10 Signs Your Pet Needs the Vet

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on January 28, 2013. We are republishing it for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Most pet guardians recognize the obvious signs of a pet in distress and would seek veterinary care for all the obvious signs of illness or injury such as bleeding or an animal who can not stand. But what about the more subtle signs that your pet needs help? Every species has its one code, its own tell-tale signs of trouble, and in the animal kingdom, communication can be cryptic to the human eye. One golden rule is to watch for any behavioral shifts which may have an alarming underlying cause…

#1 Restlessness: Maggie, the 10-year-old calico cat, was always a quiet girl. She preferred to spend most of the day sleeping in a wicker basket. So when Maggie began exploring the house more, particularly at night, her family was thrilled to see her becoming more active. Maggie would pace through the house, checking every room and sometimes let out a single meow. Turns out, Maggie was suffering from a brain tumor that was giving her severe headaches. The pacing was her response to the pain. What looked like a wonderful new sense of exploration, was actually the manifestation of severe illness. Restlessness can be a firm indicator of pain or anxiety.

At first, no one knew Maggie's wandering about the house indicated pain.

#2 Unusual Ways of Getting Your Attention: What do you make of a bunny who normally wanders the living room floor but is suddenly ascending onto the couch? Perhaps he has his ears cocked in different directions instead of the usual symmetrical arrangement. Bunny may be trying to get your attention. A common cause of pain in rabbits comes from their mouths as teeth tend to grow spurs causing painful lacerations and infection, especially in the rear corners of the mouth that can only be viewed with special veterinary instruments.  Read a complete list of bunny health warning signs here.

In dogs and cats, frequent barking or meowing that is uncharacteristic for your pet could be a sign of distress. Any time your pet is persistently turning to you for attention and you are unable to satisfy this pleading with food, water or a walk outdoors, you could be looking at a pet who is in need of care.

In iguanas, face rubbing is a problem and can lead to injury from abrasive metal cages. Environmental changes, health issues or a small cage can provoke the behavior.

#3 Changes in Body Presentation and Posture: A pet bird who sits with his feathers ruffled out for a long period of time may be suffering respiratory illness.  See a complete list of bird health warning signs here. In rabbits, a hunched and hunkered down posture can indicate stasis, a painful and potentially deadly slow-down of the gastrointestinal tract which is common to rabbits and requires immediate veterinary intervention. And in dogs and cats, you’ll want to pay attention if your pet is suddenly sleeping in an unusual position, limping or hesitating to sit down.

Watch for changes in body language. Rabbits are prone to lacerations from tooth spurs as well as a condition called stasis, an urgent slow down of their digestive tract.

#4 Hesitation to Jump or Climb: A dog who begins to hesitate before jumping into the car or onto the bed may be experiencing arthritis, hip dysplasia or even early signs of neurological disease. It’s best to get an early look at these changes to offer comfort and to prevent progression of disease if possible.

Climbing stairs and getting into the car became difficult for Alex.

#5 Going into Hiding/ Becoming Quiet: If your normally social pet begins seeking more quiet time or begins sleeping a lot more, this can be a red flag indicating some form of pain or infection. This is a big one and you’ll want to begin paying careful attention to see if you can uncover any other changes so that you can report these to the vet as well. In fact, one cat who recently swallowed a long piece of string that was constricting his intestines was simply noted to be sitting quietly and not bouncing around as he usually does. This change had only begun that morning, but his eyes seemed to say something is wrong, and fortunately his very astute guardian rushed him to the vet where an x-ray revealed the foreign body and emergency surgery saved his life.


#6 Pee & Poo Indicators: Your animal’s bathroom habits are an excellent barometer of health which is why its critically important for pet guardians to observe their pets’ elimination behaviors. Frequent urination can indicate a variety of sneaky and serious health issues ranging from diabetes to urinary tract infection to kidney failure. In fact, in male cats, blockage of the urinary tract can suddenly occur and your cat will be unable to urinate despite desperate attempts. If your litter box is out of sight, you will not notice these red flags. You must see how often your cat is visiting the box. Daily cleaning of the box to look for appropriate quantity of urine is essential, but in multi-cat households, it’s harder to spot illness in a single cat through cleaning alone. Changes in bowel movements can indicate anything from simple parasitic infection to intestinal disease to gastrointestinal hemorrhaging. Black poo, poo with red blood or diarrhea that persists are all reasons to see the vet. (How to Assess Dog Poo)

Make sure you are able to observe the urinary habits of your pet.

#7 Bad Breath: Geriatric pets are not the only ones who can suffer from dental diseases. Even in kittens as young as four months old, severe dental disease can be present as a result of common viruses and severe pain, even exposed nerves, can evolve quickly. If your pet has foul breath, don’t play games with over-the-counter breath freshening tools. First, see your vet to find out if your pet has abscesses, broken teeth, gingival complications or other oral health conditions that could be causing pain and opening the window to additional disease of major organs including the heart.  More on pet dental health.

Bad breath is a sign of illness.

#8 “False” Hairballs or Coughing: You’d be surprised at how much asthma in cats looks and sounds like a cat trying to cough up a fur ball. Many cat guardians miss the early signs of asthma because it appears so similar to the old ‘hair ball’ routine. Viral infections, heart diseases, asthma and worms are but a few of the reasons your pet may be coughing, wheezing or sneezing and it’s simply impossible for pet owners to make these determinations on their own.


#9 Itching: Sometimes food allergies, environmental allergies or external parasites cause itching.  Particularly if you pet is itching at his ears and wincing, painful ear mites or yeast overgrowth may be present.

Pay close attention to the subtle signs and follow your intuition.

#10 Not Your Average Vomit: Pets do vomit occasionally, but sometimes vomit is an indicator of an emergency ranging from poisoning, an ingested foreign object or serious illness. In fact, retching unproductively can also indicate a severe condition in dogs in which their stomach is twisted. For the full skinny of pet vomiting and what to look out for, see this quick article by By Dr. Emily  Coatney-Smith.

Brought to you by the Harmony Fund international animal rescue charity.

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sheena a
sheena arsenaultabout a year ago

Thank you for posting.

Kelly S
Past Member about a year ago

so sad..................

Maria R
Past Member about a year ago

Good advice. Thanks.

Rosslyn O
Rosslyn Oabout a year ago

All good points thanks

Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a year ago

If you really know and love your pet...you'll KNOW when it's time for the vet!

Peggy B
Peggy Babout a year ago

Good to know.

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

Elaine W
Elaine Wabout a year ago

It is useful to know these warning signals.

natasha p
Past Member about a year ago

so horrible . I hate illnesses so much,