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
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.