If you present one of those pain charts with the happy and sad faces to your dog, what do they tell you? Yeah, not much. Maybe a puzzled look? “Can I have a treat now?”
Dogs aim to please, so your canine companion might not let you know when they are in pain or distress. But if you wait until a health problem gets bad before you contact a veterinarian, it can become more difficult and expensive to address some issues.
Since you can’t talk to them about what’s hurting, it’s good for pet parents to get familiar with the most common dog health problems.
What are the signs your dog might need some help from a professional?
Many of these are also signs that a cat needs to see a vet. They have some things in common, of course, both being domesticated mammals.
Many of these signs could be connected to a health problem, so if you notice them, make a call to your veterinary care team. They can let you know if it’s an urgent concern or if it’s something they can look at the next time you bring your dog in for a routine visit.
These days, lots of people go to the internet when they are curious about a human or pet health problem. That’s okay; we understand. It’s a good place to start, and websites like PetMD have helpful information.
But veterinarians train for years to become licensed to diagnose and treat pet health problems. So even though you can research pet health problems online, it’s really not a good idea to try to diagnose and treat them yourself. There are many, many things that you might notice that indicate that your dog has a health problem, and many of them overlap with different health problems. Your vet can do a thorough exam and conduct tests that will help determine what the problem is so they can recommend the best treatment plan for your dog.
The following list includes a number of the most common dog health problems.
1. Ear infections. If your dog is scratching their ears, tilting or shaking their head, or wobbling when they walk, it could be a sign of an ear infection. Other telltale signs: redness, swelling, or discharge from the ears.
2. Parasites. Many dogs pick up tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms in the great outdoors by making contact with other animals’ poop. Worms can make dogs uncomfortable, and some parasites can kill puppies. Watch for diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, eating less, changes in coat or appearance, or scooting on their butt. Sometimes you’ll even be able to spot parts of a tapeworm in their poop; it looks a bit like rice. These signs can be caused by other things, so be sure to talk with your vet.
3. Heartworms. If you have a dog, your vet has probably talked to you about preventing heartworms, or you’ve seen ads about them. These parasitic worms are spread through mosquito bites. The worms actually live in your dog’s heart and grow bigger, which can lead to severe heart disease and death. I’ve seen some pretty disgusting photos of dogs’ hearts so filled with worms that it’s no surprise that those dogs died. The best and least expensive way to prevent this parasite from infecting your dog is to give your dog medication prescribed by your veterinarian. Many of these prescriptions also prevent other parasites, too, which is great! Mosquitoes are around a lot more than you might think—even in colder months. So your best bet is to give your dog parasite prevention all year round.
4. Fleas. A flea infestation can quickly get out of hand. If your dog is biting, scratching, licking, or losing hair, check for fleas. Flea dirt (poop) looks like tiny black specks on their skin or in their fur. Some dogs are super allergic and can even develop anemia. It’s best to stop the buggers by using flea preventatives, but if you missed that, talk to your vet right away. There are many different ways to get rid of fleas. You’ll need to treat the places where your dog likes to sleep or hang out, too, because fleas only hop onto your dog to take a blood meal. Then they hop off to lay their eggs, which hatch into larvae and eventually develop into adults. It can become a whole house battle! Even if you don’t see fleas on your pet, your veterinary team knows exactly how to tell if fleas are causing a problem.
5. Skin allergies and hot spots. If your dog can’t stop chewing or licking their fur, they might have a food allergy or allergy to something they touch. If they are bothering a bare spot in their fur that’s pink or reddish, they might have a bacterial infection that’s often referred to as hot spots (acute moist dermatitis). Sometimes they are caused by fleas or ear problems. Vets have a number of treatments for hot spots. While there are many people who promote products or say you can do it cheaper through a home remedy, your vet is going to recommend the treatment that's specific to the problem your dog has based on their exam and any tests that they need to run to determine the cause. Otherwise, you could be doing more harm than good.
6. Vomiting. Sometimes dogs vomit just to get rid of something nasty they ate. But other times, it can be caused by serious diseases like pancreatitis, kidney failure, heatstroke, intestinal blockage, or poisoning. If it goes on for too long, vomiting can cause a dog to become dangerously dehydrated. Veterinarians are trained to identify the cause and how best to diagnose and treat a dog that’s vomiting, so it's best to contact your veterinary clinic and make an appointment.
7. Diarrhea. There are many different causes of diarrhea: stress, parasites, food allergies, or infections like parvovirus. Just like vomiting, diarrhea can be dangerous because your dog can become dehydrated. So make sure they have plenty of clean, fresh water. If the diarrhea is severe or if there are other symptoms, like low energy, vomiting, fever, or blood in the poop, don’t delay in making an appointment with your vet.
8. Arthritis. Dogs can have joint problems, too. Even young dogs. If your dog is limping or walking more slowly, it could be a sign of arthritis, though there could be other causes, such as hip dysplasia. Many of the tests and treatments are similar to human remedies: x-rays, physical therapy, and medications that relieve pain and inflammation. In severe cases, your vet might recommend surgery, which can cost thousands of dollars but can provide great pain relief.
9. Obesity. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention reported that more than 55% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. And not every obese dog is eating too much. Just like people, they can have genetic conditions, hormonal imbalances, or lifestyle factors that affect their weight. It’s important to talk to your vet about a healthy diet for your pet, and it is important for your dog to get plenty of exercise. It’s good for all of us!
10. Dental disease. A large percentage of dogs show signs of dental disease by the time they are two years old. If dental disease goes untreated, dogs will need expensive dental cleanings and even surgery to fix it, so it’s good to learn about preventing dental disease.
11. Tumors or growths. A lot of older dogs get harmless (or benign) growths, called fatty lipomas. These bumps are harmless unless they get in the way of your dog’s movement or comfort. But if you find a lump or bump on your dog, get it checked by a vet. Because dogs get cancer, too, and it can grow quickly. Tumors can get so big that they can prevent your dog from moving around normally, and they can become painful. So you want to mention any lumps or bumps you notice as early as possible.
In addition to watching for all the signs above, use your intuition. And don’t hesitate to call a professional if you have questions. Veterinarians are the best professionals you can trust. Others may act like they know more than veterinarians, but that doesn’t mean that they do.
Dogs are generally healthy, and just like humans, they benefit from healthy food and plenty of fresh air and exercise.
For most dogs, regular checkups and staying up-to-date on vaccinations and parasite control will ensure that you live a long, healthy life together.