Just like us, dogs can also feel a little under the weather. The only difference is that your pet can’t tell you when they’re feeling poorly, so it’s important that you can recognise common dog illness symptoms so you can help your furry friend feel like themselves again. Pay attention to subtle signs, as dogs can be good at hiding any aches or pains.
Check-ups with your vet are the best way to spot any signs of possible illness as soon as possible. This is particularly important for older dogs, who should have a regular check-ups every three to six months.
Here are some of the symptoms of problems in your dog to watch out for. Bear in mind that this list isn’t exhaustive, and you should always speak to your vet if you have any worries about your pet’s health.
General lethargy, depression, listlessness and sleeping more
If your dog isn't their normal, enthusiastic, active self, it's worth considering if it could be down to something more serious than sleepiness. Generally looking unwell or seeming a lot more lethargic than normal (without any specific complaints) is a common sign of canine illness and warrants a check-in with your vet.
Reduction in appetite or complete refusal to eat
There are many completely harmless reasons why your dog might not want to eat as much as usual – hot weather for example – but it can also indicate an underlying problem. It’s particularly important to consult your vet if your senior dog eats less than usual, or if their reduced appetite is accompanied by lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss or any other signs of illness.
Increase in appetite
Most dogs enjoy their food and will happily chow down on anything offered to them, but a noticeable increase in appetite can also indicate conditions in dogs such as diabetes or other hormonal problems, so speak to your vet if your dog is munching more than usual.
If your dog starts losing weight for an unexplained reason this can indicate an underlying illness and they should be checked over by a vet. This is particularly important if your dog has other symptoms, such as a decrease or increase in appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea or lethargy.
Vomiting in dogs after eating soiled food or raiding the bin isn’t unusual but if the sickness is persistent, your dog vomits blood, they have trouble swallowing or they’re gagging or retching, you should arrange an appointment with your vet. Vomiting can be a sign of many different illnesses including intestinal problems, kidney disease and liver disease. If you see your dog being sick and it is accompanied by lethargy, depression, diarrhoea or loss of appetite, it could indicate an underlying problem so speak to your vet as soon as possible.
Occasional diarrhoea isn’t usually a cause for concern, and might simply be the result of eating something unpleasant in the garden, but if it’s persistent, or if the diarrhoea is accompanied by vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite or weight loss, or your dog’s faeces are black in colour or contain fresh blood or mucus, then visit your vet. Take a stool sample with you if you can.
Progressive weight gain
Your dog may end up with mobility issues if they put on too much weight, so watch out for signs of creeping obesity. You should be able to just about feel your dog’s ribs – check your dog's body condition with our chart if you’re unsure and then contact your vet for advice on managing the issue. If it seems that your dog’s tummy in particular has enlarged it could simply be down to bloating, but might also indicate fluid within the abdomen or hormonal problems. If the swelling continues rapidly, however, contact your vet immediately as this is a veterinary emergency and can be potentially fatal.
Excessive thirst or urination
Drinking more than usual or urinating more frequently can sometimes indicate diabetes or kidney problems. If you notice the water bowl is frequently empty and your dog takes a long time to urinate, or urinates more frequently than normal, contact your vet.
Your dog should never strain to urinate. Also, if they squat or cock their leg without producing urine, they produce only a small amount, or the urine is tinged with blood, you should contact your vet.
Just like problems with urination, if you notice your dog straining in a posture to pass faeces or they’ve not passed faeces for several days, then organise a check-up. You should also keep an eye on your dog’s stools to watch out for any changes in colour or consistency.
Change in behaviour
Your dog can’t tell you if something is wrong, but you can pick up clues from their behaviour. If they become withdrawn and less interactive with the family, this could indicate a problem. Equally, if your normally friendly dog resents being picked up or shows any other odd behaviour (twitching or aggression, for example), consult your vet. Treat seizures as a veterinary emergency so go to the vets as soon as possible (contact your vet for advice on the best method of transporting a seizuring dog). If any odd behaviour is intermittent, it can be helpful to video an episode to show your vet.
Skin complaints – hair loss, itching and redness
Your dog’s skin condition is a good indication of their health, and it should be smooth, pink or black (depending on their pigmentation) with smooth, shiny hair. If your dog scratches excessively, pulls at their fur or has scabbing, redness or inflammation, there may be something amiss. A poor hair coat with any scurf or dullness can also indicate an underlying illness in your dog. Any brownish discharge or redness in the ears, or head shaking, should also be investigated by your vet.
Red or swollen gums
Red or swollen gums and plaque (brown material) on the teeth, particularly when accompanied with bad breath, are all indications of oral disease. Affected dogs may also have a reduced appetite, weight loss, eat on only one side of their mouth or drop food while eating. This can be very painful and result in tooth loss so consult your vet as soon as you notice any symptoms.
Rapid or difficult breathing and coughing
If you notice your dog panting excessively, gasping, breathing very quickly, coughing or making noises when they breathe, contact your vet as soon as possible. These symptoms may indicate a problem with their chest, or be symptoms of a common condition such as kennel cough.
Runny eyes or nose
Sneezing, runny eyes and a runny nose might suggest there’s an illness affecting your dog’s upper respiratory tract. Equally, persistent mucus-like discharge, bleeding from the nose, or a change in colour of the nasal planum (the normally black area at the end of the nose) can suggest a health problem. If your dog’s eyes look sore or they’re blinking excessively with redness around the eyes, arrange an appointment with your vet.
Although some slight stiffness can be a natural part of getting older, you should contact your vet if your dog is limping, is slow getting up or lying down, or has trouble going up and down the stairs. These symptoms could suggest that they might have a bone or joint issue, which your vet can help to confirm.
If you notice any other signs of illness in your dog or have any concerns about their health, contact your vet for further advice. Next, find out what to look out for if your dog is suffering from a loss of appetite.