Signs that your Pet Needs to See the Vet!

By: Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP, CVJ

TVMA Member
Houston, TX

Published December 2015

First off, let’s just say that you know your pet better than anyone. If you think something is not right or if your pet seems a little off, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment to have your pet seen by your veterinarian. It is much better to be safe than sorry. Since your pet can not talk and tell you what is wrong and since some signs may be subtle, you will also want to make sure your pet has regular (once every six months or a year) wellness exams to identify possible problems while they are easier to treat.

This list is by no means complete, but it does cover some of the common reasons that your pet should be examined by a veterinarian:

Eyes: Eyes should be bright and clear with minimal tearing. Some breeds naturally have teary eyes, but if there is a change in tear production, this needs to be examined. Have your veterinarian take a look at your pet if you notice cloudy or red eyes, your pet is squinting or rubbing its eyes, if an eyelid is swollen, if your pet cannot blink or if you see yellow, green or mucoid discharge. Also, if the eye protrudes out or appears sunken in, those can be an emergency. Sudden blindness or any trauma also warrant an immediate trip to the veterinarian.

Ears: Ear canals should be clean and odor-free. A little bit of wax is okay, but excessive wax, brown or black discharge, redness, pain or a foul odor are signs of a potential infection and should be checked out. Your pet may also have an ear infection if it is shaking its head frequently. If your dog or cat has a head tilt to one side, that can be a sign of middle ear infection or a neurologic problem and necessitates veterinary attention.

Bad Breath and Oral Issues: If you can smell your pet’s breath across a room or if plants wilt as your pet approaches, you need to have your pet’s mouth examined. Tartar, plaque and gingivitis (red or swollen, inflamed gums) are a problem. Bacteria grow in this environment, leading to abscessed teeth, tooth loss and potentially to systemic infections, particularly leading to heart or kidney disease. Excessive drooling, interest in food but not wanting to chew it, preferring soft food to harder foods and pawing at the mouth are signs that a veterinarian should examine your pet as soon as possible. Sometimes a tooth abscessA pocket of pus in a tooth caused by an infection can be so severe that it creates a hole and drains pus through the face or nose. Lift your pet’s lips to look at their teeth when possible. This can help you spot signs of abnormality, and you can have your pet’s mouth examined before his or her oral health worsens.

If your pet has a hard time chewing or picks up the food and then the pieces fall out of its mouth or if you notice a droopy lip or saliva draining out of one side of the mouth, then your pet may have a neurologic problem and requires veterinary attention.

Skin/Coat: A pet’s hair coat should be shiny (or at least appropriate for its breed). It shouldn’t be red, flaky or overly dry or greasy. Dogs and cats will occasionally itch or scratch just like we do, but excessive chewing or scratching can indicate an infection or allergies and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Wounds should be examined, as well as lumps and bumps, which can sometimes be the sign of a tumor. Areas of missing or matted hair can also be a problem. Persistent mats, especially those very close to the skin, are an ideal place for an infection to start. Fleas and ticks are a problem for our pets, and in addition to inciting severe itchiness, they can potentially carry serious diseases that can affect your pet and even you or your family members. Mange and ringworm are other diseases that your pet can carry that can spread to people.

Joints: Your pet may be experiencing joint problems if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Difficulty moving or walking or any signs of lameness or limping
  • Trouble getting into the car, climbing stairs or getting on the bed
  • Hesitation or refusal by your cat when entering or exiting the litter box
  • Decreased play

These are all signs that arthritis or other problems of the musculoskeletal system are taking their toll. Since our pets tend to hide pain, we may not recognize they are uncomfortable or in pain until the problem is severe. It is therefore worth noting when you first see these subtle changes and discussing them with your veterinarian. There are medications, nutritional supplements and other lifestyle changes that can be implemented to help keep your pet comfortable. Also, sometimes what may appear to be “slowing down” is not arthritis but degenerative disk disease or bone cancer. When diagnosed early, these things have a much better prognosis. Puppies and kittens and young adults are not immune to joint problems either as there are many congenital problems that can affect their joints. Young to middle-aged dogs are also prone to injuries of their cruciate ligaments (which are found in the knee). Because trauma can cause lameness in a pet of any age, any limping or lameness accompanied by moderate to severe pain or that lasts for more than 48 hours should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Breathing: Most of the time you will not hear your pet’s breathing or it will be pretty quiet. The brachycephalic (short-nosed, smush-faced) breeds, such as pugs, bulldogs, Persian cats and Himalayan cats, are typically exceptions to that rule. Certainly you will hear your dog panting after physical activity. However, if your dog is panting while at rest or if your cat is open-mouth breathing, then you need to seek veterinary care. An occasional cough or sneeze is to be expected, but excessive coughing or sneezing, mucus, blood or pus draining from the nose, wheezing or labored breathing or a blue tinge to the mucus membranes (check your pet’s gums or inside the eyelids) all require an exam. Sometimes signs may be more subtle. A dog that is restless at night or has a soft cough may have heart disease. Also, a pet that no longer wants to play or seems to tire more easily than usual may have a cardiac or respiratory problem. Let a veterinarian evaluate your pet. And keep your dog or cat on heartworm prevention to avoid one major cause of heart and lung disease. Also, if difficulty breathing is accompanied by hives or comes on after a new medication or possible exposure to insect stings (such as bees or wasps), seek immediate veterinary attention.

Gastrointestinal Problems: The occasional bout of vomiting in a pet that otherwise is eating well and acting like it feels great is not usually a big deal. But if your pet vomits more than once or sporadically over a period of weeks or months or if the vomit contains blood or foreign material or material that looks like coffee grounds, seek immediate veterinary attention. Dogs, in particular, are not discriminating eaters and will easily consume things that can be toxic or problematic. Cats may be more discriminating than dogs, but that does not stop them from chewing on toxic plants or swallowing string-like materials. If your pet assumes a “bowing down” or “prayer” position, this may be a sign of abdominal pain and distress, such as cramping or an obstruction, and warrants a veterinary exam. Bloating, abdominal pain and unsuccessful attempts at belching or vomiting can be signs of a gastric volvulus (twisted stomach) and require immediate emergency care to prevent death. The occasional bout of soft stool, especially after an incident of dietary indiscretion or a scrap of table food, is usually not a big deal, but if it persists for more than 24 hours or becomes watery, contains blood or mucus or causes your pet to be lethargic or inappetent, then you need to seek veterinary care. Also, see your veterinarian if your pet’s stool is particularly hard and dry, has a change in color or volume or if your pet is straining to pass a bowel movement. There are many systemic problems that can cause diarrhea or constipation.

Urinary Issues: If your previously house- or litter box-trained pet starts urinating in inappropriate locations or if there is a change in frequency of urination, then a veterinary exam is warranted. If your pet is straining to go and no urine is coming out, then this can be an emergency, so seek immediate veterinary care. An animal that has a blockage in its urinary tract can rapidly become seriously ill and potentially die without urgent care. Blood in urine is never normal and also requires a veterinary exam to diagnose and treat the cause.

Seizures, Staggering or Loss of Consciousness: If your pet has a seizure or passes out, this is a veterinary emergency. Also, any signs of dizziness, circling or imbalance should be evaluated. Make note of how long the episode lasts and what may have been going on before the episode occurred. Factors to be aware of include level of excitement, whether it was sleeping, when it last ate and the possibility of being exposed to a toxin. If you can, bring the potential toxic item with you.

Body Condition: Obesity is the number one problem affecting our pets! Many times the weight slowly creeps up without us recognizing the change. However, excessive weight contributes to joint disease and mobility problems, heart disease and high blood pressure. Consult with a veterinarian to determine the appropriate diet and exercise program to get the weight off. Your veterinarian may also want to rule out an underlying problem that could be contributing to weight gain, such as hypothyroidism in dogs. Obese male cats are at a significantly higher risk of diabetes. Any sudden change in an animal’s weight, whether a gain or loss, should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Behavior changes: If your normally tolerant and happy-go-lucky pet starts hiding, becomes less social or is growling at you or your kids, it is time to see a veterinarian. If your normally complacent pet starts hiding during thunderstorms or from other loud noises or if it becomes destructive at these times or when you leave the house, you need to seek veterinary attention, preferably sooner than later. Your pet is not trying to be bad; he or she is trying to tell you something is wrong.

Other signs that can signal a problem include increased water consumption and urination; changes in appetite; fatigue or lethargy; changes in mentation; changes in sleep patterns; crying, whimpering or increased vocalizing; rapid breathing at rest; pale gums; bleeding from any opening; vaginal discharge; change in the bark or meow; or any other thing that strikes you as just not quite right should be addressed by your veterinarian.

Veterinarians want to help your pet live a long and happy life and be as comfortable as possible. If you think something is wrong, we want to help determine what the problem may be. Schedule regular wellness exams and contact us for any problems in between.

Lori Teller, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Houston, Texas. She practices at Meyerland Animal Clinic.