How to Recognize and Treat a Sick Dog

A sick pup is the last thing any owner wants to deal with, but knowing how to tell if your dog is sick and when they are in need of emergency help is important. Here are 17 signs your pooch may be feeling under the weather.


Signs of Illness in Dogs

Not Eating

Dogs may suddenly stop eating for a number of reasons, including upset stomach, stress, and if they are experiencing pain. If your pup refuses a meal, try enticing them with canned dog food or warmed broth. If they still won’t eat after a day or two, it’s time to visit the vet.

Excessive Thirst

Poisoning, certain medications, and a number of chronic diseases can all cause excessive thirst. If your pup is drinking more water than normal and increased activity or a hot day isn’t to blame, it is a good idea to contact your vet. Other signs of illness such as a tight stomach may indicate a more severe problem.

Hair Loss or Itchy Skin

Excessive itching or hair loss can be caused by a number of things but is rarely cause for an emergency trip to the vet. Parasites, skin infections, and allergies can all cause itching and hair loss. Make sure you trim your dog’s hair regularly to reduce flea by using the right tools. Or if you believe your pup has a food allergy, you may want to try one of these best dog foods for allergies.

Rough or Dry Coat

Poor coat condition is usually a sign of poor nutrition. This may be caused by a digestive disease or by a low-quality diet. If your pup suffers from a dry or brittle coat, you may want to check out our list of the best dog foods for shedding. If a diet change doesn’t solve the problem, it’s time to talk to your vet.

Decreased Activity

A sudden change in activity level is usually a clear sign of a dog that is not feeling well. Decreased activity or lethargy can be a symptom of infection, pain, or chronic disease. When to take a dog to the vet when they show decreased activity will depend on how sudden and dramatic the change is.

Unusual Stool

Diarrhea is a common issue in many dogs and is not a cause for concern unless it is frequent, long-lasting, or if the stool contains blood. Unusual stool can be caused by changes in diet, medications, infections, and disease. Feeding bland boiled chicken and rice may help, but if not, it’s best to contact your vet.

Urinating More/Less Frequently

Dogs who are unable to urinate may be experiencing kidney problems or a bladder stone while dogs who are peeing frequently may have a UTI or chronic disease like diabetes. If your dog is experiencing other symptoms, pain, or the issue persists, call the vet as they will know best how to treat a sick dog with urinary issues.

Sudden Weight Loss

Rapid weight loss may be a sign of a larger health problem such as diabetes, digestive issues, infection, or cancer. If your dog is showing no other symptoms, try increasing their food for a few days or switch to a higher quality food such as one of these. If they keep losing weight or show other signs of illness, call your vet.


Like humans, dogs can get viruses that cause coughing and other respiratory issues. But coughing may also be a sign of a serious illness like a severe heartworm infection or lung cancer. If your dog is coughing it is a good idea to have them looked at by a vet sooner rather than later.

When to Take Your Dog to the Vet Immediately?


Seizures can be a sign of poisoning, head injury, or epilepsy. Most seizures resolve on their own and may not happen again, but if a seizure lasts longer than four minutes or your dog has multiple seizures in one day, it could signal a serious emergency. Take your dog to the nearest open vet to be cared for by a professional.

Cloudy or Red Eyes

Cloudy eyes are rarely an emergent condition and are usually caused by cataracts. However, a red or swollen eye is likely a sign of injury or severe infection. Untreated injuries and infections can lead to blindness and even the loss of the eye, so it is best to have your dog seen by a vet right away.

Take a look at this article for more information on dog eye problems.

Breathing Problems

A dog that is struggling to breathe is almost always experiencing a life-threatening emergency. Inability to catch their breath could be a symptom of trauma, throat blockage, severe infection, cancer, or cardiac problems. Try to keep your dog calm and keep their airway open and get them to the vet ASAP.

Swollen Abdomen

In the most severe cases, swollen abdomen is a sign of bloat, a fatal condition that can kill a healthy dog in less than two hours. If your dog shows symptoms like restlessness, unproductive vomiting, or looking back at their stomach, and their abdomen feels tight, take them to the emergency vet immediately.

Bloody Diarrhea or Vomiting

As mentioned in the dog symptom checker above, bloody diarrhea is often a cause for an emergency vet visit. Blood in the stool or vomit can be a sign of stomach hemorrhage, severe infection, or poisoning. Stress can also cause some dogs to experience bloody stool. To be safe, take your dog to be seen by a vet.

Open Wounds

Injuries caused by accidents, trauma, or dog fights require medical attention so they can be properly cleaned, sutured, and so your dog can get antibiotics. Wounds that are not properly cleaned may get infected, which can lead to problems with healing or even lead to sepsis, a deadly condition.


Like humans, dogs may limp due to a minor injury such as sore muscles or a slight sprain. But if your dog comes up with a severe limp, is in obvious pain, or can’t put any weight on the limb, it is best to take them to the vet. Treatment for these injuries can be expensive enough to leave many owners wondering, “How much should I spend on a sick dog?”

Severe Pain

It can be difficult to diagnose pain in dogs since they can’t talk, but many dogs will show they are in pain by hiding, acting abnormally, or becoming unusually aggressive. Running your hands gently over your dog’s body can help you determine the origin of the pain, but often a vet is required to pinpoint the problem.

If you’re wondering what you can give your dog for pain, take a look at our answer here

Keep Your Pup Healthy!

If in doubt, call your vet! Quick action in response to signs of a sick dog can be the difference between life and death.

Last but not least, if you’re worried about how to protect your furry friend during this time of uncertainty relating to COVID-19, check out our article on COVID-19 & Pets: What You Need To Know to find the answer for all common questions concerning pets and coronavirus.

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