Like us, our pets get sick. While minor concerns, like fleas or an occasional hairball, can be managed at home, other issues are more serious and require a veterinarian’s attention.
The question is, how do you know when to call the veterinarian?
While our dogs and cats can’t tell us in words how they’re feeling, they do show us physical signs of illness. They also tell us how they’re feeling through behavior changes.
Answers to these questions can help you decide when to seek veterinary care.
- Is my pet acting differently?
According to VetStreet.com, any behavior that’s unusual for your dog or cat is reason to call your veterinarian. Lethargy — defined as decreased energy or activity, listlessness or tiredness — is a common sign your dog doesn’t feel well and is associated with a wide range of health issues.
The most common sign that suggests your cat doesn’t feel well may be that he or she is hiding in an out-of-the-way, quiet place. If they are purring, don’t be fooled into thinking all is well. Not only do cats purr when they’re happy or content, but they also purr when they’re in pain or sick.
- Is my pet eating, drinking, urinating or defecating more or less than normal?
Cats and dogs stop eating or reduce how much they eat for many reasons, including stomach upset, pain and stress. If your pet’s lack of appetite lasts for 24 hours or more, you should contact your veterinarian. Cats in particular are at risk for a serious condition, fatty liver syndrome (aka hepatic lipidosis), if they stop eating for more than 36 hours.
Some health concerns, such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid disease) or diabetes, can increase your pet’s appetite. If your dog or cat suddenly seems hungrier than usual, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
Increased thirst and urination often occur in tandem. These signs can signal a number of health concerns, including diabetes and kidney disease. Pets who urinate frequently, strain to urinate or pass blood-tinged urine may have a urinary tract infection, stones or partial blockage. If these signs are seen in a neutered male cat, you’ll want to seek immediate veterinary attention for a urinary obstruction, which is a potentially life-threatening condition.
- Is my pet regurgitating or vomiting?
Dogs and cats regurgitate or vomit on occasion (for example, drinking too much water too fast or expelling hairballs) without being truly sick. If your dog vomits once or twice (assuming only food, bile or water is in the vomit) but is otherwise acting normally, you should be able to withhold water and food for two hours while monitoring him or her at home. But any pet that vomits several times in one day, has no appetite and seems lethargic needs veterinary care. If you’re unsure about what’s appropriate for your best furry friend, don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian.
- Does my pet have diarrhea or constipation?
Changes in diet or water, nervousness, food sensitivities, internal parasites, infections, poisonings and several other health issues can trigger diarrhea in our pets. If your dog or cat has one or two occurrences of loose stool but is otherwise behaving normally, you may be able to monitor him or her at home. But watery diarrhea, diarrhea with blood or diarrhea accompanied by vomiting or other symptoms merits a trip to the veterinary clinic. You’ll also want to speak with your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication to help manage their diarrhea.
Some cats experience constipation. A constipated cat may strain to have a bowel movement; cry or meow when in the litter box; pass only small, hard feces; or pass small amounts of watery feces. In fact, it can sometimes be challenging to tell difference between a constipated cat and a cat with a urinary tract blockage based on their litter box behavior. If you have any concerns about your cat’s litter box activities, consult your veterinarian.
- Is my pet coughing?
Coughing, especially chronic coughing, is a sign that requires evaluation by a veterinarian. That’s because coughing can signal many different problems, including foreign bodies, allergies, heart disease, heartworms, collapsing trachea, asthma, tumors or contagious diseases such as kennel cough and canine influenza. If your pet’s cough persists for more than a day, call your veterinarian. If your pet is coughing violently, has difficulty breathing or has blue-gray colored gums, seek immediate veterinary attention.
- Is my pet scratching, licking or biting at their skin excessively?
Fleas, allergies and certain mange mites are common reasons for dogs and cats to scratch, lick or bite at their skin nearly nonstop. Itchy skin and hair loss are also caused by bacterial and yeast infections and endocrine (hormone-related) diseases. If your pet is scratching frequently, call your veterinarian for an appointment. Your veterinarian can perform a battery of tests to rule in or out the potential causes of your pet’s itching and recommend options to help your pet ditch their itch.
- Is my pet’s gum color off?
A healthy dog’s gums are typically pink, unless they’re darkly pigmented or mottled. A healthy cat’s gums should be a deep pink. In addition, their gums should be moist and not tacky to the touch. If you press on your pet’s gums with your thumb or index finger, the tissue should whiten and then return to pink within two seconds after lifting your finger. Very pale gums or slow color return may indicate anemia, blood loss or poor circulation. Bluish gums can signal a life-threatening lack of oxygen. Bright red gums may be associated with carbon monoxide poisoning or overheating (hyperthermia or heat stress). Yellow gums result from jaundice, which suggests liver disease.
- Has my pet’s weight changed?
A pound up or down isn’t much of a weight change for us. But for a 10-pound dog or 8-pound cat, it’s a lot. Weight gain or loss that can’t be accounted for needs to be investigated by your veterinarian. And sudden or dramatic weight changes must be checked out as they can indicate some serious health issues, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism (under- or overactive thyroid activity, respectively), diabetes or kidney disease.
Know what’s normal for your pet
You know your dog or cat better than anyone. Getting to know your pet’s habits and patterns —such as how they eat, drink, sleep and play — when they’re healthy can help you recognize when something’s not right. You’ll also want to schedule routine wellness exams for your pet so potential issues can be identified when they’re easier or simpler to treat.
If you suspect your pet seems a little off, don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian. Not only is it better to be safe than sorry for your pet’s sake, but it can give you peace of mind that your best furry friend is well.