Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works mostly with dogs and exotic animals.
If you have the time to keep a dog, you have the time to learn to perform a once-weekly do-it-yourself physical exam.
When you perform a DIY physical exam, there are times when you notice something unusual and need help. A veterinarian and his or her team will look for all of the symptoms of a sick dog and determine what is wrong and how it can be treated.
Symptoms of a Sick Dog: What to Look For
- Signs of depression: Not all dogs will act depressed when they are sick. In the wild, animals that act sick are more likely to die. You need to watch your dog at all times and be aware of what is normal for him. If your dog seems depressed, do something about it.
- Loss of appetite: Some dogs will miss a meal at times, and you should be aware if you have the type of dog that misses meals.
- Vomiting or diarrhea: If your dog is healthy, one simple episode of vomiting is not too much to worry about. Follow the directions in this article if your dog continues to vomit or has uncontrollable diarrhea. You will need to get him checked out right away. If your dog is old or has any health problems, one episode of vomiting IS something to worry about. Get him examined right away.
- Coughing, gasping for air, or sneezing: These symptoms could just be signs of kennel cough, but if your dog is coughing and gasping it could be something much more serious.
- Changes in the hair or skin, or itching and chewing on the feet or above the tail: Skin problems are not an emergency, but the sooner you have them taken care of, the better your dog will feel.
- A bad odor coming from anywhere: It might be from the mouth, the ears, or even the skin.
- Urinating in the house or urinating a lot more than normal: You might notice that your dog is also drinking a lot more than normal.
- Difficulty getting out of bed or lameness: If you notice her dragging the tips of her back feet she should be seen immediately.
- Any kind of abnormal discharge, swelling, or lump.
What Happens Next?
Share Your Dog's History
You need to give a thorough history so that your sick dog can be treated quickly. The staff will be used to asking questions, but if you can provide better answers things will go much quicker. They will want to know:
- What you have noticed? If there has been anything abnormal, even one bout of vomiting a day before you noticed anything else, be sure to let the vet nurse, vet tech, or veterinarian know.Some problems will not show up on an exam but a good history will help them find out what is wrong with your dog.
- What kind of food you are giving?
- What kind of medications are you giving? This includes heartworm preventative, flea treatments, and vaccinations.
What Is Checked in a Physical Exam?
- The mouth: The lips will be rolled back so that the color of the mucous membranes can be seen.
- The eyes: Do the eyes appear sunken in? (Dehydration) Is the skin normal? (Pale or bloodshot.) Is there any discharge?
- The ears: Do they smell? Is there any discharge?
- The skin: Unless there is something wrong you may not even notice this part of the exam. Your vet will run his hands over the skin and look for anything abnormal.
- The heart and lungs: Since your vet cannot ask your dog to cough, you may notice him press down on your dog´s trachea while listening to the lungs. He will probably have his hand on the inside of the dog´s back leg to check the pulse while listening to the heart.
- The abdomen: Your vet will squeeze the belly and push the abdomen up to feel any abnormalities.
- The legs and back: His legs will be moved up and down, his joints squeezed, and your dog will even have a short test to check his nerves.
- The temperature: This is the last thing the vet does during the exam for a reason—no dog likes this part.
Will an Exam Always Be Enough?
Sometimes other things will need to be done if the cause of the symptoms is not obvious. Here are a few of them:
- CBC: A complete blood count can often be run on a machine right in your vet´s clinic. It will tell you his red blood cell count, the amount of hemoglobin (a red blood cell component) and some other levels in the blood, and the number and types of white blood cells. The white blood cell information is important since it can indicate what type of infection your dog has.
- Blood chemistry: Some tests will be run in the clinic, others will need to be sent out and the results may take longer to show up. Basic blood chemistry will tell the vet about the kidneys, liver, pancreas, and other internal organs.
- Specialized tests: The vet may ask you to approve a more thorough blood chemistry panel if your dog has unusual symptoms. He may also want to check some hormones or other chemicals that are not tested for in a basic panel.
If your dog is limping or has musculoskeletal abnormalities one of the first tests will be an x-ray. An x-ray may also be needed if your dog has vomiting and diarrhea, has abnormal blood chemistry results, has an abnormal heart, or is sick and cannot be diagnosed.
If your dog's problem is still not clear, or if your vet feels that more information would help treat your dog, other tests might be needed. A urinalysis (several tests of the dog´s urine) is easy and provides basic information. A fecal exam can check or worms and some other abnormalities like Giardia, a parasite found in contaminated water.
Some clinics have EKGs and echocardiograms to check the heart, ultrasound to check the internal organs, and even MRIs to check the brain.
You can always turn down specific tests if you do not have the money, but it is your vet's responsibility to offer everything to you that is available to find out what is wrong with your dog.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Should my dog's nose be cool or warm to touch?
Answer: This is not something that is ever taught in vet school. You do not examine a dog and say "Oh he is sick becuase his nose is hot and dry". Some healthy dogs have dry noses, some sick dogs have hot noses.
The only way to tell if a dog has a fever is by measuring his body temperature.
Question: My twelve-year-old female Yorkie had been just lightly hacking and coughing, it has progressively gotten worse, she has itching issues and she's lost about 3 to 4 pounds. What could be wrong with her?
Answer: A senior Yorkie with coughing is most likely suffering from a heart disease, probably secondary to bacteria in the bloodstream secondary to periodontal disease. She can still have many good years ahead, so the best thing you can do is take her to your local vet and have her condition diagnosed after a physical exam.
© 2013 Dr Mark
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 15, 2020:
Ella--not sure what you mean by broken breath. Do you mean a very bad breath? With the abdominal pain (not wanting to lie down) that can be a sign of kidney disease. Not much you can do at home, so she really needs to visit your local vet so she can have her blood tested for kidney and liver values.
ella on June 14, 2020:
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my five-years old half labrador (mixie), had been skipping her meals just earlier ,had broken breath, runny eyes and nose , she always want to stand and doesn't want to lay down, she just drink a bit water, what do you think might be the problem to her?and what should we do to make her feel better?
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 04, 2018:
Paul, at this stage the preventative may not help your Chihuahua. If he already has congestive heart failure secondary to the heartworms the preventative will not help. It might help your other dogs though, by decreasing the number of heartworm carrying mosquitoes in the area. If they were my dogs I would start them on preventative ASAP.
If you need more info on heartworm preventative you can read this article https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Heartworm-Preventative...
Paul Davis on April 04, 2018:
I live in Florida, and have a very fixed income due to my illnesses. I have 3 dogs (Rhodesian Ridgeback, Papilion and Chihuahua. My older dog (Chihuahua) has been coughing very hard after any activities. I have tried my best to give them all the love, care and attention they deserve. But, since my funds are so low, I cannot afford to take then to the vet and pay for testing. My question is (thinking it might be heartworms), is it ok to give them preventative without having them checked first? If they have heartworms already, will it still be detrimental for them? If I understand your statement in the hub, you said it used to be fatal in many cases in the 70's. That leads me to believe the medicines are better so if I gave them preventative EVEN IF one of them has heartworms, it wont caujse trouble.
Please sir, would you please consider writing me about this. The dogs are all I have. I would greatly appreciate your advice.
I don't know how to find you again on the computer except on this page. Could you PLEASE write me at
email@example.com (huge Grateful Dead fan and former bartender in college lol
Thank you so much
Norma Lawrence from California on May 29, 2016:
Very good article. Very helpful information.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on January 17, 2015:
Hi toknowinfo sorry I missed this! Thanks for reading, and hope you will never need any of this info!!!
toknowinfo on January 07, 2015:
This is a very informative hub. You pointed out relevant issues that as a dog owner, I find very useful. Thanks as always for sharing your knowledge and very helpful tips.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on March 17, 2013:
Dennis, I hope the tips help if you ever need them!
Dennis from Florida on March 17, 2013:
These are great tips. High quality information and just what I need to know for my own German Shepherd!
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on March 17, 2013:
Sick dogs (and all animals for that matter) are especially heartbreaking because they can't tell us what's hurting in so many words. Of course they do tell us if we know where to look, and that's where you doctors come in.
We love our veterinarians!