This list of warning signs, when combined with good, down-home common sense, can act as a guideline as to when to call the vet for your dog.
“Doc, I think my dog Chico is hurt. Can you come over?”
I reluctantly rolled out from under the steamy covers and collected my thoughts. Probably Chico was fine, maybe he had a sprain or strain, or was suffering from the beginnings of arthritis. “Give him an aspirin and call me in the morning,” I fantasized replying on the phone. “I’ll be right over,” I actually said. I warmed up my truck, slugged down a caffeinated drink, loaded up my vet boxes and headed over.
Warning Signs of Serious Disease in Dogs
It is not always easy to know when your dog is sick. Farm dogs especially, with their partiality toward dead animals, horse manure and cow pies, are prone to bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, but it can be hard to sort out when a visit to or from the vet is necessary.
This list of warning signs, when combined with good, down-home common sense, can act as a guideline as to when your dog requires medical attention. While most dogs will get through most bouts of ill health without a lot of intervention, other times an immediate response can save a pet’s life.
Protracted vomiting and diarrhea
There are at least 63 causes of vomiting in dogs, but the most common cause is simply known as dietary indiscretion. Dogs who get into the trash, eat animal carcasses or drink pond water all can end up with very dicey gastrointestinal tracts.
Other more serious causes of vomiting and diarrhea include diseases of the pancreas, liver or kidney, or other primary intestinal diseases such as a blockage, parasites, cancer, ulcers or inflammation. Your veterinarian may need laboratory tests and X-rays to sort these out.
The first important criteria is to confirm that your dog is drinking water and able to hold it down without vomiting. Then, evaluate your dog’s attitude: Is she lethargic, lacking appetite and not interested in her usual activities? This can be a sign of serious underlying disease. Finally, note whether the vomiting and diarrhea appear to be worsening or fail to improve in 24 hours. Without improvement in 24 to 36 hours, it is time for a visit with your veterinarian to rule out serious disease.
Lift up your dog’s upper lip and notice the gum color. It should be a vibrant pink. An early warning sign of serious disease is pale gums. Anemia, caused by a lack of red blood cells, will give your dog’s gums a ghostly pallor. Anemia has many causes, and your vet will have to sort this out.
Usually pale gums are accompanied by lethargy. Dogs who eat rodent poison can start to bleed slowly internally, and pale gums would be the first sign a dog owner would notice. Dogs who are bleeding from their spleen may be fine one minute, then collapse the next as the bleeding worsens. Any sign of pale gums warrants an emergency visit to the veterinarian.
Exercise intolerance or collapse
Most dogs enjoy a lively existence, especially on the farm. Dog owners are usually well aware of their dogs’ propensity to relentlessly chase balls, critters or cars. Often a decrease in activity can be dismissed as old age or arthritis. However, exercise intolerance can be a sign of heart problems or other serious disease.
Older dogs will naturally slow down as their joints become arthritic. However, loss of energy or an episode of collapse in a normally active young or middle-age dog should be investigated. It could be something as serious as a life-threatening heart arrhythmia or heat stroke.
A persistent cough can be a warning sign of serious disease. Heartworm infection, canine influenza, heart failure, allergic bronchitis, lung tumors and congestive heart failure all can cause coughing that extends beyond the expected course of a short-term infection. Get any cough that lasts longer than a few days checked out.
A tympanic, or drum-like, swelling of the abdomen that comes on quickly can spell big trouble in deep-chested dogs like the Doberman, German shepherd or Great Dane. GDV (gastric dilatation and volvulus) is a twisting of the stomach that can occur for unknown reasons and results in a surgical emergency. Without prompt attention, a GDV will result in a loss of blood supply to vital organs and a painful death.
Smaller dogs can get serious enlargement of their abdomens from internal bleeding, liver failure or severe hormonal disease. Sometimes, astute dog owners can notice a “fluid wave” in the belly that indicates the presence of abdominal fluid, none of it good. Always get it checked out.
Loss of appetite/loss of weight
Dogs love to eat, and they usually will find their way to the food bowl. Loss of appetite always should be looked at as a serious risk factor for underlying disease. If your dog is also losing weight, be concerned.
Unexplained weight loss is always a reason for a health evaluation. Everything from cancer to kidney failure can lead to weight loss. The first place a dog starts to lose weight is over the hip bones – if the flesh has a hollowed out appearance, start checking your dog’s weight monthly, or more often, to make sure it is not creeping downward.
Difficulty urinating, urinating blood
Urinary tract infections are common in female dogs, while urinary obstructions are more common in male dogs. Crystals can form in the urine, causing the formation of small stones that can block urine outflow.
Although urinary tract infections are not life-threatening, urinary blockages are. Difficulty urinating, blood in the urine or inability to urinate, in a male dog, is always an indication for a veterinary visit. Urinary tract infections in female dogs usually will not clear up without the assistance of antibiotics.
A seizure is a very short episode, usually less than two minutes, when a dog will lose awareness, fall over, start paddling and have muscle tremors all over. Seizures have many causes, which often must be sorted out with blood testing, but in all cases they should not be ignored.
Any seizure that is not treated can lead to a cluster of seizures, and finally status-epilepticus, which is just as ominous as it sounds. This is a continuous seizure where the body temperature can go as high as 110ºF. This is usually fatal.
Although veterinarians cannot always determine the cause of seizures, they can usually control them. Sometimes dog owners will not witness the seizure, but see evidence of it: urinary accidents, objects knocked over, bumping in the night. If you see or suspect seizures in your dog, see your veterinarian immediately.
Lethargy in unspayed females
Be aware of the risk of uterine infection (pyometra) in a female dog that has not been spayed. In general, any sign of illness in an unspayed female is considered a uterine infection until proven otherwise. Early signs of pyometra include lethargy, increased water intake, loss of appetite and a white-colored vaginal discharge.
Uterine infections are a surgical emergency and require immediate removal of the uterus and ovaries. If not treated promptly, the uterus will rupture, causing a severe abdominal infection that often is fatal.
Inability to walk, dragging back legs
Dogs who are suddenly unable to get up and walk, or are dragging their back legs, usually have suffered a spinal cord injury. This is usually the result of trauma, such as getting hit by a car or kicked by a horse, but can also occur in the form of a blood clot in the blood supply to the spinal cord.
A dog’s recovery – and the pet’s chances of walking again – depend on prompt treatment. In general, dogs who cannot feel any pain in their toes will require surgery, while those who can at least drag themselves around may get better with medical treatment. In both instances, it is important not to wait.
Epistaxis, unexplained bleeding
Nosebleeds may seem innocuous enough, but when the bleeding does not stop, it can indicate some kind of clotting problem with the blood. The most common cause of uncontrolled bleeding in rural dogs is the ingestion of rat or mice poison such as D-Con.
Dogs love the smell and taste of these products, but they’re as deadly for the dog as for the rat. It takes three to five days before the D-Con type of product causes bleeding.
The bleeding can be either internal or apparent, as in a nose bleed. In any event, if there is any possibility of rat or mice bait ingestion, your dog must be treated immediately. An antidote for anticoagulants, Vitamin K, is very effective, but if a dog has already started to bleed, she may require blood transfusions until the Vitamin K starts to work.
Increased water intake and urination
Be on the lookout for changes in your dog’s drinking and urination habits. Empty water bowls, urinary accidents and frequent trips outside could indicate problems in the hormonal systems that control water balance.
Diseases such as Cushing disease, a disease of the adrenal gland, diabetes or kidney failure can cause loss of the ability to concentrate urine and the increased need to drink to replace it.
Some young dogs just have a propensity to drink lots of water. Although they may drive you crazy with their constant lapping and trips outside, their issue is considered more behavioral. Never restrict a dog’s water intake, however, since it is usually a normal physiologic response to whatever imbalance is occurring in her body.
Skin masses, lumps and bumps
Many dogs develop lumps and bumps as they get older, and these cancer warning signs should not be ignored. Fortunately, it is easy to get skin masses checked out by your veterinarian with a simple procedure known as a fine needle aspirate. Your veterinarian will simply slide a needle into the mass, push the contents out onto a slide and view it through a microscope.
Although many skin masses are lipomas (benign fatty tumors), some of them will be malignant, such as melanomas or mast cell tumors. As with tumors in people, earlier removal correlates with a better outcome and less chance of spread to major organs. Never just “keep an eye on” a skin mass or lump – it could be a slowly growing time bomb for your dog.
Lacerations and bite wounds
Finally, we get to the reason for the midnight phone call. Dogs who get sliced by barbed wire or punctured with bite wounds may seem fine initially. Many dog owners may simply clean up the wound, reasoning that their dog will heal up fine.
However, as infections settle in, dogs can become feverish and experience great pain. Potent bacteria can seep into the bloodstream, causing a body-wide infection. Thorough wound cleaning, under anesthesia, is usually necessary to get these wounds to heal properly and avoid significant pain and serious illness.
Brisk bleeding that tends to spurt can be a sign of an arterial bleeder, which must be stopped as soon as possible with direct pressure while you get to your veterinarian.
I rang the bell and was greeted with Chico barking and running up to the door. As I opened the door, Chico leaped through the air and latched onto my jeans. He hung there as if he had lockjaw, as his teeth sunk deeper into my inner thigh. He was hurting, and he was not happy to have a late-night visitor.
My mouth froze into paralyzed silence as I tried to tell the owner of my distress. As Chico’s teeth went deeper, my mouth opened wider, still frozen in silence. Chico’s owner came to the door and looked surprised to see him hanging from my jeans, dangling like a bat in a cave.
Chico finally released his jaws, and, satisfied with his handiwork, slowly trotted to the back of the house. “Hello,” I finally managed, as I hobbled into the house with my box of vet supplies. “Let’s take a look at Chico.”
Chico had a nasty laceration in his groin area, which I was able to clean and suture up – after I sedated him. I left with a bruise that I still have many years later – in roughly the same location as the wound on Chico – an annoying reminder of a night interrupted.
Freelance writer, emergency veterinarian and pet-owner Dr. Jon Geller lives with his family in Fort Collins, Colorado.