10 Signs You Need to See a Veterinarian

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP
By Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP on Sep. 28, 2023
A Border Collie with their vet.

In This Article

Nausea and Vomiting

You can’t be sure, but something just seems a bit off with your dog. You’ve started to look up why your fur baby may be sick, and you’re beginning to wonder when you should take them to the vet.

Read on to find out when to be concerned—but remember, if your instinct says there’s a problem, it’s better to be safe. Call your vet and have your pup checked out!

1. Nausea and Vomiting

Frequent concerns with dogs are gastrointestinal (GI) signs—after all, our four-legged friends love to eat everything they find. Some dogs can simply appear nauseated.

They may be restless, drool, and burp frequently, while other dogs go on to vomit. It’s not uncommon for a dog to throw up, and an occasional episode is rarely something to worry about.

However, if your dog is vomiting frequently (multiple times in a single episode or several times a week) or the vomiting is severe, this is cause for concern.

Other signs that may be worrisome include dry heaving or vomit that is tinged with blood

Although vomiting is a very common problem in dogs, the severity can range from mild to potentially life-threatening for dogs experiencing gastric bloat or torsion. 

If your pup’s vomiting episode seems severe, frequent, or involves blood or dry heaving, take them to an emergency vet right away.

2. Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing is always a medical emergency—take your pup to the vet immediately if this occurs.

Difficulty breathing can be confused with excessive panting. Most dogs that are experiencing heavy panting are doing so for a reason—maybe they’ve been exercising heavily, or it’s a hot day.

These dogs don’t appear agitated, the inside of their mouths look pink or reddish, and they’re panting (their chest is moving, but their stomach isn’t heaving heavily).

In contrast, dogs that are having trouble breathing often look scared and have widened eyes. Their gums may look pale or bluish.

These dogs are often agitated and upset, and they may breathe with a heaving motion. They may look like they are pushing or pulling with their bellies as well as their chest. 

When in doubt, contact your local emergency vet. Always have your pup checked out if they aren’t breathing normally.

3. Bleeding

Most dogs that are bleeding should be seen by a vet—even if the wound is minor, as it may require antibiotics. The question is, can the injury wait and be seen during regular office hours, or is it an emergency?

A small scrape or cut (under an inch) that is on or close to the surface of your pup’s skin can likely be cleaned and monitored until they can be seen by their vet. However, a larger cut or one that is bleeding heavily is considered an emergency.

If the injury was a puncture wound (running into a stick or piece of metal, being bitten by another animal), these are often more severe than they look and should always be immediately examined by a vet. In addition, if your dog’s wound appears dirty—like road rash or an injury obtained while playing in sand or mud—they should be taken to the vet.

Blood in the urine, stool, and vomit are cause for worry, and your dog should be examined immediately.

4. Differences in Your Pup’s Eyes

Vets worry about changes in a dog’s eyes. Signs of disease are often first noticed when looking at a pup’s eyes and the tissue surrounding them. Eye problems should be addressed quickly, but not all are considered emergencies.

Dogs that are keeping their eye or eyes shut, squinting, or pawing at their face are trying to communicate that their eyes are uncomfortable or hurting. If this occurs, your dog should be seen immediately.

 Other emergencies include if the white of the eye is red, the surface of the eye looks cloudy, or the tissue surrounding the eye is red and swollen.

If one or both eyes appear to be bulging or swollen, this may indicate that the pressure has increased in the eyes. This is also an emergency that needs to be treated immediately.

If your dog doesn’t seem uncomfortable and isn’t going at their eyes, but their eyes are tearing up or producing more discharge than usual, schedule an appointment with your vet.

This is typically not an emergency. Many minor irritations can cause eye inflammation and are not likely to produce any long-term damage.

5. Weakness, Inactivity, and Lethargy

Many dogs that are generally not feeling well will appear to be lethargic or weak.  These dogs won’t feel up to do their normal things—like when humans have the flu and need to camp out on the sofa.

They may show other signs, too—such as loss of appetite, or limping, or sluggishness.

The reasons your dog is lethargic can vary. They may just be tired from exercise, or it could be more serious, such as experiencing the signs of Lyme disease.

If your dog is up to go for a walk and is eating and drinking normally, it’s safe to monitor the situation for 24 to 48 hours.  

However, if they don’t snap out of it after a good nap or have additional symptoms like vomiting or being off balance, have your pup examined by a vet.

Dogs that are acting sick and are lethargic likely should be seen as an emergency, while those that are quieter than normal can most likely be seen on an appointment basis.

6. Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss

Most dogs like their food. For a passionate eater, a single missed meal may be cause for concern, but others may be pickier and missing a meal or two might be normal for them.

However, any dog that is not eating normally should be examined by their vet.

If their lack of appetite is accompanied by additional signs such as vomiting or weight loss, it becomes more concerning.

Unintentional weight loss in dogs usually means that there’s a more serious problem.

Any pet that is losing weight, whether eating well or not, should also be examined by their vet unless you are intentionally restricting their food in a significant manner to cause weight loss.

A pet parent should only restrict their dog’s food after discussing it with their vet.

Most animals will not just lose weight out of the blue.

If you and your pup aren’t actively trying to lose weight and they are still dropping pounds, there’s an underlying reason that needs to be diagnosed.

7. Difficulty or Inability to Walk

Particularly as they age, many dogs develop conditions such as arthritis in their hind legs, which make it difficult for them to rise or walk. Often, this occurs gradually and warrants an exam by a vet.  However, this is not always considered an emergency. 

For any animal companion that is suddenly unable to walk, is having difficulty walking, or is unexpectedly having more trouble in the hindquarters, they need to be checked out. For small dogs that have long bodies (such as Dachshunds), the concern is even greater. These dogs should be examined immediately, as they are prone to lower back diseases that can affect their hind legs.

Don’t force your pup to walk—it’s possible you will harm them.

Carry any dog that is not able or struggling to walk into the car and into the vet hospital. Most clinics have staff that can help you move a larger dog. You can create a sling to carry your dog by using a strong towel or bed sheet.

If your dog can move their front legs normally but can’t use their back legs, create a sling using a towel to pass under their body.

Call the vet hospital when you arrive and let them know that you will need some help and a stretcher to get your dog safely inside.

Photo credit: Dr. Sandra Mitchell
Photo credit: Dr. Sandra Mitchell

8. Excessive Thirst or Loss of Thirst

Changes in thirst are quite common in dogs and may be associated with changes in the weather, humidity, and exercise.

Dogs that are exercising heavily on a hot day will certainly be thirstier than those napping inside with the air conditioning on. So how can you tell if your pup’s drinking too much water?

One easy trick is to keep an eye on your dog’s urine. If possible, catch some in a white container, such as a clean yogurt cup.  Most dogs will have urine that is light yellow. Urine that is darker may indicate dehydration, and urine that is lighter may indicate that your dog is not processing water well, such as dogs with diabetes or kidney disease.

Another way to tell is your dog’s water bowl—watch it closely.

Are you having to fill it more often than you used to? Is your pup drinking a lot on days that he isn’t running around in the heat or in dry, arid weather? This may mean there’s a problem.

Your vet may be able to simply check a urine sample for you to determine if your dog’s hydration is normal, or they may recommend an exam—particularly if there are any other symptoms such as excessive appetite, weight loss, or lethargy.

Since proper hydration is critical to the well-being of your pet, changes in thirst shouldn’t be ignored.

9. Problems Urinating or Defecating

Most dogs defecate at least once per day, but if you aren’t seeing any stool produced in 48 hours, this is cause for concern and at least a call to your vet.

If your dog is struggling to defecate and nothing is coming out, this is a medical emergency.

Inability to urinate is also a medical emergency, as any blockage can cause kidney damage or bladder rupture. This is especially concerning in male dogs, as the bladder outflow, the urethra, is long and narrow compared with that of females.

Urine flow can be blocked for several reasons, including stones, crystals, blood clots, an enlarged prostate, or masses. Most animals produce a reasonable amount of urine at least every 12 hours.

If your furry companion isn’t producing urine, producing less urine, or straining to urinate with no urine coming out, take them to the vet as soon as possible.

10. Loss of Consciousness

If your dog has lost consciousness, take them to the vet immediately. There are many reasons dogs may lose consciousness, such as trauma, seizures, or fainting.

Even if your dog comes around quickly, don’t delay an evaluation of your pup.

If your dog is still unconscious and needs to be transported, the best thing to do is to use a blanket as a sling and carefully carry them to the car.

In most cases, the back seat will be the safest place—especially if you can use a seat belt around your dog.

Signs You Need to See a Vet FAQs

What do I do if I don’t have a regular veterinarian?

If your pet is having an emergency and you don’t have a regular vet, most areas have access to a regional emergency clinic or specialty hospital.

It may be a longer trip than to your neighborhood vet, but these facilities are often open off-hours or even 24/7. 

You may be able to call the veterinary hospital closest to your home to see if anyone is able to accept an emergency, but in many cases, it will be fastest to just head to an emergency or referral hospital.

How do I tell if my dog is sick or just tired?

Most tired dogs will perk up and show interest as soon as they see their leash and hear an offer for a walk or a ride.

They’ll also get excited at the mention of dinner or a snack. If your dog has exercised a lot and seems tired, give them time for a nap to let them recharge.

When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Have them checked out.

How do I know if my dog is asking for help?

Dogs are often more subtle than people when announcing that they aren’t feeling well. Watch for small hints that your pup is asking for help.

This includes small changes in appetite, weight, urination, defecation, and attitude.

Trust your gut—it goes a long way. If you think your dog is telling you something is wrong, it is time to speak to your vet!

Featured Image: Stock.adobe.com/Kalim

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra Mitchell is a 1995 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduation, she has worked in many fields...

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