How to Know When They Are Sick

How many times have you checked your cat’s temperature or listened to your dog’s heart rate? I am thinking, probably never, but good for you if you have. Many clients ask how they could have known their beloved pet was sick or showing symptoms of disease when I talk to them in the exam room. It is not a simple thing to answer as not all diseases, or all sick pets follow the same script. But there are some things you can check at home if you think something is up.

Temperature – Normal dogs and cats should be no higher than 39.5 C / 103.1 F degrees. You can use a pediatric thermometer in the rectum with a small amount of lubricant.

Respiration – Normal dogs and cats breath 20-30 times a minute. However, the character of the respiration is more telling than the rate, as dogs pant rapidly for many reasons, and cat respirations are just plain difficult to observe. So, look for panting when it should not be there, i.e. dog at rest, low ambient temperature, not having exercised, not stressed. For cats, look at the mouth, is it open, is the tongue hanging out, do you hear noise associated with breathing? Cats breathe very subtly, so it takes a bit of practice to note their breathing character — the most important is tongue colour. The oral membranes should be pink, not blue or pale pink.

Comfort level – Since they can’t speak, you have to watch their body language. If they are holding a leg up or limping, there is a bone or joint issue. Cats will squint their eyes and sit very quietly when they are in pain. There is also the ‘praying position,’ hips up and chest down. It may indicate abdominal pain. Can they get up and walk around? Can they go for their walk?

Appetite – An easy one, right? Not really. I have seen dogs and cats who eat well, even though they are sick, or in significant distress. Appetite over time might be more reliable. Have they slowly become less interested in food, or have they slowly lost weight over time?

Vomiting – People often overlook symptoms of a gastro-intestinal disease as normal. Vomiting is not a disease; it is a symptom of a disease. Cats especially are observed to vomit, and it is considered fairly normal behaviour by their owners. But it is not normal and should be taken into context. Chronic vomiting cats should be presented to the veterinarian. Dogs that are vomiting should be evaluated.

Itching/scratching – Scratching is not a disease; it is a symptom of a disease. Cats are fastidious groomers; they like being clean. Dogs, not so much, and licking or grooming is usually indicative of skin problems. Many of our pets have allergies, the very first symptom of which is excessive grooming, licking or scratching.

Interaction with owners – Sick pets are usually prone to resting or hiding. So if you notice a change in their behavior, you should consult your doctor. If they do not feel well, there is probably more to it than you think.

Overall, it is the pattern of these things that is probably most important. Changes in the normal routine are often predicated on health status changes. If you think something is wrong, there probably is something wrong. Most importantly, give your doctor a call, maybe we can help you over the phone to decide if you should come in for an exam.

If you have any questions, give us a call at 902-225-7543

Written by: Dr. Kip Grasse, DVM