Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture

Any changes in your dog’s appearance, behavior, activity, eating, drinking, and elimination habits are a reflection of your dog’s state of health–physical or emotional.

Some things stand out–such as vomiting or diarrhea–and there are things which are not as straightforward.

You are not expected to diagnose your dog, nor should you try. You should, however, be able to tell when and how fast you should see a veterinarian.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture

A lot of things might depend on circumstances, and that’s where good judgment is vital. Some things are always an emergency–they are listed below.

  1. Difficulty breathing
  2. Severe pain in any part of the body
  3. Profuse vomiting, particularly associated with an inability to keep down water, blood in the vomit, depression or pain
  4. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at vomiting, especially if associated with an enlarged abdomen
  5. Seizures
  6. A severely depressed attitude or unresponsiveness
  7. Extreme weakness or wobbliness
  8. Large amounts of blood in the stool
  9. Collapse
  10. Bleeding that drips or pools (a “smear” here and there is probably not an emergency)

Note: A sick puppy is always an emergency.

Is there some rule of thumb to use when assessing your dog’s symptoms?

Having a way to measure what you’re looking at is always helpful. Vital signs, for example, can be measured quite accurately if you know what you’re doing. Vital signs include temperature, resting heart rate, resting pulse rate, resting respiratory rate, capillary refill time and color of mucous membranes.

Normal average vital signs ranges:

Temperature37.5 – 39.2 °C (99.5 – 102.5°F)
Resting Heart Rate60 – 140 beats/minute
Resting Respiratory Rate15 – 35 breaths/minute
Capillary Refill Time1 – 2 seconds
Mucous Membranespink
Checking vital signs graphic from First Aid for Pets Manual

It is a good idea to learn how to check your dog’s vital sign and what is normal for them.

What about things that cannot really be measured?

Here are the criteria I use to get the big picture when my dog looks or acts sick.

1. Speed of onset

When something hits like a ton of bricks, out of the blue, there is a great chance are you’re looking at an emergency. It might be an acute problem or a chronic one where something has changed dramatically. This can include trauma, injuries, poisoning, venomous bites, but even immune-mediated reactions and some infections. The faster it hits, the faster I am on my way to a veterinarian.

2. Severity

For example, did my dog just throw up some bile, a bit of food or something that shouldn’t have found its way into their stomach in the first place? Or are they projectile vomiting all over the place? Does my dog just look a bit under-the-weather or are they listless, unresponsive or unable to stand?

3. Frequency and duration

Did my dog just throw up once, or do they keep throwing up repeatedly? Is my dog having cluster seizures? Has my dog been having diarrhea for more than a couple of days?

4. Other symptoms

Did my dog just had diarrhea or threw up but looks and acts normally otherwise? Or are they having both diarrhea and vomiting, being lethargic, weak, having pale or yellow mucous membranes? The more warning signs pile up, the more urgently your dog needs medical attention.

5. Circumstances

Did my dog just have diarrhea or throw up after they snatched something from the garbage? Or did it happen after they were given fatty food? Could my dog had been bitten by a snake or gotten into some rat poison? Were they just hanging out in the garage and could they have licked something toxic? Is my dog panting because they just had a good run, because it’s hot, or are they panting for no obvious reason? And so on.

The higher your dog’s situation ranks in these categories, the faster you should see a vet. That is not to say that progressive or wax and wane situations should be ignored. For example, wax and wane weakness, lethargy, reluctance or inability to walk are a major red flag that could indicate a serious condition such as a bleeding splenic tumor.

As well as conditions that seem relatively low on the panic scale but fail to improve or are progressively getting worse. For example, lameness that’s getting worse rather than better–with or without treatment–could indicate bone cancer. Progressive weight loss without an explanation, gradual loss of interest in food, increasing intolerance to exercise … all these things might not have to be addressed today or tomorrow but should be addressed.

What is the most important thing you can do for your dog’s health?

Knowing what is normal for them.

Categories: Dog careDog health advocacySymptomsThe big picture

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

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