Having a dog is like having a furry family member. A furry family member who totally depends on you but can’t tell you when something hurts.
Not exactly a fountain of info here.
I know what it’s like to feel helpless when you think your dog isn’t feeling good. Maybe she has vomited a couple times; maybe she didn’t want dinner last night, which is so unlike her.
I think Lady still remembers this chicken from July 4th of last year.
I know the frustration of when it’s a Saturday and the only place open is an emergency hospital. You don’t know the doctors there, you don’t know how much it’s going to stress out your dog to even go there, and you certainly don’t know how much money it’s going to cost.
Owners everywhere, right this minute I’m sure, are looking at their dogs and thinking: “should I take her to the vet?” It’s not always obvious what to do.
This post is aimed at helping you answer this question by:
- Giving you straightforward tips on how to assess your dog’s health,
- Offering a few safe home treatments for common ailments, and
- Clarifying when you don’t have enough information and need to go to the vet
As always, my disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian and my advice should not be substituted for that from a real doctor. These are merely general tips to help owners become more educated about the health of their dogs.
That said, meet my
dog patient, Lady.
She is super-thrilled to be my model for all these humiliating illustrations.
Your home “exam”: When you are checking your dog at home, you’re simply looking for the source of what might be making her uncomfortable. I think it’s helpful to go through all parts of the body, step by step. (I put the “exam” in quotes for our purposes because nothing can substitute for a real veterinarian’s exam, one from a professional with years of training and experience to draw upon when assessing your dog.)
That said, you can get a lot of useful information from looking at your dog from tip to tail!
First, note how cute the nose is.
Next, note if there is any discharge coming out. If there is discharge and it’s a color (not clear), it might be infected mucous and you’ll need to go to the vet.
Is there anything up there? Is your dog breathing okay? Sometimes violent sneezing can indicate a foxtail or piece of plant has flown up there. (This is especially common in the dry season of summer.) foxtails continue to travel upwards and are not to be underestimated in the damage they can wreak along the way, so if that’s suspected, you’ll need to go to the vet.
You can also somewhat gauge hydration from the nose. If the nose is dry, it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is dehydrated, but check it later to make sure it moistens up. A dry nose is one clue to indicate dehydration. (More on hydration soon.)
First, your dog will note that her food bowls are missing from the stand behind her and resent you for it.
Second, you’ll check if the eyes are red, watery or have discharge. (Again, colored discharge means you’ll need to go to the vet.) If your dog’s eyes are blood shot or the pupils look strange to you, it could indicate inflammation and you’ll need to go to the vet.
If the eye fluid seems sticky, like the lids aren’t easily lubricated with each blink, it could indicate dehydration. Dogs get cataracts, just like people, and they look similar. Ask your vet to go over the pros and cons of cataract surgery.
A quick tip on how to administer eye drops by yourself:
If you’re like me and have a working spouse, and often don’t have anyone to help you hold your dog, you can pull off administering eye drops solo! Simply straddle your dog’s back, gently squeezing with your legs, and lean the dog’s head back toward your body. This gives you the most control if your dog tries to resist. (If your dog is little, get closer to the floor, mimicking the same position.) Have your eye drops ready to go and be quick about it! Even the most patient dogs will eventually tire of this ordeal.
Use only vet-prescribed or recommended eye drops!
Your dog’s mouth tells a story. First look for obvious things like lesions and cuts.
Particularly bad breath can indicate an illness or dental disease. Sharply defined, red lines above the teeth at the gum line can indicate dental disease too. You can most easily clean your dog’s teeth by rubbing them with a gauze-wrapped finger. (Works much better than a toothbrush, in my opinion.)
And don’t poo poo having your dog’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia. It’s the only way for a vet to properly clean under the gums and extract bad teeth. Dental disease is serious and can be fatal if left untreated. Not to mention the PAIN your dog is going through with an untreated rotting tooth or gum disease.
Speaking of the gums, they are really telling. They should be pink, pink, pink! Pale, white-ish gums can indicate a serious illness. If you see white gums, you’ll need to go the vet right away.
Quick Gum Check Tip: Press your index finger into the gum and take it away. Watch as your pale fingerprint appears and then quickly fills again with pink color. If your dog’s gum stays pale where you pressed your finger and takes a long time to fill back in with color, it could be a sign of illness and you should run, don’t walk to the vet.
The saliva on the gums should be wet but not sticky. If you feel sticky saliva, it could indicate dehydration.
The tongue should be relatively clear. If you see a thick film on it, it could indicate illness.
You are looking at the skin and smelling for any strong odor. Infected ears can have red skin and smell really bad (“normal bad” smelling ears just smell a bit yeasty).
Cleaning ears: Wrap gauze around your index finger and gently swipe into the ear canal. DO NOT USE Q TIPS as the dog’s ear canal is a weird shape and you might puncture something. Ear wax should come out. If you see blood, puss or anything other than wax on the gauze (sometimes the wax is black, don’t worry), your dog might have an ear infection or a foreign body and you’ll need to go to the vet. You’ll know if your dog’s ears are infected because she will protest pretty dramatically at having her ears touched because it’s very painful.
Those aforementioned foxtails love to go into ears and often need to be removed under anesthesia.
Ear injuries: Cuts or wounds on the ears should be handled with great attention. Dogs will shake their heads at the feel of the irritated ear and sometimes burst blood vessels, creating the dreaded ear hematoma. Ear hematomas look like a squishy, blood-filled balloon has invaded your dog’s ear flap. They are terribly difficult to repair and should be avoided at all costs. If your dog has a cut on his ear, wrap his ear flat to his head with a stretchy bandage or vet wrap and get yourself to the vet. Ear hematomas generally require repair under anesthesia.
Bonus anesthesia tip: if your dog is going under anesthesia, ask if your vet can perform a dental while she’s under. Ask the tech to really trim her nails nice and short. Anesthesia is expensive and hard on the body so you’ll want to get as much done while your dog is under as possible, within reason (you don’t want your dog to be under too long either.)
Bonus bonus anesthesia tip for stomach-flipping dog breeds: dogs like Standard Poodles or other deep-chested, large breed dogs prone to BLOAT – ask your vet if they recommend stomach stapling while your dog is under. Sometimes dogs who are very prone to this deadly condition can benefit from having their stomach anchored in place so you don’t have to worry about the dreaded bloat the rest of her life.
Handy-dandy dehydration test
Lift the skin between your dog’s shoulder blades into a tent-like shape and let go. For hydrated dogs, you should see the “tent” go back down into position quickly and easily. If the shape hold its position for longer than a second or two, it could indicate dehydration. You can also gently pinch the skin together and rub the two pieces of skin to feel for stickiness inside. (You may be seeing a pattern here: sticky fluids anywhere (gums, eyes, under skin) may equal dehydration.)
Lift the paws, separate the toes, look at the skin, pads and nails. Our friend the foxtail likes to make an appearance between toes, creating a nasty hole and abscess in its wake. Sometimes ticks will attach here. You are basically just looking for abnormal skin or foreign bodies hiding between toes.
Bonus note on ticks: ticks are generally harmless unless your dog comes into contact with the tiny ones that carry Lyme disease. Lyme-carrying ticks vary according to region and are more prevalent in the northeastern US. Regardless, you’ll want to REMOVE ticks as soon as possible. You DON’T have to use matches or any strange technique! Simply use tweezers, grab the tick and pull it out. Or take your finger, press it onto the tick (for the brave of heart), and make quick, tiny circles on it with pressure. The tick will let go and you can pull it out and flush it down the toilet (my fave method.) If part of the tick remains in the skin, worry not. You know the tick is dead and the body treats the leftover part as a foreign body, pushing it out eventually. (You’ll want to watch for infection if this is the case.)
Bonus note on nail trims: if you cut your dog’s nails too short and “quick” them, you don’t have to have Kwik Stop or a similar product that helps the blood clot. You can use regular old flour!
Flour, right out of my cupboard!
Simply tap a gob of flour onto the bleeding nail’s tip and have your dog rest for a while, as walking breaks the clot off, starting the bleeding process all over again.
If your dog seems painful, is hunching or has trouble walking, you can palpate (a fancy term for examining by touch) the spine to check for any points of pain. Start at the top, using both of your thumbs to press gently along each side of the spine. If your dog has an issue somewhere, she will likely flinch or cry out. Spine issues require a specialist so you’ll need to go to the vet.
Palpating other parts of the body
Methodically and gently squeeze the elbows, legs, knees, hip area, and muscles to try to pinpoint any painful spots. Pay close attention to how your dog reacts because dogs are generally STOIC and have an instinct to hide their pain. Rotate and flex their joints to see if there is any arthritis pain.
If you are in any doubt about your dog being in pain, you must go to the vet. There are safe and effective pain relievers for dogs. Dogs shouldn’t have to live with pain just because they are good at hiding it.
Bonus life saving tip: DO NOT GIVE OVER-THE-COUNTER PAIN MEDS to your dog! Ibuprofen (Advil) and Acetaminophen (Tylenol) are TOXIC to dogs and might kill them. Aspirin can be safe in infrequent, low-doses but you should consult your vet because it can cause stomach ulcers with prolonged or heavy use.
Your dog’s tummy is just as sensitive as yours is, so be gentle! Press around to scout for pain, lumps or masses. For females, you can give a breast exam along the nipple lines, similar to how you would do your own breast exam. (She just has more of them because she has more mouths to feed…) The more you do this, the more you’ll get to know what your dog feels like and what’s abnormal or new going forward. For boys, it’s a good opportunity to peek at the old privates and make sure there are no obvious issues down there.
Taking your dog’s temperature
Not a rectal thermometer, but here for illustration.
You’ll want to buy a rectal thermometer and write your dog’s name really big on it so you’ll know exactly where it’s been (and where it should go next). You’ll need something like KY Jelly or Vaseline for lubrication.
Coat the end of the thermometer in the lubricant and explain to your dog that something slightly upsetting is about to go down, but it’s for her own good.
Make a goofy face to show her how much fun you are having together.
Lift her tail and insert the tip of the thermometer gently. Most dogs are okay with this if you are deliberate and gentle. Wait until the thing beeps or count to fifteen one-mississippi-style.
A NORMAL DOG TEMP is about 101 degrees Fahrenheit. (Normal range is 99.5 to 102.5.) A temp 103.5 or above is considered to be a FEVER and you’ll need to go to the vet. If her temp reaches 106 or above, it can be FATAL.
Common ailments & home treatments
The most common issue for dogs at home is vomiting, diarrhea or both. Before I suggest treating these signs, let’s first agree on when a vet needs to intervene.
FOR VOMITING: generally, vets consider three vomits within 24 hours reason to have your dog seen by a vet. If your dog vomits breakfast one morning, try giving her a half meal at dinner to see if she keeps it down. Don’t give a vomiting dog water – it will likely trigger more vomiting! Check for hydration (nose, gums, skin “tent”) and take your dog to the vet to get rehydrated under the skin by IV. If your dog is vomiting infrequently but for a prolonged period of time, go to the vet. Blood in the vomit? Go the the vet pronto.
FOR DIARRHEA: Dogs are like us in that they get diarrhea sometimes. Some breeds and certain dogs even get diarrhea often. You can home-treat diarrhea with a bland diet: white rice (brown is too complex to digest), low-fat cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, low-sodium chicken broth – all are good and delicious bland dinners to give your poopy dog.
You can also give Imodium (loperamide) to dogs safely. Doseage is .05/.1 mgs per pound of body weight every eight hours. (For example, Lady weighs 55 pounds, so I can give her one to two 2mg tablets.)
If diarrhea continues for more than a couple days, or contains mucous or blood, or is dark red or black, get your poopy dog to the vet. Dark stool can indicate blood coming from the intestines and needs to be addressed.
Dogs love the sweet taste of anti-freeze. They’ll lap up pools of it off your garage floor. Chow-hounds like Labradors love to eat just about anything. For this reason, you may find yourself in the position of inducing vomiting.
Be careful – you don’t want your dog to regurgitate everything. A whole chicken carcass fished out of the trash, for example, can do harm coming back up the throat. You don’t want to induce vomiting for bleach, drain cleaner or if it has been over two hours since ingestion. You also don’t want to induce vomiting if your dog is in any weakened state and can’t be counted on to vomit successfully. Ask your vet before inducing vomiting so you can tell them the suspected substance.
But it’s a good idea to have hydrogen peroxide on hand for those throw-up occasions.
You’ll want to use the 3% kind that’s sold at most pharmacies. (The more concentrated ones are too potent.) Use 1 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight. (Lady’s vomiting cocktail, for example, would be 5 teaspoons (rounding down for 55 pounds.))
Vets have the advantage of having oral syringes to shove the liquid down, but at home you can mix it with some non-chocolate ice cream or honey to make it more palatable. Walk your dog around after she has taken it to get the reaction going. Take her to a place you don’t mind being covered in vomit! Comfort and encourage her as she vomits as the act is very stressful for dogs. It typically takes 15 minutes or less. If the hydrogen peroxide doesn’t work, or you are unclear what your pet may have ingested, you need to go to the vet.
Benadryl is your friend
Benadryl (despite being blurry in the above picture) is truly a wonder drug for dog owners. Its uses are myriad and it’s pretty safe for all dogs.
Doseage: 1 mg Benadryl/diphenhydramine (make sure the pill contains no other ingredients!) per pound of body weight every 12 hours or so. It makes most dogs sleepy!
ALLERGIC REACTIONS – if your dog starts swelling up, pop her with some Benadryl for its antihistamine qualities. If the swelling doesn’t subside, or recurs for no apparent reason, go to the vet.
SEDATIVE – Benadryl is a safe, over-the-counter sedative for dogs who have anxiety. Whether it’s fireworks, separation anxiety or any stressful situation, it can help your dog calm down. You’ll want to try it first when you are around because sometimes dogs get more anxious when they feel a shift in their perceptions and they panic, negating the therapeutic effect.
GENERAL ITCHINESS – try Benadryl first. If the problem persists, go to the vet.
And… that’s all for now.
There may be more medical tips percolating in my brain but I think that’s quite enough for one round.
Lady has been poked and prodded, is tired and needs a cookie.
Your dog’s health may not be simple, but dogs themselves are. So Lady, take this cookie and call me in the morning.
* Thanks to Hans DeHamer, Super Husband, for helping me take all these pictures. *