dogs are technically seniors, and it would be easy to dismiss any changes as part of the aging process. I’ll keep this in mind if any of them changing.

  3. So very true! This is what I was trying to tell the “new:” vet about Brulee when I had the unpleasant encounter. I know what is normal for her and when the signs appear that indicate something isn’t normal, I need to get her to the vet because she can go downhill quickly.

  4. Me and my husband are SO guilty of this. I once had a dog that limped for months. The vet said it was severe arthritis and it wasn’t until a friend told me that her limp was too bad for arthritis that I insisted my vet take an x-ray. It turned out to be bone cancer.
    Another time a different dog was wobbling in her rear end and getting worse by the hour. My husband said to wait until morning, and she then was paralyzed in all 4 legs. It turned out she had coon hound paralysis and could have died. She did make a full recovery though.
    Sometimes we really need someone to tell us that something is not normal.

  5. Knowing what is normal is so important so you can recognize signs and symptoms. It’s also really important to find a vet that will listen and communicate with you.

  6. Marjorie Dawson

    The ‘know what is normal’ his home. Several years ago I went to a Feral/Community cats conference. They had a vet speak about cats and their illnesses. He said that you NEED to know what is normal so you knoww what isn’t and when you need to be 1) alert to change and 2) ready to go to the vet.

    LOVE the new look!!!!

    • Yes, knowing what is normal is the foundation.

      Thank you; it’s still in progress but it was time to upgrade to a better platform.

  7. I agree it is very important to recognize these changes. I wish Reese had displayed more symptoms, or signs, sooner. These are the only way we will know, and can address illnesses – especially, life and death situations.

  8. Great post! I think you said it perfect early one. Know what’s “normal” for your pet. I remember before my cat Dusty passed away she was up in her senior years almost 14 and she would nap more than usual. Sure cats nap all the time, but she just seemed to sleep more than “normal” for her. I got her checked out and unfortunately found out she had the big C. I too also got a second opinion. It’s definitely wise to listen to your intuition as a pet parent and never hurts to get a second opinion.

  9. It’s very easy to use signs and symptoms interchangeably. Sometimes I think I’m being overprotective when I think Lola is exhibiting a symptom. I had her at the vet today and it turns out that she did need antibiotics. P.s. I haven’t visited in a while and I like your new layout!

  10. Being a Jewish Mom I watch Layla like a hawk, especially as she is aging plus Baby RIP passed away from IMHA – one moment playing in the park and 48 hours later in a coma. Thanks for this great post as it is really important for us to keep a watchful eye all the time

  11. Great article, and I like the definition of sign and symptom. I think I have been guilty of using the two interchangeably but I will not be doing that again. It is so important to know what’s normal for your dog, and particularly in an older dog, to be aware of anything that seems “off.” If you do have a concern, no matter how slight, see your vet. A problem caught early is much easier to treat or at least manage.

    • I’m not a fan of splitting hairs 🙂 That’s why I decided to unite the two things under the label of “symptoms” whether it is semantically accurate or not.

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