Pet illness and symptoms

How to tell if your pet is ill, signs of illness in dogs and cats

· Dog,Cat

Whether this is your first pet or your tenth, knowing the signs of illness in your companion is essential. Dogs, cats, rabbits and other species all show illness differently, and it can vary between individuals as well. Even if you’re an experienced pet owner, there are new and emerging diseases that might show different symptoms, so knowing how to tell if your pet is ill is essential.

In this section we’ll discuss the symptoms of sickness you might expect to see in your dogs and cats, and guidelines for when you should contact your vet.

Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth

Healthy, happy dogs and cats have clear, bright eyes with no discharge. Their nose may be wet, or dry. Their gums are a healthy salmon-pink colour - although they may be black in dogs with dark skin. Sick animals may have red or swollen eyes, discharge collecting at the corner of their eyes, or very pale, white, or red gums. Smelly breath is also a sign of disease. The ears should be clean, or have a mild light discharge - red skin on the ears or thick black discharge are a sign of an ear infection and should prompt a discussion with a veterinarian.

Cat illness and symptoms

Pet's skin and coat

Your pet’s coat should be thick and shiny, without patches of hair loss or dandruff. Itchiness, redness, stickiness, rashes and grazes are all signs of a problem. If your dog’s coat smells yeasty or sweaty, it could indicate a skin infection. If your dog is white, their feet should not be pink, as this is a sign of recurrent licking. If pinched, your pet’s skin folds should very quickly or immediately spring back into place - a slow response suggests dehydration. Large cuts, severe bleeding, or painful lesions are a cause for concern and you should contact your vet immediately to discuss treatment. Dehydration should also be taken very seriously - contact your vet if you think your pet might be dehydrated.

Chest and Heart

In slim dogs, it’s normal to feel the heart beating through the chest wall. Your dog’s heartbeat should be even and steady. If your dog’s heartbeat seems faster than normal, and they haven’t recently been exercising, you should consult your vet. Normal dogs at rest or sleeping will breathe at a rate of less than 30 breaths in a minute- any more than this and you should call your veterinarian. The breathing should be clear and not rattling or noisy. Excessive panting can be a cause for concern as well. Cats should not pant; panting is considered an emergency in cats.

Kidneys and Urination

You should keep an eye on your dog’s drinking and urination. Drinking large amounts is a concern, and urinating either large amounts or very small amounts is worrying, too. Suddenly weeing in the house, weeing more often, or blood in the urine are all something to be concerned about - and stopping urinating altogether is an emergency.

Dog illness and symptoms

Abdomen and Guts

It’s very common for things to go wrong with your dog’s abdomen, but abdominal problems can be hard to assess. Signs of abdominal pain include grunting when being lifted and lying in the ‘prayer position’- with their chest on the floor and bottom in the air. The most common signs of a problem with the guts are signs like vomiting, diarrhoea, or constipation - so be on the lookout for these. Most of these problems require discussion with a vet, but the only emergencies are severe pain and recurrent, non-stop retching and vomiting. Severe vomiting and diarrhoea should also prompt a call with a qualified vet, as dehydration can quickly occur.


Lameness is usually clear in dogs, but may be less obvious in cats. If your pet is unable to bear weight on a limb they should be seen as soon as possible, as it’s likely they’re in severe pain. If you’re unsure whether your pet is slowing down, becoming stiff, or is slightly lame, a discussion with a vet is a good idea. Video consultations using telemedicine are particularly useful in these situations, as assessing the animal in their own environment is useful - especially for cats. The vet team at KeepPet will be more than happy to assess your pet’s lameness and make recommendations as to further investigation or treatment.

Pet behaviour

You know your pet best, so you’re in the best position to tell if they are behaving normally. Get a feel for your dog’s normal appetite, thirst drive, and playfulness so that you can tell when something isn’t right. In general, lethargic behaviour is abnormal - as is abnormal amounts of aggression. If you feel something isn’t right with your pet’s behaviour, it could have a medical cause, so chatting to a vet is the first step in fixing the problem.