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How to Tell When Your Pet Is Saying "I'm Sick"

Pet Column for the week of January 3, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Furnetic primary care clinic at the Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way
Information Specialist

When your dog or cat is acting out of character, what exactly is she trying to tell you? Dr. Jason Doukas, a veterinarian with Furnetic, a primary care practice run by the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, recently spoke to a group of pet owners about the ways our pets convey that something is not right.

"The two most common signs that cause pet owners to seek veterinary advice are diarrhea and decreased appetite," explains Dr. Doukas. "There are many different causes of diarrhea, ranging from the less serious, such as dietary indiscretion, to potentially life-threatening conditions such as pancreatitis types of cancer.

"A decreased appetite has many different implications. Causes can range from heat to cancer and infection."

In cats decreased appetite can be a serious problem. If cats go more than a couple of days without food, many problems, for example, a serious liver condition called hepatic lipidosis, can develop.

In general, however, the pet's normal behavior is an important factor in determining whether the sign indicates a problem.

So how do you determine whether your pet needs to go to the vet?

"You are the best judge of your pet's behavior," advises Dr. Doukas, "but if you are concerned about abnormal behavior, a trip to your veterinarian may be the best thing for you and your pet."

One of the biggest tip-offs that there is a problem is a change in the pet's activity level. "If you have a one-year-old dog that is usually very playful and bouncing off the walls, for example, and suddenly he doesn't want to play or go outside for a walk, that can be enough of a worry to prompt a clinic visit," says Dr. Doukas.

Dr. Doukas also cautions owners not to believe everything they read on the internet. "The best way to sort fact from fiction is to ask your veterinarian," he says. There is no real breed to breed distinction between clinical signs; rather, it is more of an animal to animal distinction. For example, your cat may normally vomit three times a week and it's not a concern, but if your friend's cat never vomits and suddenly begins to, that becomes more of a concern.

"Dogs and cats exhibit different signs of illness," says Dr. Doukas. "Cats will be more likely to not eat and to vomit, whereas dogs may still eat and have a decreased activity level from the same disease."

One of the most common misconceptions about determining a pet's health relates to pets' noses and whether they are wet, dry, hot, or cold. Does a change mean they are sick?

"Many times the temperature and wetness of the nose have nothing to do with sickness. Instead, it is a just a reaction to the temperature and humidity in the ambient air," says Dr. Doukas. "However, if your pet's nose has nasal discharge, that could be an indication that your pet is sick."

Ultimately, Dr. Doukas reiterates that owners know best when something is amiss in their pet's behavior, so if you sense that your pet is not himself, the best thing to do is see your local veterinarian.