How do you know your pet is ill?

I mentioned in my last article something all vets hear pretty frequently from owners: “Wouldn’t it be so much easier if they could talk?”

I wrote about how this affects the difficult decisions pet owners face at the end of a beloved pet’s life. Since then I have been asked to elaborate on just how it is that pets can communicate when they are not feeling 100 per cent.

Both cats and dogs, despite being well and truly domesticated, still retain more than enough of a survival instinct to often feel it is safer to hide the signs of illness than it is to let them show. In addition to this, the body is remarkable in its ability to compensate for certain dysfunctions and the outward signs of illness can follow well after the onset of the problem. Add to this the simple fact that pets, especially active dogs, have such a great love of life that they will often tolerate discomfort just to keep doing what they love.

When you or I fell unwell, we know that something is not right and we are best off getting at least some rest, if not taking ourselves to the doctor. Imagine if you did nothing at all about feeling unwell until a friend or relative told you that you didn’t look well, or until you got so sick anyone could tell?

Every pet is different in terms of the things we advise you to watch for at home to pick up signs of illness as early as possible. The key is having a good sense of what is normal for your pet. This is especially true for appetite, water intake, and energy level. I would recommend calling your vet if you notice any changes in these areas that last longer than 24 hours. Your pet may have a slow day after an especially vigourous one, for instance, but should be back to normal the next day.

In the case of water intake, watch as much (if not more) for increases in water intake as you do decreases. As an average guide most adult pets drink around 60 mL of water per kilogram of body weight per day. That’s about four cups a day for a 70-pound Lab, for example. Increases may indicate, among other things, kidney disease or diabetes.

Closely related to appetite is the presence of diarrhea and vomiting. While diarrhea on its own is more often than not related to a self-limiting problem (e.g. eating something nasty off the beach) if it persists beyond a day or two, or if it is accompanied by other abnormal signs then you should at least give your vet a call.

One of the most common and challenging things that many owners need help identifying is the presence or absence of discomfort. This is also an area where cats and dogs differ significantly.

Not counting the obvious signs such as limping, yelping or crying, what can be some of the indicators that a pet is in discomfort? One of the key things to watch for is a change in the way a pet behaves in ‘normal’ situations. A dog with hip pain may still chase a ball or a squirrel but hesitate before negotiating the stairs or jumping in the car. A cat that usually sleeps half the day in a few different spots may start sleeping more and changing spots less. Cats may start defecating near but not in the litterbox if it’s uncomfortable to make the big step into the box. I would encourage an owner to consider any of these changes from normal as potential indicators of discomfort even if the pet seems fine at other times. Often pets in more significant pain will have an increase in their breathing rate and in some cases will drink more water. Sometimes if a pet is feeling a localized pain, the only clue they will give is to bite and chew at the area, which is often confused for itchiness or even a behavioural problem.

Changes in breathing, and in a dog’s bark, are also things to watch for. The most sensitive time to pick up any changes in a pet’s respiration is when they are asleep or at complete rest. Get a sense of how many breaths per minute your cat or dog takes at complete rest – it’s usually pretty consistent and should not change much. An increase in rate could indicate that your pet is having respiratory difficulty and this should be investigated as soon as possible. As a rule, cats should never breathe with their mouths open. The rare exception seems to be kittens after brief but intense exercise, but I would always recommend calling your vet if you see your cat panting like a dog.

In general the key is to pay close attention to the behaviors and actions of your pet, their food and water intake, as well as their elimination (stool consistency, urine volume, etc.), their activity level and type, and even their typical level of social interaction.

It’s very important to have a good sense of what is normal for your pet. Consider any variation from this as potentially an early sign of illness. If you’re unsure, call your vet. We field many calls every day and will happily help you sort through which situations can be monitored at home and which should be investigated.


Dr. Nigel Skinner is a veterinarian practicing in the Beach –

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