Is My Dog Sick?: by Danielle Cain DVM

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Dogs do many things that can make people worry about their health. Unless you work in a veterinary office or have a strong medical background, sometimes it can be difficult to know if the observed symptom is a hint of a serious medical condition or just a minor passing ailment. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) emphasizes the benefits of routine care through their national publicity campaign, “Twice A Year For Life.” The AVMA advises that two annual wellness exams are the best way to ensure that any potentially life-threatening condition is caught early. But, with this tough economy and many folks out of a job, I am sure there are many dogs in the Low Country that have missed their annual exams. So, I thought it would be a good idea to go over a few common symptoms of common diseases.


I list all these symptoms together because sometimes it is difficult to separate them out. Many middle aged or older small dogs will have a harsh chronic cough that is easily confused with “a bone stuck in the throat.” A harsh hacking cough is often caused by a trachea that collapses, bronchitis, or and enlarged heart/heart disease. Sometimes they have a cough followed by an expectoration of phlegm. This cough can be controlled with some anti-cough medications. Other patients will require certain heart medications if they are showing signs of heart enlargement on chest X-rays. A loud harsh cough (although more alarming to most dog owners) is actually less of an emergency than a soft productive cough combined with lethargy or anorexia. If a dog is bringing up fluid during a cough (pink or white foam), he/she could be in heart failure or have pneumonia. This is an emergency that needs to be seen right away. If your dog has been to the groomer or boarding kennel and has a harsh goose-honking cough, we often diagnose kennel cough that usually requires antibiotics to clear up. The mosquito problem in the south also makes Heartworms one of the first diseases to rule out in any coughing dog. The chances that these symptoms were caused by choking on a bone or rawhide are very slim, although not impossible. Every dog can get the occasional cough, just like people. They are also susceptible to smoke, dust, allergies, and some passing viral infections.


Sometimes vomiting and coughing can be confused. So try to determine if your dog is coughing and expectorating phlegm (see above) or actually vomiting. Also, just because no food is coming out does not mean that a dog is NOT vomiting. Stomach juices can be white and foamy to brown or yellow if there is bile staining. Many dogs will vomit occasionally because they may have eaten plant parts, rocks, garbage, lizards, or other things from the ground. So, we frequently have to treat them for gastro-enteritis (Latin for stomach and intestine inflammation). If a dog vomits 1-2 times for 1 day, 3-4 times a year, this may be normal for him or her. If your dog is feeling very sick or vomiting for more than 1 day they should be examined. Some causes of fast onset vomiting that come out of the blue are eating anti-freeze, certain plants, rawhides, underwear, and rope toys. If a dog vomits on and off every few days over a long period of time, we call it chronic vomiting. These dogs can be allergic to their food ingredients, have inflammatory bowel disease, or have other endocrine disorders. A good rule of thumb to follow: After 1 vomit episode, remove all food and water. If there is no more vomiting after 8 hours of NPO (nothing by mouth), then offer some water in small amounts. If the dog can drink and keep water down after 1-2 hours, then offer food. Use bland food like white meat chicken breast canned in water, rather than KFC or Jerky treats. If you want to give an over the counter medication, please consult your veterinarian. All antacids are not created equal and animal dosages are different than people’s.


A dog’s dietary indiscretions cause diarrhea as often as they cause vomiting. They are both symptoms of problems with the gastro-intestinal tract (esophagus – stomach – small intestine – large intestine). Many conditions or diseases need to be “ruled out” in order to diagnose the cause of the GI symptoms. Diarrhea can be mild to severe, slightly soft to watery, black in color or red with blood. Bright red and bloody diarrhea is usually very alarming to see. Red tinged feces or diarrhea that is watery/mucus-laden and has blood clots tells us it is coming primarily form the large intestine. This is usually easier to clear up with antibiotics than small intestinal diarrhea. In fact, dark black diarrhea is more concerning to veterinarians. Dark black pasty diarrhea comes from higher up in the small intestine, and this can be the result of some more serious diseases. We usually start working a patient up with a fecal exam to check your dog for parasites.

Urinating in the house:

This symptom is one of the most frustrating problems for dog owners because urine is so darn hard to get out of the rugs! But keep in mind that it may not be your dog’s fault if they have a sudden urge to pass urine. When they have a urinary tract infection, there is a constant urge to urinate, but it hurts and burns, so they tend to urinate a tiny amount more frequently. Sometimes it is tinged with blood, but not always. This can also happen if they have crystals or stones, or inflammation with no obvious bacterial infection. The urinalysis (a lab test) helps veterinarians to determine the source of the urinary problems, but often we need to X-ray for stones or culture for a hidden infection. When a dog is also drinking a lot more water from their bowl and urinating large dilute amounts of urine, we consider other diseases like diabetes, Cushings, and kidney failure that can predispose dogs to urinary tract infections. Little dogs (especially small breeds) often take longer to potty train and can piddle in the house. However, some of these patients actually have congenital problems within the urinary tract (an anatomic problem with their plumbing, present from birth). Occasionally male dogs are simply marking their territory and respond well to neutering. Many owners of older dogs will attribute a break in potty training to senility. This is a definite possibility, but without ruling out the other medical causes we cannot know the best way to treat our dog patients.

Itchy skin and ears:

Most of these problems are either 100% due to allergies or are secondary problems that are caused by a primary allergy. Allergies from fleas often occur at the tail base or lower back. Allergies from food can often be all over the body, the feet, the butt, and the ears. The itchy sites give veterinarians HINTS as to the source or cause, but aren’t 100% diagnostically consistent. The scabs you see are usually the result of scratching and they will heal when the allergy clears. Young dogs, or dogs that are immune-compromised can get Demodex mites which creates more of a patchy pattern of hair loss, especially on the face and feet. Dogs can also suffer from ringworm, Sarcoptes mites, ear mites, chigger infestations, skin cancers, auto-immune disease, etc. The only way to know the cause of skin disease for certain is to have the appropriate diagnostic tests (skin scraps, skin cytology, ear swabs, etc). But, if your dog is itchy, the first and most important step to take is to make sure they are on a Veterinary approved Flea Prevention (options: Advantage, Advantage Multi, Comfortis, Frontline) every month all year long. Even if you are not seeing fleas, they still need to be receiving the flea prevention because they can be allergic to one tiny fleabite. Without this basic preventative measure, it is very difficult to determine the source of skin problems. It is usually very safe to use a small dose of benadryl (diphenhydramine) for an itchy dog for short term relief, but please call your veterinarian for dosing information.

Hopefully I have shed some light on things that may concern you about your dogs’ symptoms or behavior at home. Keep in mind that many symptoms are vague (examples: change in activity level or appetite) and can correlate with many different illnesses that can be mild to severe. If there are any symptoms that last more than 2-3 days, or if you are worried about your pet, please call a veterinarian to discuss the situation. You are the best person to assess changes in your dog, so if you have questions – just make a call regarding your concerns. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Danielle Cain DVM works at the Animal Hospital of North Charleston. To go to their website click HERE.


One response to “Is My Dog Sick?: by Danielle Cain DVM

  1. Nice article…All the above mentioned symptoms will help the dog owners to take good care the dogs and do necessary treatments on time, before it harms the dog badly.

    Dog owners should read this articel for sure.


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