Is Your Pet Sick? Signs You Should Never Ignore
By Julia Glass, Good Housekeeping, July 1995
Parents can usually tell if their kids are sick, plus children who are old enough can speak up. But what about a cat or dog, who can't complain? If your cat refuses dinner, is he simply pulling a Morris act or could he have an infection? If your poodle comes in from a romp and throws up, is it just because she's been bingeing on grass or did she swallow a golf ball?
Before rushing your pet to the vet, you need to determine whether the situation is a true emergency. How? Call your vet first; he or she should be able to assess the situation over the phone - maybe even advise a home remedy.
How do you know when to call? Here, according to Peter Kross, D.V.M., director of Rivergate Veterinary Clinic in New York City, are the warning signs you should always take seriously:
- Loss of appetite. Especially in cats, appetite is an essential sign of good health. If your cat hasn't eaten for an entire day, try offering baby food, a safe treat. If he refuses that, the problem could be serious. A cat who doesn't eat for more than two days risks developing hepatic lipidosis, a fatal liver condition. In a dog, the situation is less ominous, but dehydration is a danger, particularly if diminished hunger is combined with vomiting or diarrhea (a red-alert emergency).
- Increase in water consumption. Don't panic if your pet dives for the water bowl following a good workout or on a hot day. But if his thirst increases for no apparent reason, either gradually or suddenly, it may be an early sign of diabetes, kidney disease (often treatable), or an overactive thyroid (curable if caught early). It's important, therefore, that you know roughly how much water your pet drinks daily.
- Chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea. Dogs and cats will eat anything in sight, and their digestive tracts act up accordingly. But if a pet's vomiting or diarrhea suddenly becomes chronic - a few times a day, or even a few times a week in a pet who doesn't raid the garbage - call your vet right away. Either symptom may indicate a virus or parasites. Vomiting may mean that a pet has ingested poison or a foreign object that requires surgical removal. Vomiting and diarrhea together are an emergency situation because there's a high risk of dehydration.
- Respiratory distress. Coughing and wheezing may signify something as benign as a hair ball or as serious as a swallowed object obstructing the airway, so don't delay in calling your vet. Asthma is another possibility, and it's common in both dogs and cats, often as an allergic reaction. A runny nose also requires attention.
- Ocular discharge. If a pet's eyes are oozing, call right away. He may have conjunctivitis or an upper respiratory disorder. In either case, scratching could lead to infection.
- Urinary distress. Perhaps the most dire emergency in cats, mainly males, is urinary blockage. A couple of hours may mean the difference between life and death. The blockage is often caused by grit, a by-product of the ash and magnesium in cat food. The urine quickly backs up and poisons the cat's major organs. (Be sure canned food contains less than 3 percent ash and less than 0.2 percent magnesium; dry, less than 6 percent ash and 0.4 percent magnesium.) In dogs as well as cats, any sign of difficulty urinating or increase in frequency is reason enough to call the vet, but if a cat keeps returning to the litter box, repeatedly asks to go outside, or licks insistently at his penis, there's no time to lose.
- Changes in coat. Some pet skin disorders (such as ringworm and certain forms of mange) are contagious to people, so discuss any unusual hair loss, excess shedding, or dullness in coat with your vet. These changes may also indicate a more serious disorder, such as an underactive thyroid. Make an appointment for a checkup.
- Lumps and bumps. Aging animals often develop growths and warts, most of which are benign. To be on the safe side, however, have your vet check them out. Catching a cancerous growth early may save a pet's life. Changes in skin pigmentation should also be examined; animals, like people, run the risk of skin cancer if they spend a lot of time outdoors.
- Behavior changes. "Bad behavior" may be triggered by a physiological disorder or a nervous reaction to something new in your home. For instance, if your cat stops using his litter box, he may have a urinary disorder - or feel anxious about your new baby. A dog that appears to have turned "mean" - that snaps or growls without provocation - may well be in pain. In older animals, the cause could be arthritis or other joint problems, often treatable with anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Impaired eyesight may lead to strange behavior too. Eye disorders such as cataracts and glaucoma are now treatable in pets.
- Changes in coordination and mobility. If your pet seems less agile than usual, he may be feeling painful stress on his joints, which might be relieved by weight loss and/or (in dogs) aspirin. Purebred dogs are especially susceptible to problems of the skeletal structure - small dogs to knee problems, big dogs to hip trouble. The sooner the problem is caught, the easier it will be to treat.