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January 2013 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family

Paws to consider: How to tell if your pet is sick

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If your four-legged friend is looking at you with big, sad eyes, he may be asking for help. Animals tend to be stoic and don’t always whine or act out when they don’t feel well. As a pet owner, you need to know your animal’s routine and be alert when it changes from the norm.

Here are a few symptoms that may indicate health problems and warrant a trip to your veterinarian.

Weight loss

Just like humans, animals will drop pounds if they exercise more, or if they cut down on snacks and extra helpings of people food. Unexpected weight loss, however, may indicate a serious health problem. If your pet has not been on a diet but is losing weight, visit your vet to rule out cancer or another grave illness.

Low energy

All pets have a quiet time of the day and as pets age, they tend to sleep more. Sometimes, however, things can get a little too quiet. If your dog or cat seems otherwise healthy, but is sleeping more than usual or doesn’t greet you at the door with his usual enthusiasm, pay attention. It’s possible that your pet’s subdued behavior is the result of an internal infection that you can’t see.

No appetite

Even animals can tire of the same, old routine and demand a change of menu. One day, your cat may turn up her nose and decide that her favorite food is suddenly the equivalent of stale cafeteria fare.

Some animals, however, may abruptly stop eating if they are ill, or emotionally upset. For example, if you are traveling and board your pet at a kennel or leave him home with a caretaker, he may stop eating, because he is confused, or because he misses you. If your pet goes on a hunger strike, switch his food to tempt them with other tastes.

Animals may also stop eating due to problems with their teeth or gums. Check inside your pet’s mouth for bleeding gums, tartar on the teeth, and broken or loose teeth. If he seems otherwise healthy, see your vet. If your pet lacks appetite and has diarrhea, your pet may have giardia, a parasite found in contaminated food or water. Severe cases of giardia can be fatal.

Unquenchable thirst

After a long game of fetch or when the thermometer rises, your pet may drain the water bowl. However, if you fill the water bowl many times each day, be suspicious. Drinking too much water may be a sign of kidney disease, diabetes, or other health problems. Be aware that some medications may increase thirst, so if your pet is medicated, ask your vet if excessive thirst is a side effect.


This is one of the most frightening signs that your pet is sick. One minute your dog seems perfectly normal, and the next, he begins to quiver and shake, and falls to the floor, unable to control his body.

This fit, or convulsion, may cause your pet to lose bladder control and may leave him exhausted or ravenous, but otherwise unhurt. Seizures such as this may be a one-time occurrence or may be a sign of epilepsy, a brain tumor, or other problem. Seizures should be reported to your vet and monitored closely.


Just as in humans, an unexpected lump on the body can be cause for alarm. Animals are particularly prone to growths as they age. Lumps can appear anywhere on an animal’s body, and they may be perfectly harmless or they may be a sign of cancer. Your vet should examine all lumps.

Itchy ears

Ear infections are a common health problem for many dogs, especially those with floppy ears that can trap moisture. Those floppy ears can also hide the gooey discharge and sour smell that indicate an infection.

If your animal tries to rub its ears on the carpet or whines when you touch its ear, take a closer look. If you gently lift the ear and look inside, you may see the dark residue that indicates an ear infection.

Hot spots

A hot spot is an area of inflammation on your pet’s skin that is so irritating that he may lick his skin until it bleeds. Hot spots are usually caused by an infection or allergic reaction and can appear anywhere on the animal’s body. These wounds need to be treated, since they can become sites of infection. It may be worth investing in an Elizabethan collar (the plastic cone) to keep your dog from licking the hot spot while it heals.


If your dog has a persistent cough that sometimes sounds like he is choking, he may have contracted kennel cough. Kennel cough, often caused by a bacterium called bordetella, is contagious among dogs. The illness may resolve by itself within a few weeks but can require antibiotic treatment. The most serious cases of kennel cough can result in pneumonia.

Let’s talk insurance

When my dog was a puppy, I needed to visit the vet every other week. He had ear infections, eye infections, skin allergies, giardia, kennel cough — you name it. When my vet advised me to get pet insurance, I thought she was kidding; I didn’t even know you could get health insurance for animals.

But my puppy’s medical bills were costing me a fortune, so I looked into a couple policies. Pet insurance, like health insurance for humans, does not cover everything, but may be worth it, depending on your pet’s problems. My dog’s insurance covers vaccinations, well care exams, X-rays, and many other things, but does not cover pre-existing conditions. So, for example, because my dog had ear infections before he had health coverage, I can’t be reimbursed for any treatment of ear infections.

The bottom line is that any physical or personality change in your pet may be a sign of illness. Consult your vet if you suspect your pet is not himself. Professional help may be the only way to get your pet standing firmly on all four legs.

Mary Helen Berg is a freelance writer and the owner of Boomer, an epileptic labradoodle.

Posted 12:00 am, January 20, 2013
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