When to take your dog to the vet: 10 signs your dog needs medical attention

December 23, 2023 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Dog out on a woodland walk

Your dog is a beloved member of the family, so it’s natural to want to do everything possible to keep them happy, healthy, and safe.

Preventative care, such as vaccinations and annual wellness exams, is crucial.

However, there are also things you need to be on the lookout for in between these regular visits.

So how do you know when it is appropriate to seek a veterinarian’s help? Here are ten warning signs that you should familiarize yourself with to know when you should take your dog to the veterinarian.

Let's begin with a quick note: This guide aims to help you spot potential signs of trouble in your dog. Remember, it's not a comprehensive list of illnesses, and you know your dog better than anyone. If you notice any unusual behavior, it's always best to consult your vet first.

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Your dog's eating habits change abruptly

If you notice any change in how your dog is (or isn't) eating her food, this warrants a veterinarian trip for a checkup.

A sudden loss of interest in food or treats could indicate a digestive problem to a more severe issue, such as an intestinal obstruction from a foreign object that would require surgical intervention.

If your dog loves to explore the world with her mouth,  you may want to consider modifying her environment (pick up belongings, place candles, plants, and books out of reach, etc.) to prevent any potential for obstructions.

In the case of counter surfers, you’ll want to keep counters clear at all times to prevent your dog from grabbing foreign objects and ingesting them. Some dogs may go outside and eat rocks or other things, so a basket muzzle placed on the dog would help prevent this from happening.

Other causes that may result in a decreased appetite may include an illness or infection, cancer, or a severe dental disease. Due to the many possibilities affecting a dog’s appetite, you must seek veterinary care to rule out these potential causes.

Your dog suddenly loses energy

If your dog is more lethargic than usual or has decreased energy over a few days, it may indicate something is causing your dog to feel ill or be in pain.

Systemic diseases, infections, and injuries can all cause lethargy, so it is essential to seek veterinary care to rule out the possible causes. By having annual blood testing performed on your dog, you can establish a baseline, potentially catch early signs of systemic diseases and infections, and be proactive in addressing these problems.

Your dog suddenly loses weight

Any sudden or chronic weight loss is cause for concern.

Weight loss in dogs may indicate a systemic disease, gastrointestinal disorder, or something such as cancer.  A veterinarian should evaluate a dog with unexplained weight loss to make the most appropriate diagnostic and treatment recommendations.

There are many causes of weight loss, but being proactive and having annual blood testing performed, in addition to an annual wellness examination, may help identify problems early on before they become too severe.

Your dog is drinking too much (or too little) water

A change in your dog’s water intake (that isn’t heat- or temperature-related) can indicate several things.

Drinking excessively may be due to conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or an infection.

Decreased water intake may suggest that your dog is not feeling well due to an illness or infection. A veterinarian should evaluate your dog so that appropriate testing can be performed to determine the cause of the decreased or increased water intake.

Your dog is having difficulty breathing

Every dog will pant and breathe more rapidly after strenuous exercise or on a warm day.

However, dogs should not have difficulty breathing after they’ve rested or returned to cooler temperatures. If your dog continues to experience rapid breathing, shortened breath, or coughing and wheezing, you should seek veterinary care immediately so that the veterinarian can evaluate your dog to see if there is something serious causing these symptoms.

Rapid or difficult breathing may be caused by respiratory infections, congestive heart failure, or even cancer.

Your dog is vomiting or has changes in stool

If your dog vomits or has diarrhea once, it isn’t necessarily a reason to seek emergency veterinary care, especially if the problem resolves quickly and your dog remains otherwise normal.

However, chronic vomiting and diarrhea can indicate gastrointestinal disease (such as inflammatory bowel disease), an intestinal blockage, infection, or other serious systemic diseases. It is also possible that your dog ate something poisonous if they have persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea.

So, when should you take your dog to the vet with vomiting or diarrhea?

If your dog experiences multiple bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, and especially if they appear lethargic, you should seek immediate veterinary care so that the dog receives the most appropriate diagnostic and treatment recommendations.

Your veterinarian will also make sure they receive fluids so they do not become dehydrated as a result.

Fecal and blood testing may be recommended annually by your veterinarian so that early changes in your pet’s health can be detected, potentially treated, and/or managed before they become more concerning.

Your dog is suddenly wobbly

If you begin to notice changes in your dog’s gait, movement, or balance, you should have a veterinarian examine her right away. While limping could be as simple as a sprained tendon or ligament, difficulty maintaining balance and uncoordinated movements could indicate more serious neurological problems.

Your dog is suddenly aggressive

If at any time your dog’s behavior changes and she becomes aggressive or reclusive, it may be an indication that something is wrong. Like humans, dogs can exhibit aggression or reclusiveness when feeling ill or in pain.

Do not assume that a sudden increase in barking, growling, or other aggressive actions is a behavioral problem.

Schedule an appointment with a veterinarian so that your dog can be examined for signs of illnesses or injuries before working with a professional trainer to address the issue.

Your dog is crying in pain (for no obvious reason)

If you pet your dog and she moves away from your hand or winces, you know that something may be wrong, and she may be dealing with something painful.

In this case, you will want to call a veterinarian to help determine the cause of the pain. Your pet might need x-rays of the painful area in addition to a complete physical examination.

Osteoarthritis can also be a source of pain. It is essential to maintain annual wellness exams so that any problems with mobility or episodes of discomfort can be discussed with your veterinarian and addressed at that time.

By being proactive and addressing these problems early on, joint supplementation and pain medications can be prescribed to help comfort your dog.

Your dog's eyes have discharge or redness

Discharge from the eyes can be of various colors. Green or yellow eye discharge can indicate infection, while clear or gray discharge can indicate allergies or dry eye.

Whatever the color may be, if the eye discharge persists or other symptoms, such as squinting, accompany the discharge, then a veterinarian should have a look.

Eye discharge may indicate that there is trauma to the surface of the eye or that your dog has dry eyes, allergies, or an infection.

The bottom line

Should your dog show any of these signs, it is recommended that you have a veterinarian evaluate her to give you peace of mind and to help provide your pet with a happy and healthy life.

Many veterinary clinics offer pet health plans that help cover preventative care costs such as annual exams, blood testing, vaccines, fecal testing, dental cleanings, etc.

These preventive services could help identify a problem that would have otherwise cost hundreds to thousands of dollars if it had been left to be treated when it was much more severe later on. At ManyPets, we offer a non-insurance wellness plan that can help cover the cost of some preventative products.

Dog being cleaned

ManyPets Wellness Plan for Dogs

Save on preventative care for your pup

The non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for the cost of routine and preventative care, including routine vet visits and certain over-the-counter products.

Dog being cleaned

However, when your dog becomes seriously ill, having a good insurance plan could save you hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on what the problem is.

Many insurance plans will help cover the cost of many diagnostics, likely after a deductible is met. Take into consideration your dog’s age, type of breed, size of your dog, etc., and choose an insurance plan that is right for your dog.

In the end, the most important thing is to ensure your dog is getting the veterinary care she needs and can receive the treatments she needs, should she need any. Insurance plans can help ensure that your beloved dog can receive these treatments and preventative screenings.

Dr. Fonza attended veterinary school at The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland and received his DVM in 2013 to practice veterinary medicine.