Do you know how to tell if you have a sick dog? Every day in my work as a small animal veterinarian, I encounter at least one pet whose problem is listed on the schedule as “ADR.” ADR is a questionably cute veterinary industry acronym for “ain’t doin’ right.”

If you’re a literalist, you might think ADR means a dog is morally corrupt or not fulfilling his civic duty in some way. But, ADR actually comes from old-farmer-lingo for livestock animals that were off in some way, but they didn’t know exactly why.

Being a veterinarian presents daily challenges in trying to figure out what’s wrong with creatures that can’t speak. It can be frustrating and expensive to start with little information on just why the owner thinks a dog is ADR. For these dogs, the first questions I ask their owners are:

  • How is his appetite?
  • How is her thirst?
  • Has he had any coughing, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea?
  • How is her general energy level?

Most of the time, the answer to one of these basic questions will give me a clue about what to ask next. But, if you’re at home doing your own detective work, you need to know how to tell if you have a sick dog. Here are 11 more clues that your dog might be having trouble.

1. Limping or Change in Gait

Watch your dog walk, trot and run. Sometimes it’s easy to see limping, but sometimes it’s subtle enough that you can’t tell which limb is bothering the dog. If you see his head bobbing or swaying, it’s a good sign he’s limping a little. If your dog sits differently than normal or holds weight off one leg while at rest, odds are he’s hurting somewhere.

2. Abnormal Discharge (from eyes, nose, ears, mouth, anus, genitals or skin)

Dogs can be a bit dirty compared to today’s hygienic humans, but if you see mucous, slime, pus or any kind of goo building up on any of these areas, it’s very likely abnormal. Check the area for signs of injury and inflammation, too.

3. Foul Odor (from eyes, nose, ears, mouth, anus, genitals or skin)

Dogs are also pretty stinky by some people’s standards, and they do have their own normal, natural odor. If you notice a big change in your dog’s aroma, something is not right. Dental disease, skin infections, ear infections and urinary problems can cause unusual odors. Watch for other changes in your dog to zero-in on where the smell is coming from.

4. Hiding

If your dog usually joins the family in daily activities, you’ll notice if she’s suddenly hiding under the bed all the time. Dogs hide for a variety of reasons including anxiety, fear, pain or a general feeling of being unwell.

5. Changes in Urination

Increase, decrease, straining, change in color or odor of urine should get your attention. Most normal adult dogs pass urine 3-5 times per day. The frequency and amount can vary with diet, weather and activity. If your dog asks to go out to urinate 20 times a day or is urinating in the house as well as outside, something is not right. Urine that is darker in color or reddish is often abnormal. Leaking urine while standing or asleep is not uncommon and may be seen in any age of dog as a result of various diseases.

6. Changes in Stool

Watch for changes in texture, straining to defecate, or lack of stools produced at regular intervals. This change seems obvious, but in reality many people never check their pet’s stools. Dog stool changes can tell you a lot, so it’s worth going into the yard a few times a week just to check them. If you see that the stools are not formed, covered with mucous or are much smaller than usual, it’s a sign of trouble. Watch to see if the change is consistent, since dogs can have one weird stool from time to time, but then the rest are normal.

If your dog is experiencing diarrhea, read this article on what you can give a dog with diarrhea.

7. Not Wanting to Play, Go on Walks, Jump on Furniture

It’s not only sad when your dog doesn’t want to play, it’s a warning sign of a problem. A normally playful, active dog who only wants to stay curled up in her bed should set you into high gear. Decreased activity can signal pain from back problems, decreased energy from generalized disease or severe anxiety.

8. Wincing or Crying in Pain

If your dog cringes when touched or cries during movement, be suspicious. Injuries, insect stings, and inflammatory diseases can lead to painful body parts.

9. Changes in Body Weight or Shape

Many dog owners don’t notice weight loss or gain until it’s on the order of a 50% decrease or increase. Check your dog’s collar–too loose may indicate weight loss, too tight means weight gain. Better yet, weigh your dog regularly–at least every two or three months and keep a written record. If your dog is small enough, hold him while you stand on a bathroom scale and record the total weight. Next, weigh only yourself and subtract that weight from the total to find the weight of your dog. It won’t be super accurate, but you’ll have a baseline to track gains and losses before they become large. If you have a big dog, take him to your regular vet’s office and ask if you can weigh him on their scale. They should be happy to help you at no charge. Change in body shape can come when a dog’s belly becomes distended or when muscles atrophy from chronic diseases. You may notice the spine is more prominent or that the muscles on the top of the head look sunken.

If you believe your dog’s weight issues may be linked to a more serious stomach issue, read Dr. Thompson’s article on what are the symptoms of bloat in dogs and how to treat it.

10. Lumps, Sores, Hair Loss

Get into the habit of feeling all over every part of your dog’s body at least every couple of weeks. You’ll be amazed at the number of lumps, scabs, burrs, and bald spots you can discover. Most skin lesions are not serious, but it’s a good idea to have them checked if they persist for a week or more.

If your dog has a lump on the cheek, our online vets might be able to help.

11. Changes in Breathing

The biggest concerns here are fast breathing, noisy breathing or struggling to breathe. Slow breathing without any other symptoms can be normal, especially for dogs at rest. Calculate your dog’s breaths per minute by counting how many inhalations he takes in 15 seconds, then multiply that number by four. A dog’s breathing at complete rest or asleep at home shouldn’t be higher than 30 breaths per minute.

There are so many little signs of illness in dogs, it would be impossible to list them all here. The most important skill for how to tell if you have a sick dog is a close observation of the dog in times of wellness, so you know what’s normal for him.

If you notice any changes in your dog, start watching him like a hawk. If the change persists, take some written notes with the dates and nature of the changes. Take your notes with you when you take your dog to the vet for a check-up. It’s so much easier (and often cheaper) when your vet has a starting place, rather than having to do all the basic tests to narrow the possibilities. Getting to a diagnosis faster means a better chance of getting your dog back to his normal self.

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