Probably more than anything, our responsibility as a dog owner is to make sure our dog is healthy and happy. Good health takes on many forms, not just physical, but mental and emotional as well. A holistic approach to good health is important. As my dog ages, I am particularly concerned with his whole health. Of course, they can’t talk, so we need to be vigilant in observing signs and signals that all is well, or that something just isn’t right.
Do you ever just sit and watch your dog? Watch them go about their daily routine… their habits, their gait, how they eat, how they play, even how they sleep? I watch Rex a lot. I can’t help it! He’s so darn cute! I know what his “normal” is. It’s only by knowing his “normal” that I am (hopefully) able to detect any “abnormality”. The most telling method of accessing our dog’s whole health is their outward, physical appearance.
What does good physical health look like in our dog?
There are many things we should look for when assessing our dog’s health.
Skin and coat
Dog’s skin should be supple and clear. There should be no lumps, bumps, papules, scabs, flakiness, scales, insect infestation, bald spots, excessive greasiness or excessive dryness. Did you know that there are over 160 skin disorders in dogs? Some are curable, some are not. Sometimes all we can do is manage the symptoms with good nutrition, medication, special shampoos, fatty acids, and vitamin supplementation. Rex has an incurable skin disorder, but you would never know it. We have been diligent in managing his symptoms since diagnosis. With ongoing care, his skin is problem free.
A dog’s coat should be glossy, pliable and clean. It should smell fresh. It should feel smooth to the touch, realizing that it is normal for some breeds have a wiry coat, i.e., Westies, Border Terriers, Brussels Griffon, and Wire-hired Fox Terriers, to name a few. A dog’s coat should be free of dandruff and excess greasiness or dryness. It should not shed excessively.
Illness or stress can influence the appearance and texture of a dog’s coat. Stress may cause them to shed excessively. A dull, lack-luster coat can be a symptom of hormone imbalances, parasites, digestive disorders, and cancer.
Regular brushing will help keep your dog’s skin and coat clean, remove dead skin cells, loose hair, dirt, and debris. Brushing also helps to distribute natural oils throughout the coat. A long-haired dog needs daily brushing to keep the hair tangle and mat free. Routine visits to the Groomer are essential for your dog to have a healthy skin and coat. Groomers are great at checking the skin for any abnormalities too.
Breath, teeth, gums
Contrary to popular belief, dog breath doesn’t smell bad. I mean, it’s not going to smell minty fresh, but there should be no offensive odor to your dog’s breath. If your dog does have bad breath, it could be from a buildup of bacteria which can lead to gingivitis and periodontal disease. Sometimes a specific odor indicates illness. For example, if your dog’s breath smells like ammonia or urine, it could be caused by a kidney problem. If their breath smells like fingernail polish remover (or Acetone), they could have diabetes. If your dog’s breath has any type of unusual smell, report it to your veterinarian.
Check your dog’s teeth and gums. Teeth should be shiny and white. Watch for redness around the gum-line, and loose and broken teeth. Gums should be firm and pink, sometimes spotted. Gums should never be swollen, pale or bleeding. Make sure to have your vet do a thorough mouth and teeth examination annually. And of course, regular teeth cleaning is recommended.
Appropriate weight – A Healthy Weight for Dogs
Helping your dog maintain an appropriate weight is one of the most important things you can do to assure good health. A healthy weight requires the combination of good nutrition and regular exercise. How do you know if your dog is a healthy weight? Just like humans, they should have a noticeable waistline. Their tummy should be tucked up behind their chest. One commonly known test is to see if you can feel their ribs. You should be able to feel their ribs with minimal fat covering.
These are good indicators that your dog is not overweight, but how do you know if your dog is underweight? It can be a little tricky, depending on just how underweight the dog is. If their ribs and other bones are pronounced and they show little to no muscle mass, they are definitely underweight. If the ribs are more than slightly visible, it may be necessary to increase your dog’s daily food. It’s more difficult to know if your dog’s weight is appropriate when they are thick and furry like Keeshonds and Chow Chows. If you have any doubt, check with your vet. They will let you know a proper weight for your dog’s size.
Healthy ears should be clear and pink around the folds and in the canal. There should be no heavy wax build up, although light wax is expected. With exception to the occasional dirt which happens with all fur-kids, there should be no debris in the ears. Ears should be odor free. If a dog’s ear smells bad or is red and inflamed, they should be treated as soon as possible.
If a dog is shaking their head often, scratching at their face and ears, and reluctant to let you touch them around the head/ear, something could be wrong with their ears. It could be anything from ear infection, mites, or a foreign object in the ear canal. Some poor breeds are prone to ear problems, especially those with long, thick ears like cocker spaniels. Some breeds, like shar-peis have very heavy skin folds and very narrow ear canals which makes them difficult to keep clean. Dogs that love to play in the water, Labradors, for example, often have issues with yeast and bacteria that thrive in the moist environment in their ears.
Healthy bowel movements
It’s not just what your dog’s poop should look like, it’s also the regularity of their bowel movements that is important to their health. Does your dog have a good healthy bowel movement at least once per day? That’s fine. Many dogs go several times a day, up to four or five times! If your dog is pooping much more than that, you should probably check their food. It may contain an excessive amount of fiber, grains, or filler. Also, if their feces if loose, bloody, or has an abnormal amount of mucus, there could be a medical problem like colitis or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (yes, dogs get it too). After picking up your dog’s poop every day, you’re probably more familiar with what it looks like than you care to be. It’s easy to tell if there is any variation. A dog’s feces should be firm, not hard, and well formed. It should be brown in color. Black, green, red, gray or yellow feces could indicate a problem. Talk with your vet if you notice any discoloration in your dog’s feces.
The color of your dog’s urine will let you know how hydrated they are and is also a good indicator of other health issues. Urine should be almost clear with a yellow tinge, sort of a “transparent yellow”. If the urine is completely clear, your dog may be drinking too much water. If the urine is dark, cloudy or red, this is cause for concern and should be brought to your Veterinary’s attention as soon as possible.
If your dog’s urine has a strong odor, you should grab a disposable cup, get a sample, and take it to be analyzed by your Vet. Strong- or foul-smelling urine can be an indicator of a past or present infection.
Okay… lets move on! (ugh!)
Oh, those beautiful, sparkling eyes. Don’t you just love them? A dog’s eyes can say a lot about their health. One of the first signs I recognize when my dog does not feel well is a mild dimness or weakness to his eyes. Healthy eyes should be bright and shiny. Older dogs will often develop a discoloration or “clouding” to the eyes, which is perfectly normal. The eyelids should be pink, and the whites of their eyes should be just that, with little redness or discoloration. Some mucus is normal, but make sure it’s just mucus – not yellow or green pus. If there is pus, you will normally see other indications that something is wrong – like the dog rubbing its eyes, or squinting.
Some tearing is expected. Excessive tearing is not normal and should be discussed with your vet. Some breeds are more susceptible to excessive tearing (called epiphora) and drainage around the eyes, i.e., Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels, Maltese and toy Poodles. Sometimes there is an odor associated with epiphora as dampness and bacteria commingle. Your vet may recommend twice-daily washing of the area and antibiotics to treat epiphora.
A dog’s nose is generally moist and cool. Believe it or not, it’s normal for a dog’s nose to be somewhat dry and warm on occasion too. It should have a textured leather-like feel. It should be free of ulcerations, sores and cracks, which could indicate a skin disease, an immune condition or an infection. Lumps and bumps around the nose is also concerning.
If a dog’s nose becomes excessively dry and they are acting like they don’t feel well, it could be a sign of a more serious problem. In fact, if you see any significant changes in your dog’s nose, you should get it checked out.
One more thing: What comes out of that nose is important too. If there is a discharge of any kind, or a runny nose consisting of thick yellow-green mucus, contact your vet. If your dog’s nose bleeds, it could indicate anything from a tumor to an abscessed tooth. If you see blood, you should report it to your vet immediately.
Nails should be strong, straight, solid. Not brittle or cracking. They can be white, black or a combination of colors. If your dog’s nails are brittle, splitting, weak, peeling, soft, fragile, or cracking, there can be several reasons for it: Poor diet, fungal infections, yeast, or physical trauma. Keep an eye out for any inflammation around the nail beds. Inflammation could be from an infection known as paronychia. It occurs along the toenail and the surrounding tissue. If untreated, surgical amputation of the toe may be required.
Make sure to keep your dog’s nails trimmed at an optimal length. Just what is optimal length? Nails should not reach the ground when the dog is standing normally. Do you hate to trim your dog’s nails? Nearly everyone does! We can help you with that. Feel free to drop by Holiday Barn Pet Resorts at any time (best times: 10AM – 3PM) without an appointment to have your dog’s nails trimmed. Just be sure to bring proof of vaccinations.
A dog’s gait is really just how they move… how the organs, bones, and muscles work together to put them in motion. You can really get technical about how a gait should look – counting the number of feet on the ground at one time, symmetrical vs asymmetrical footing, how many beats per gait, kenetic measurements and so on. But for those of us who don’t feel like dissecting it, here is what we want to see when our dog has a healthy gait: a synchronized pace or tempo; a smooth, easy movement in which legs on each side move in rhythm with one another. At slightly increased speeds, a healthy bounce is observed.
There are many indications of ill health that can be seen in a dog’s gait. Watch for unsteadiness, stiffness, limping, lowered head, arching of the back, weakness, etc… Changes in gait could indicate pain, joint abnormalities, muscle injuries, hip dysplasia, back or disc problems, even cancer.
Eating & Drinking
I’ve never known a dog that didn’t go bonkers for a treat or a meal, have you? Dogs love to eat! A hearty appetite is a sign of good health in our dogs. It’s when the appetite changes that there may be cause for concern. Eating less than normal at one or two meals isn’t a red flag. It becomes a problem when it is ongoing. If your dog doesn’t eat within 48 hours, you need to take them to the vet. Lack of appetite could indicate several types of infection or disease. And it could be nothing more than a sore or broken tooth or too many treats!
Eating more than normal is a problem as well. A significant increase in appetite could be a sign of diabetes. Your vet will probably perform a series of tests to make sure the kidneys, liver, and other organs are operating efficiently. An increase in appetite could also be due to a new medication, or even aging.
Drinking water is hugely important for your dog’s health. The daily water intake for a dog is about three to six ounces of water for every five pounds of body weight, so a 25-pound dog would drink between a pint and almost two pints per day under average conditions.* You don’t have to precisely measure your dog’s intake. My own dog had a fear of water and/or the water bowl when we adopted him. In the beginning he would go for days without taking a drink from the water bowl. He has relaxed since those first days and drinks somewhat normally now, but I do watch to make sure he is drinking a few times daily.
If your dog does not drink enough, he could become dehydrated or develop kidney stones. Under-drinking can also indicate disease such as pancreatitis or parvo. Dogs cannot function – or survive – without adequate water intake. Don’t wait to talk to your vet if your dog is not drinking adequately.
If a dog drinks too much water, they could -at worse – bloat, and at least – throw off their electrolytes. Drinking too much is not that uncommon of an issue for a dog. There can be either a physical or psychological reason for over-drinking. Physically, they may suffer from Cushing’s disease, diabetes, or even kidney failure. If there is a psychological, or behavioral issue, it is difficult to treat. Sorting it out can be challenging. You will need to work closely with your vet to manage it.
Dogs sleep a lot. Generally, 12 – 14 hours per day (that’s 50% of the day!) although that figure is dependent on my factors such as age, daily activity and breed. Large dogs like mastiffs, St. Bernard’s, and Great Pyrenees sleep more than smaller breeds. Puppies will sleep even longer – up to 18 hours per day. If your dog sleeps more than is considered “normal”, there could be several reasons for it. It could be as serious as a heart condition, an underactive thyroid gland, or as simple as aging. A dog that sleeps too much could actually be bored or depressed. Make sure your dog has adequate exercise and the opportunity to engage their senses every day.
A dog that sleeps too little could be in pain and unable to get comfortable. An inability to sleep can also be a sign of canine heart disease. Or they could just have a lot of pent-up energy that needs to be burnt off before they can rest. Again, exercise is critical for good health and sound sleep. Visit your vet if you find your dog sleeping more or less than normal.
Alertness and Attitude
It’s easy to tell if your dog is happy… they’re experts at body language! Your dog should be eager to engage with you; alert to their surroundings; and generally lively. They should have a contented disposition, showing no signs of nervousness or anxiety. They should be energetic and enthusiastic about life. They should exhibit an overall relaxed posture and a confident stance.
How to Tell if Your Dog is Sick
Make a habit of monitoring your dog’s health on an on-going basis. At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we maintain continual health checks for each guest as they go about their daily activities. By way of “poop charts”, attitude checks, and good record keeping, we are able to share information with any pack member who is seeing to your pet’s care. It may sound obsessive, but it’s a habit we should continue with our dog at home too. Make mental notes as to how much your dog is eating and drinking; asses their willingness to exercise and play to quickly catch any early signs of pain or ill-health; let the rest of the family know if your dog has pooped or peed that day so that whoever is walking them will know what needs to happen. It’s not hard to do.
A healthy dog is a happy dog, and that’s what we all want, right?