Dogs can be real stoics, and it can be hard to tell if they are in pain or feeling poorly. Your best bet is to pay close attention to your dog when she is healthy – note subtle things, like how she holds her body, the quality of her coat, the vibrancy in her eyes – so you can notice when she’s not feeling her best.
Here are some red flags that, depending on the situation, might prompt you to seek out veterinary intervention.
VOMITING AND DIARRHEA. Just like the rest of us, dogs can pick up viruses, or eat something that upsets their stomach. Chances are that yours will eventually experience some intestinal disturbance down the line that will clear up just as quickly as it appeared.
That said, vomiting and/or diarrhea can be symptoms of a number of serious conditions, from an infectious disease like parvovirus to an intestinal blockage. Pay close attention to how often your dog is getting sick, and what the vomit or diarrhea looks like – for instance, do you see blood? When in doubt, head to the vet.
LACK OF APPETITE. I live with a pack of unrepentant chow hounds. They will countersurf, pre-lick the dishwasher contents, basically sell their souls for even a morsel of something edible. When one of them turns down food, I know something is wrong. Very wrong.
If one of my dogs becomes “inappetent,” I watch very closely. Sometimes she truly has eaten something that doesn’t agree with her, but if that’s the case, within a few hours she’ll usually regain her taste for food. If she doesn’t within a reasonable period of time – maximum 24 hours, usually half that, depending on her overall appearance and behavior – it’s off to the vet we go.
Your dog may be more finicky than mine, and so going off food for a day or two might be less of a red flag for you. As always, it’s about knowing your dog, and what’s normal for her.
HIGH FEVER. The only way to confirm that your dog has a fever is to take her temperature. Since thermometer chomps make an oral reading way too impractical, you’ll have to do this rectally. For obvious reasons, designate a particular thermometer for this purpose. (I write the word “DOGS” in big black-marker letters on the clear plastic housing.)
Normal body temperature for a dog is higher than that of a human – between 101 and 102.5 F. One concern if the temperature begins to creep up beyond that is an infection of some kind. A veterinary exam, very likely followed by bloodwork, is a must.
PALE GUMS. We don’t often think of it, but a dog’s gums are an excellent barometer of his health. They should be a nice shade of pink – think bubble gum.
Look at them now, when your dog is feeling fine, to get a sense of what they should look like. When you press your finger on your dog’s gum, it should turn white and then back to pink as the blood refills the tissue. (I’m assuming that your dog is comfortable with this type of handling. If he isn’t, don’t stress either of you out, but do seek out a trainer to work on getting him to accept simple handling and grooming.)
Gums that look white, gray or purple are a sign that something is wrong.
LOOKING “OFF.” This is probably the “squishiest” assessment of all, but arguably one of the most important. You live with your dog day in and out, and you know when he’s “not acting like himself.” It might be something very subtle, like a little mopey-ness in his attitude, or a barely visible hitch in his gait. Don’t undersell your instinct: If you think something is wrong, it probably is.