What To Do When Your Dog Is Sick, According to Vets

By: Alyssa SparacinoUpdated:

what to do when dog is sick: tired beagle on couch
Przemysław Iciak/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

What To Do When Your Dog Is Sick, According to Vets

How many times have you said to yourself, “If only they could tell me what’s wrong,” when it comes to trying to figure out why your dog might be acting strangely? Maybe you thought you glimpsed a limp during a walk, they seem a little less interested in their favorite toy, or maybe they snubbed their nose at dinner tonight.

Whatever the reason for feeling like something’s off—call it doggy parent intuition—don’t doubt yourself, advises Dr. Adam Lancaster, DVM, DACVECC, and Manager of Telehealth and ER Development and the emERge training program at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Southfield, Michigan.

“Although they can’t speak in the general sense of the word, their behavior can give us important clues as to how they’re feeling,” says Dr. Lancaster.

Here’s more about the warning signs to watch out for, how to determine if it’s an emergency, and what to do when your dog is sick, according to vets.

Common Signs Your Dog Is Sick

It can be difficult to know if your dog is sick, for a few reasons.
what to do when dog is sick: sleepy Beagle on couch
Photo: Przemysław Iciak/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Firstly, dogs don’t always show signs of not feeling well in the early days of sickness.

“Many animals don’t show signs of illness, or only show mild illness initially, but then will get sick over what seems like a short period of time,” says Dr. Lancaster.  

Secondly, some of the most common symptoms dogs can present with are not specific to one condition or disease, which makes diagnosing the issue tricky, as Dr. Lancaster explains. These common symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite or anorexia
  • Lethargy (overall tiredness or malaise)

While dogs’ core body temperature runs hotter than humans’, a fever is still a good indication that your dog might be sick. But how can you tell if your dog has a fever, especially if they naturally feel warm to the touch?

For one thing, “Dogs with a fever will likely act sick,” says Dr. Lancaster, nodding to the common symptoms shared above. So, watch for these physical or behavioral changes.

However, to be sure, you can use a rectal thermometer or an ear thermometer, says Dr. Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ, a veterinarian at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital in Greeley, Colorado.

A normal temperature of a dog is between 99°F and 102.5°F, so anything above or below that is concerning. Rectal thermometers have been shown to be the most accurate for dogs, but your pooch may not love the experience and there is potential risk of injury if inserted incorrectly, says Dr. Lancaster.

Aside from the general sluggishness, upset stomach, and bowel movement issues, there are other more specific symptoms that can indicate problems in certain areas of a dog’s body, explains Dr. Wooten. They include but are not limited to:

  • Upper respiratory: a harsh, hacking cough and discharge in the eyes and nose (signs of kennel cough or a doggy cold) and panting, sneezing, fever, and blue or grayish gums
  • Skin: excessive licking to repeated areas, hair loss, patches of raw skin, bleeding nails
  • Musculoskeletal: limping, lameness in one or more legs
  • Nervous system: seizures, dragging hind limbs
  • GI or stomach: bloated abdomen, frequent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, not eating for more than a day
  • Eyes: squinting, swelling, cloudiness, redness, discharge
  • Cardiovascular: coughing, blue dog gums, rapid heart rate
  • Urinary: difficult or painful urination, blood in urine
  • Ears: malodor, excessive head shaking or scratching, head tilt, or circling
  • Dental: dropping food, swelling around the muzzle, excessive drooling

What To Do When Your Dog Is Sick

While trying to determine whether your dog is sick can be a bit of a mystery, what to do when you think they are under the weather is much clearer.

Simply put, assess your dog’s condition, determine if you’re dealing with an emergency or not (more on this below) and then act swiftly.

If your dog is showing mild symptoms—such as mild vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased appetite—offer a bland diet, such as boiled chicken and white rice. Wait 24 hours to see if there’s any improvement, says Dr. Lancaster.

“If there’s no improvement within that time frame or if symptoms worsen, you should call your veterinarian or seek care at an after-hours emergency clinic,” he adds.

For true emergencies, get immediate care at the closest clinic.

Tip: Take a moment in the chaos to call the clinic to let the vet know you’re on your way, so they can expect you and prepare.

When Is My Dog’s Sickness Considered an Emergency?

So, how do you know when it’s time to hightail it to the nearest vet clinic? Certain symptoms are more concerning than others, says Dr. Wooten.

For example, excessive licking or ear scratching can be safely monitored at home initially, whereas seizures or blood in your dog’s urine or stool are clear emergencies, and you should go immediately to the vet for medical attention, she says.

Other clinical signs that indicate emergency care is needed, according to Dr. Lancaster, include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pale or blue gums
  • Acute collapse
  • Profuse or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea
  • Changes in mental status (non-responsive or minimally responsive)
  • New or prolonged seizure activity

Still, in some cases or with other symptoms—consider, for example, is your dog panting because it’s hot outside or because they’re in pain?—it can be very difficult to know if you’re dealing with a true emergency, Dr. Lancaster says.  

“The best advice I have is: If you think it’s an emergency it probably is, and you should seek immediate veterinary care,” says Dr. Lancaster.

After all, you know your dog’s behavior best, and they can’t speak up for themselves.

How To Make Your Home More Comfortable for Your Sick Dog

Once your dog returns home from the vet clinic or is on the road to recovery from being sick, it’s natural that you’ll want to ensure they are calm and happy as they get better.

If applicable, you’ll want to follow any discharge instructions given to you by the vet, such as exercise limitations and medication treatments.

You’ll also need to know if your dog is or was contagious. The good news here is that, because vaccines are highly effective, when dogs are vaccinated, it significantly reduces the risk of some of the more common serious diseases in dogs being easily spread to other pets, according to Dr. Lancaster.

However, “If your dog [has been] diagnosed with a communicable disease such as parvovirus or leptospirosis, care should be taken to thoroughly disinfect areas in the house that may be contaminated with urine or feces,” he says. This includes:

  • Washing their dog beds, blankets, or your bedding if they sleep with you.
  • Disinfecting any floors or carpets that may have been exposed to bathroom accidents.
  • Washing their dog food and water bowls in hot soapy water.
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Infectious disease diagnoses, such as the flu or ringworm (which is also contagious to humans), also mean your dog will have to be isolated from any other pets in the household, so confirm with your vet how long that quarantine should last, adds Dr. Wooten.

From there, do what any pet parent does best: Make your dog as comfortable and cozy as possible:

  • Give them a comfortable, quiet area to rest.
  • Allow them to curl up in their bed whenever they want.
  • Bring them their favorite toy or KONG.
  • Keep them mentally stimulated with puzzles as they get their strength back.

These are all great ways to make your dog comfortable as they recuperate from being sick.

Bonus: As long as they have no food restrictions, giving them their favorite treat, bone or chew is a sure way to make them feel more like themselves.

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How To Help Prevent Your Dog From Getting Sick

Experts agree, the greatest defense against some of the most dangerous dog illnesses your pet can get are vaccines.

Stay up to date on core vaccines, such as rabies, parvovirus and distemper, especially in young dogs or dogs who have a lot of exposure to other dogs or cats, says Dr. Wooten. Then, “Ask your vet about non-core vaccines that may be appropriate for your pet.”

“One of the reasons that animals don’t suffer significantly from infectious diseases is that vaccinations have reduced the incidence of severe disease from common infectious organisms (bacteria and viruses),” says Dr. Lancaster. “Vaccines are one of the best ways to protect your dog from serious infectious disease.”

To prevent your dog from getting sick, you’ll want to keep them away from other unvaccinated animals until they are fully vaccinated with the appropriate vaccines themselves.  

Other ways to keep your dog from getting sick and generally maintain your pet’s health, according to Dr. Wooten, include:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight (or get them on a weight loss plan if they are overweight).
  • Feed them a balanced, high-quality diet.
  • Maintain their oral health with regular brushing and professional teeth cleanings.
  • Make sure they are drinking water to stay hydrated.
  • Provide them with ample exercise opportunities.
  • Have them spayed or neutered at the appropriate age, as determined by your vet.
  • Engage them in mentally stimulating activities.
  • Consider supplements to promote healthy skin, joints and internal organs.
  • Talk to your vet about gastropexy if you have a deep chested dog, which may minimize the risk of life-threatening bloat.
The bottom line when it comes to knowing what to do when your dog is sick is to act fast. As a pet parent, you are your dog’s best advocate, so speak up often and early to your vet if you think they could be feeling ill, and have an emergency action plan in case of any critical care needs. You and your pup will be thrilled if it turns out to be nothing, but preparedness will help you feel empowered just in case it’s something more. Next, learn more about COVID and pets.
Expert input provided by Dr. Adam Lancaster, DVM, DACVECC, Manager of Telehealth and ER Development and the emERge training program at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Southfield, Michigan; and Dr. Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ, a veterinarian at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital in Greeley, Colorado.


By: Alyssa SparacinoUpdated: