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Signs of illness in your dog

Know what is normal for your dog so that you recognize signs of illness more quickly. © iStockphoto.com/Robert Dant Know what is normal for your dog so that you recognize signs of illness more quickly. © iStockphoto.com/Robert Dant
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By Darcy Lockman

When your dog is ill, the sooner you intervene, the better. While lethargy and changes in appetite and elimination patterns are easily detectable, other signs of illness may slip under the radar for months on end. Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian at NYC Veterinary Specialists, offers advice on what you should watch out for to ensure your pet stays healthy.

Gums

When dog owners call Joyce to ask whether or not they should bring their pet to her emergency room, one of the first things she asks about is the color of the animal's gums. Gums that are lighter or darker than normal can indicate a number of problems requiring medical attention.

In general, a healthy dog has pink gums. "If gums are pale, the cause can be internal bleeding -- especially common in older, large-breed dogs -- or it can be due to low blood pressure or low body temperature," explains Joyce. "Bright-red gums can be caused by a fever and an infection."

Legs and Paws

Your dog should always bear weight equally on all four legs. Both sprains and bone cancer can show up as what Joyce calls "light lameness." She suggests checking for lumps and bumps, particularly in older large-breed dogs. Asymmetry in the legs can suggest a disease that involves withering of the muscles.

Your dog's paws are vulnerable to contact dermatitis, and dogs usually lick their paws repeatedly to manage the irritation. Excessive redness between the toes can mean that either a bacterial or yeast infection has set in. 

Eyes

When your dog is hale and hearty, its eyes are bright and clear. The whites are white, and there is no discharge. In contrast, less-than-healthy eyes are red and may be a notable source of irritation for your furry friend. Redness can indicate anything from dry eye to glaucoma to an infectious disease. Discharge may be suggestive of an eye ulcer.

Ears

Healthy ears are reasonably clean and don't smell bad. The floppy part is neither pink nor red. Also, both ears should look the same on the inside. If there's a difference, the animal may have either a bacterial or a yeast infection.

Abundant earwax can also signify an ear infection. "If your dog is scratching at its ears a lot, check the wax. Normal earwax is pale gray to light brown and is not abundant," explains Joyce.

Skin and Hair

Ideally, your pup's skin is pink, without patchy areas of hair loss or irritation. "Your dog should smell like a dog. With some skin diseases, the dog will smell yeasty or stinky," says Joyce. Excessive skin scratching is another way your dog may alert you to skin issues.

A healthy canine coat has luster. "You can see if a dog's hair is healthy, just like you can with a person," says Joyce. Hair should not have a lot of dander and should not feel greasy. Abundant hair loss can indicate anything from anxiety to endocrine disease and nutritional deficits.

Teeth

Dental health is as important in dogs as in people. Good dental hygiene shows up in your pet's breath as well as its teeth. "Dog owners are surprisingly reluctant to look into their dogs' mouths," comments Joyce. However, doing so is important, as dental disease is common -- especially in small dogs, which tend to have longer life spans.

"Teeth are a potential source of pain and infection," notes Joyce. She suggests monitoring your dog's breath and the amount of tartar on its teeth. When either takes a turn for the worse, it may be time for a cleaning to prevent more serious problems down the road.

"No matter what body part you're talking about, start off knowing what's normal for your pet," sums up Joyce. "Changes in any of the above might be indicative of a problem, at which point it's time to check with your dog's veterinarian."

Darcy Lockman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn, with the prettiest pug dog in the five boroughs.

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