How to tell when your dog needs to see a vet

How to tell when your dog needs to see a vet

            Dogs can be pretty good at hiding symptoms of disease or injury; partly due to their ancestry and partly driven by their desire to please. As pet owners it can be hard to decide when it’s an emergency; when you can monitor for a day or so; or when a trip to the vets isn’t necessary. Of course prevention is better than cure, so it’s important to take your dog for regular check-ups. Attending check-ups every 6-12 months often enables issues to be detected and dealt with early. In between check-ups, you need to be aware of the warning signs that indicate your dog needs to see a vet.

Signs that your dog needs to see a vet:

Changes in Appetite

Most dogs will have off days every now and then, but if your dog refuses food for more than 24 hours then you should take them to a vet. Similarly, trends are important. So your dog also needs a check-up if you notice that they have been eating less, or more, than usual recently.

Changes in Thirst

Dogs can become dehydrated fairly quickly; so if your dog is drinking less than usual for more than 24 hours, call your vet. On the flip side, an increase in thirst is one of the earliest indicators for many diseases; especially (but not exclusively) in middle aged to older dogs. Short of needing to fill the water bowl more often, it can be hard to notice an increase in thirst. You may notice your dog needing to go out to wee more instead.

Behavioural Changes

If you notice your dog acting out of character, then this may be cause for concern. Lethargy (sleepiness) is often a sign of illness, fever or pain. Whining or whimpering can indicate that your dog is in pain, even if the source of the pain is not obvious. If your dog displays unusual aggression, or avoidance of touch or company, then pain or illness could well be the culprit.

Unexplained Weight Changes

A drop in weight, without your dog being on a diet, needs investigating. Many illnesses can cause weight loss, either suddenly or gradually over time. Surprisingly, weight gain can sometimes be a sign of illness too. It’s a good idea to have regular weigh ins with your vet nurse, to help keep track of any subtle changes.


Dogs will vomit every now and then. Especially those that like to scavenge! Sickness often resolves itself, helped by some bland food. You need to see a vet if your dog is being sick continuously; is vomiting for more than 24 hours; there is blood in the vomit; or they are also lethargic or unwell in themselves.

Diarrhoea or Constipation

Similar to vomiting, most dogs will have loose stools from time to time. Usually they remain bright and it resolves within 48 hours. If your dog has diarrhoea for more than 48 hours then they are at risk of dehydration, and need to see a vet. If they seem unwell in themselves, or you see diarrhoea with blood, then you also need to call your vet.

Constipation can be due to something fairly innocent, such as a diet change. However, it can also be very painful, and some causes are more serious than others. See your vet if your dog is straining to poo, not passing any stools or is passing blood.

Changes in Urination:

Increased urination (weeing) indicates increased thirst, which needs investigating. If you notice your dog struggling to pass urine or that it contains blood, your dog needs a visit to the vets. Try to take a fresh urine sample with you, in a clean container. If your dog is trying to wee but isn’t passing anything, this is an emergency and you should call your vet immediately.

Bad Breath

Many dogs have occasional bad breath. Maybe they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t have (fox poo is a common one!), or been licking their anal glands. However, if you notice that your dog’s breath is bad for a few days or more, this may indicate a problem. They may have dental or gum disease. You may also notice red, inflamed (swollen) gums or tartar build up. There are some illnesses that can cause bad breath too, such as severe kidney disease.

Eye (Ocular) Changes

Eyes are delicate structures and can be very painful when damaged or diseased. Some conditions can also result in loss of vision surprisingly quickly. Signs your dog needs to see a vet include eyes that are: bloodshot; cloudy or hazy; discharging (gunky); closed; bulging; blinking more than usual; squinting or have uneven pupils (the central black parts).

Skin Changes

Some mild skin conditions can often be treated at home, such as fleas or dry skin. If your dog has red, oozing patches of skin; areas of hair loss or they are itchy, then they need a vet check.

New lumps or bumps

Many lumps and bumps will be nothing to worry about, but it’s always safest to get them checked out. If you notice a new lump; an old lump that is growing or changing shape, or a lump that is bleeding, then see your vet.

Laboured or Rapid Breathing

If you notice any changes in your dog’s breathing, you should treat this as an emergency. An increase in effort, fast breathing (especially at rest) and noisy breathing can all be warning signs.

Neurological (Nerve) Signs

Any ‘neurological’ (to do with the nerves) symptoms need to be assessed by a vet as soon as possible. This includes fitting (seizures), a drunken gait (ataxia), twitching, head tilts and dragging of limbs.

Injury or Wounds

If your dog has experienced a serious trauma, then you should get them to the vets as an emergency. Even if they seem fine, since there may still be internal damage or bleeding. Small wounds can sometimes be treated with first aid at home. See your vet if the wound is large, gaping, bleeding excessively, smelly or starts to discharge. Bites from other animals commonly get infected, so it’s a good idea to get these checked by a vet. If your dog is limping, despite a common misconception, they are in pain. So, if the limp is obvious or it doesn’t pass quickly, they need to be seen by a vet.

            Of course this list is not exhaustive. You know your dog better than anyone! If you have a feeling that something isn’t right, trust your gut and make an appointment with your vet. If you aren’t sure, you can call them for advice on whether your dog needs to be seen. Believe me, they would much rather that you be over cautious, than ignore potential warning signs.