The symptoms of illness in dogs

The symptoms of illness in dogs

Health & Safety

All caring dog owners know that it is important to be on the lookout for any signs of illness or injury in their dogs, and to check their dog over regularly for any lumps, bumps or problems. But what exactly should you be looking for when you examine your dog, and what type of cues and clues in your dog’s normal behaviour may indicate that something is amiss? How can you tell when something is minor and will resolve itself, and when you might need to take your dog along to the vet?

Identifying good health is the best place to start

In order to be able to spot when something is wrong with your dog or when their health and condition are changing or declining, first of all you need to be able to spot the signs of normal health and behaviour in order to have something to compare it to!

Commonly considered signs of good health in the dog include a good appetite, healthy weight, shiny coat, clean, alert eyes and a general lust for life and interest in the things that are going on around them. It is also important, as well as having a good idea of the general appearance of the healthy dog, to be able to pinpoint your own dog’s specific normal healthy condition, and more information on doing this can be found in our previous article, “Getting to know your dog’s normal healthy parameters.”

If you want to learn more about identifying the symptoms and signs of illness in your dog, read on for our handy checklist.

Loss of appetite

If your dog is normally keen to eat and licks his bowl clean, failing to finish his meals or being less enthusiastic about them than normal can be an indicator of ill health. Before you assume that something is wrong, however, consider if anything has changed that may be putting your dog off his dinner. Have you changed his food recently, to something that he might not find as tasty as his previous meals? Or perhaps the manufacturer has changed the recipe or formulation of their product without you knowing. Try feeding an alternative before assuming something is wrong, and judge your dog’s reactions from there.


If your dog is lame or favouring one leg, this is generally due to an injury or strain, but can also indicate a range of illnesses and conditions such as arthritis and various other developing problems. Check your dog’s legs over for any pain, inflammation or sore spots, and examine the paws thoroughly for any damage to the pads, ingrown claws or lodged grit that may be causing a problem.

Lumps and bumps

Dogs will occasionally take a knock when going about their daily lives, and these will often resolve themselves within a day or two like many minor accidents. But keep an eye out for any lumps or bumps that do not begin to get smaller within a day or so, are hot to the touch, or appear to be causing a disproportionate amount of pain to your dog.

The condition of the coat

A dull, dry coat or one that is shedding a lot of hair is often an indicator of ill health, and will present itself as a side effect of a wide range of illnesses and conditions both minor and major. Check for the presence of fleas, mites and parasites too, to ensure that your dog is not carrying unwelcome passengers, which can also cause problems with the coat and a general loss of condition.

Reduced energy levels and depression

If your dog’s get up and go has got up and gone, it is important to find out why this is. As dogs age, their energy levels will naturally begin to decline, and a dog who is eight or older will usually be a lot more laid back and sedentary than a dog under two years old! Nevertheless, if your dog suddenly begins to lose his lust for life, is reluctant to play or walk and appears generally ‘flat’ and disinterested in the things going on around him, there might be a problem.

Breathing difficulties

Dogs will occasionally suffer from coughs, colds and minor sniffles now and then, just as people will, and these will often go away on their own within a day or so. However, if your dog has any problems breathing; including hyperventilating, having problems drawing breath, discomfort or pain when breathing or appearing to not be getting enough oxygen, consult your vet as a matter of urgency.

Changes in water intake

Over time, you will usually begin to get a feel for roughly how much water your dog drinks in a day, although this will of course vary between summer and winter. If you come to realise that your dog appears to be more thirsty than normal, is always drinking water or cannot seem to quench their thirst no matter how much they drink, this requires further investigation, so pop your dog along to the vet.

Vomiting and diarrhoea

Diarrhoea and/or vomiting is a clear indicator of ill health in the dog, although how much of an issue this is depends on whether it is a one-off event, or severe and/or recurrent. As well as being on the lookout for diarrhoea, take a second now and then to check the consistency of your dog’s stools. They should be dark-ish in colour, solid and not overly hard, and be free from any sign of blood or parasites.


“TPR” is veterinary shorthand for temperature, pulse rate and respiration rate. Learn to identify what the normal “TPR” of your dog is, in order to recognise any deviations from the norm that may indicate that something is amiss. More advice is available in this article.


A discharge from the eyes, ears or nose may require further investigation, particularly is it is prolific, sudden in onset and has either a foul smell or an unusual colour. Often, a simple localised infection is the culprit, but it is important to verify this for sure and get it treated.


If your dog appears to be in pain of any kind, they may demonstrate this by yelping, crying, showing discomfort when touched, or paying particular attention to a certain area of the body. This is of course, not the normal state of affairs for your dog, and requires investigation sooner rather than later.

Inflammation and hot spots

Any inflammation or areas of the skin or body that appear hot compared to the surrounding tissue is worthy of a second look, as this can indicate either an injury or an underlying problem with the joints or muscles. Minor knocks and sprains can cause inflammation, and may go away on their own with rest, but it is important to make a note of them and be alert in case of any recurrences.

If you are in any doubt about any signs or symptoms that your dog is displaying, are unsure about anything or require further advice, contact your veterinary surgery for advice from a vet or veterinary nurse.

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