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Spotting health problems in dogs

How much easier our lives would be if our dogs could simply tell us when they aren't well? And if they could describe their symptoms, diagnosing their illnesses would be a snap for veterinarians! Unfortunately, as pet owners we must be watchful for the subtle (and not so subtle) signs and symptoms of illness in our canine companions.

To provide a complete guide to differential diagnosis (pinpointing one cause among many possible causes) is beyond what time and space allow here. However, we can offer some basic information on common symptoms and their underlying disorders to help you decide when it's time to take your dog to the vet.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

One of the most obvious signs that your dog is in distress is severe or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea. While vomiting alone is not indicative of any one disorder, it may indicate the presence of a range of conditions—from food poisoning or parvovirus to diabetes or allergies. Noting the onset of vomiting, along with any accompanying symptoms, and providing this information to your pet's vet can help speed accurate diagnosis of the underlying condition. 

Similarly, diarrhea can be indicative of many of the same disorders and should be taken seriously if severe or prolonged. Also, if you note your dog is passing dark stools, it may be indicative of blood in the feces and could signal constipation or a gastrointestinal infection. These symptoms should be reported to your vet, along with any other accompanying changes in your dog's behavior.

Lethargy and Loss of Appetite

By themselves, or in combination with other symptoms, lethargy and loss of appetite can warn of serious underlying conditions. If your dog refuses food for two consecutive days, they should be seen by a vet—as loss of appetite can signal the presence of heart disease, Lyme disease or even rabies. Lethargy can be a sign of a parasitic infection (such as tapeworms, hookworms, roundworms, or whipworms), but could also indicate heart disease, kidney disease, or an orthopedic issue such as arthritis. It is important to report each symptom present to help your veterinarian pinpoint a diagnosis.

Sudden or Dramatic Weight Loss

As in humans, a sudden drop in weight can often be a sign of serious underlying illness. In dogs, the culprit may range from a simple dental problem or a treatable parasitic infection, to heart disease or even cancer. Your dog's vet has the tools and tests necessary for making the right diagnosis.

Breathing Problems

Because dogs have a smaller lung capacity than do humans, any respiratory problem in canines can progress quickly to a life-threatening condition and should be taken very seriously. Bronchitis, pneumonia, lungworm, heart disease, and airway obstruction can each interfere with a dog's ability to breathe. Respiratory difficulties in your dog should be assessed by a vet as soon as possible. Note: Brachycephalic breeds, like pugs or bulldogs, often have a hard time with exercise and stimulation due to their anatomical structure (i.e. flat-nose).

Excessive Drinking or Urination / Inability to Defecate or Urinate

Polydipsia (excessive drinking of water) and polyuria (excessive urination) can indicate serious and potentially life-threatening kidney disease. Similarly, a dog's inability to expel wastes from its body is equally serious and can quickly put your pet at risk for kidney failure or sepsis. These symptoms should be regarded with the utmost seriousness and warrant an immediate visit to the veterinarian.

Some of these common symptoms and their underlying disorders may seem to paint a grim picture, but the vast number of canine health problems can be treated and managed with proper veterinary care and covered by dog insurance. The critical element in most cases is time, so if you notice that your dog is experiencing any of the symptoms outlined here, schedule a visit to your veterinarian.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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