Recognizing Illness in Your Family Pet

By Kathryn Sarpong, DVM

Discovering your pet is ill early and getting appropriate treatment can lead to a better outcome and longer life.  But how do you know your pet is ill versus just having an off day?  Pets are individuals and what seems serious in one animal may be normal for another.  No one knows your pet better than you, so you should always trust your instincts.  A finicky dog that misses a meal may not be that big of a deal; but for the lab that loves food, his not finishing every last morsel can be a serious symptom.

Illness is much more difficult to identify in cats.  They usually hide illness until they can no longer compensate. Your cat’s only symptom may be acting more reclusively.  Any cat that stops eating for 24 hours should be evaluated by your family veterinarian.   Cats – especially obese ones- that stop eating can go into liver failure in a very short period of time.  This can be reversible if caught early, but deadly if not treated aggressively and early enough.  Cats that vomit may or may not be seriously ill.  Many cats vomit a hairball or after eating quickly once a week and are not seriously ill.  But vomiting can also be a symptom of kidney disease, thyroid disease, parasites, intestinal diseases, or diabetes.  If vomiting is accompanied by any other symptom or is frequent, the animal should be evaluated.

Common Symptoms of Illness

  • Change of appetite
  • Drinking more water
  • Change in hair coat
  • Change in your pet’s odor
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty moving
  • Vomiting
  • Increased urination
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of hair
  • Behavior changes
  • Coughing

When in doubt about whether your cat or dog is ill and needs to be seen by a veterinarian, you can call your vet’s office and ask to speak to the veterinarian or a technician.  You can describe the specific symptoms and determine together whether or not the pet needs to be seen immediately.  Sometimes, there is something you can do for your pet at home to help your pet.  There are some safe over the counter medications that are used in adjusted dosages in pets, and they may be suggested by your veterinarian.  Keeping a pet healthy is a team effort and you are the most important advocate for your pet’s health!