A large part of responsible pet ownership is ensuring your pet is healthy and noticing where there may be a problem. We always teach veterinary students a logical approach to examining animals and start from the nose and work back towards the tail. It’s also important to know what normal looks like, so we can spot when it’s not right. We’ll follow this approach in talking you through what is normal in your dogs, cats and rabbits and then some emergency situations to watch out for.
Nose – Your dog has 50 times more smell receptors in their nose and an area in their brain 40 times bigger than ours devoted to processing all those sniffs and scents. It is an amazing organ which dogs can use to their full advantage! Watch out for discharge, sneezing or any breathing changes so your dog can keep sniffing!
Eyes – Have a look at your dog’s eyes and watch out for discharge, redness or blinking. These can all be signs of infection, pain or serious issues like scratches on the eye. Your dog has third eyelids – these are there to help protect the eyes. If they are raised it can be a sign that your pet is unwell or dehydrated. With any eye problem it is best to get your dog checked by a vet as soon as possible.
Ears – Dogs can hear sounds that are further away and much higher than we can even detect. Your dog may have floppy ears or upright ears but these are designed to help with this special skill. Dogs have ear canals just like us but sometimes these can become infected, inflamed or even trap foreign bodies such as grass seeds within them. Signs of ear problems can include your dog shaking their head, their ears looking red or smelling different. Inner ear problems might cause your dog to have a head tilt or lose their balance. A vet can check your dog and their ears with an otoscope for these problems.
Mouth – If it is safe to do so have a look in your dog’s mouth. Dogs have 42 teeth when they are adults – ranging from their tiny incisors at the front of their mouth to their chunky molar teeth at the back. Check your dog’s gum colour. It should be a salmon pink colour (unless pigmented) and when you press on the gum the colour should return within 2 seconds once released. Some dogs have teeth removed if they are rotten or have tartar build up and so it’s important to help your dog’s dental hygiene from an early age with tooth brushing, dental chews and if possible just feeding dry food.
Throat and Chest – If your dog is coughing or sneezing it can be a sign of infection or inflammation in their airways. If your dog coughs, especially when you pinch on their windpipe then it could be a sign of Kennel cough. Kennel cough is a highly contagious infection which is usually not life-threatening but can cause a nasty hacking cough. It is important to try and keep your dog away from other dogs until a week after symptoms have subsided.
Some dogs may struggle to breathe because of their conformation – e.g. short, squashed noses and airways and these breeds especially need help when trying to stay cool. They can easily overheat so avoid walking in the heat of the day and use fans/cool towels for them in the hotter months. If your dog has a cough or trouble breathing it’s important to get them checked out by a vet. Sometimes it can be a sign of heart problems so your dog may need regular monitoring and medication to help.
Abdomen – Your dog’s abdomen contains some very vital organs. These assist your dog in digesting food, storing blood, processing fluid and urine, as well as having reproductive organs until your dog is neutered. Just like us, dogs can get stomach upsets and signs of this can include gurgling, stretching and a reduced appetite. Your dog might also have vomiting and/or diarrhoea. If their signs are mild then a bland diet of chicken and rice or scrambled eggs can help, but if symptoms continue it’s best for your vet to check them over.
Dogs can become bloated which is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention. Signs might be a swollen stomach, retching or collapse. Phone your vet straight away if you notice these signs. To reduce the risk of bloat avoid exercising or playing with your dog soon after they have eaten.
Fur, fluff and your dog’s skin – Most dogs are covered in fur but sometimes their coat may become dull, scurfy, greasy or even fall out. There are lots of reasons that this can happen but your vet can take a look and decide what the best treatment is. This may be medicated shampoos, topical creams or tablets. A common time for skin problems is during the summer months due pollen and grass allergies but other causes of itching and irritation can include parasites such as fleas, food allergies and infections.
Paws, Pads and Claws – These areas can be commonly injury so look out for split pads or nails as well as foreign bodies such as seeds and thorns in your dog’s feet. Signs to watch out for include limping or licking to point out there’s a problem. Dog nails can become long if not worn down by walking on hard surfaces like pavements. Your vet can help with clipping these if needed, especially the dew claws.
Tail and Bottom – What goes in must come out! Therefore it’s important to check your dog’s poo. It can vary in colour, consistency and sometimes even contain blood, worms or mucus. If this is the case your dog will need to be seen by a vet to prescribe your dog the correct treatment. Sometimes your dog might try and show you there is something wrong by scooting (dragging their bottom) or by chewing around the top of their tail. This could be signs of worms, fleas, anal gland problems or all of the above but luckily all can be treated!
Nose – Look out for discharge, sneezing or breathing changes to make sure you cat’s nose is as healthy as possible. Cats can develop these symptoms for a number of reasons from viral or bacterial infections to blockage in the nasal passageways. You’d be surprised what they can sniff up there!
Eyes – Have a look at your cat’s eyes and watch out for discharge, redness or blinking. These can all be signs of infection, pain or serious issues like scratches on the eye. Cat flu can present with eye inflammation or green eye discharge so it’s important to watch out for these signs. Your cat has third eyelids – these are there to help protect the eyes. If they are raised it can be a sign that your pet is unwell or dehydrated. With any eye problem it is best to get your cat checked by a vet as soon as possible.
Mouth – If it is safe to do so have a look in your cat’s mouth. Cats have 30 teeth when they are adults – ranging from their tiny incisors at the front of their mouth to their biting molar teeth at the back. Your cat’s gum colour should be a salmon pink colour (unless pigmented) and when you press on the gum the colour should return within 2 seconds once released. Careful if you try this – some cats might not like it! Some cats have teeth removed if they are rotten or have tartar build up and so it’s important to help your cat’s dental hygiene from an early age if possible by feeding just dry food. Monitor your cat for signs of pain when eating, a reduced appetite, smelly breath or weight loss which can all be signs of dental disease.
Ears –Cats have ear canals just like us but sometimes these can become infected, inflamed or even trap foreign bodies such as grass seeds within them. Signs of ear problems can include your cat shaking their head, their ears looking red or smelling different. Inner ear problems might cause your cat to have a head tilt or lose their balance. A vet can check your cat and their ears with an otoscope for these problems.
Throat and Chest – Cats can develop changes to their breathing for lots of reasons. Anywhere from their nostrils down to their air sacs within their lungs can become blocked with mucus or inflamed causing wheezing, coughing or sneezing. Cats don’t cope well with breathing problems and require emergency treatment with your vet. Try to remain calm as you transport them to your vets where they should be able to provide some oxygen to help your cat relax whilst they examine for the underlying cause.
Changes in your cat’s heart rate, rhythm and sounds might develop with changes to their heart structure, function or blood pressure throughout their body. Sometimes heart rates can increase, especially in older cats due to underlying thyroid issues. Your vet will check your cat’s heart as part of their full clinical exam. If there is a problem they can perform an ultrasound scan, an ECG or even take your cat’s blood pressure.
Abdomen – Your cat’s abdomen contains lots of vital organs to help with digestion, blood storage and fluid balance. Cats can get stomach upsets just like us and may show signs of vomiting, diarrhoea, reduced appetite or stomach pain. If you see these signs then feeding a bland diet such as white fish might help, but if symptoms become severe or persist for over 24 hours, get your vet to check over your cat as soon as possible.
Cats are also prone to cystitis and the commonest cause is stress. If your cat is urinating frequently, it’s best to speak to your vet. Sometimes pheromones/natural remedies can help but your cat may need anti-inflammatories to help reduce the pain and irritation. It is important to monitor that your cat is still passing some urine if they are straining, especially in male cats. If they become blocked, their bladder gets full and causes back pressure on their kidneys. This is an emergency so seek urgent veterinary care.
As your cat becomes older there is a higher risk of kidney disease. Signs can include drinking and urinating more, a reduced appetite, vomiting or weight loss. Speak to your vet about blood and urine tests which can be checked.
Fur, fluff and your cat’s skin – Most cats are covered in fur but sometimes their coat may become dull, scurfy, greasy or even fall out. There are lots of reasons that this can happen and lots of treatments to help including topical sprays or creams or tablets.
One of the commonest reasons for skin irritation in cats is fleas so monthly preventative treatment is essential. Some cats are even allergic to flea saliva which leads to a condition called FAD (Flea Allergy Dermatitis). This can cause painful sores on the skin and may need antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to clear up. Skin problems can be frustrating for cats as well as their owners so if you notice any problems with your cat, see your vet as soon as possible.
Paws and Claws – Cats have retractable claws but older cats sometimes lose the ability to draw them back as they age. Whatever your cat’s age it is important to monitor their claws and ensure they are not overgrowing and causing sores on their pads. Cat scratch posts can help to wear them down, although most cats seem to prefer the best rug or sofa!
Eyes – Have a look at your rabbi’s eyes and watch out for discharge, redness or blinking. These can all be signs of infection, pain or serious issues like scratches on the eye. With any eye problems it is best to get your rabbit checked as soon as possible.
Your rabbit has tear ducts which sit in the corners of their eyes, closest to their nose. These should drain down into your rabbit’s nose but if they are blocked there can be creamy discharge present. Your vet can try to perform a tear duct flush to clear the blockage but sometimes it can be an indication of dental disease and tooth root problems.
Mouth and teeth – Rabbits have 28 teeth in total as adults. Dental disease can be a major problem with malocclusion (teeth not lining up) or irregular wear causing spurs and spikes. Signs of dental problems can include a reduced appetite, drooling or eye problems. Your vet can look at the back of your rabbit’s mouth to check the teeth there which may be causing a problem. Sometimes they may need filing down or removing under a general anaesthetic.
Ears – Rabbits have amazing senses to help them if they need to pick up on a danger and get away quickly. Their big ears help them to detect even quieter sounds which can be much further away. With such large ears, rabbits can be prone to ear infections – just like cats and dogs. Ear drops can be prescribed by your vet to clear these up. Most rabbits tolerate having their ears cleaned and these solutions applied. If your rabbit develops a head tilt it might show a problem within their inner ear. This can be caused by a parasite called E.cuniculi which if caught early can be treated. If untreated the damage can be severe, leading to rabbits having difficulty coordinating movements and going downhill rapidly.
Chest and throat – Rabbits, like other small animals, are quite prone to pasteurella infections which can cause wheezing and breathing problems. Most of the time a course of antibiotics, sometimes with anti-inflammatory medication can clear these infections up for your rabbit.
Abdomen – Rabbits must constantly eat and pass faeces. If they stop doing this then their guts will slow down or stop moving. This in turn leads to gas build up within their intestines and stomach leading to a condition called bloat. This is an emergency. If you notice your rabbit’s appetite is reduced, you could tempt them with greens or some vegetables. If they do not quickly start eating, it is best to seek urgent veterinary attention. Your vet will probably give your rabbit medication to get the guts moving again and may need to keep your rabbit in for close monitoring. If left untreated, bloat can be fatal so must be treated as soon as possible.
Rabbits are more prone to their guts slowing down after an anaesthetic or if they have pain from dental disease or other areas. It is always safer to get your rabbit checked so they can receive treatment if needed.
Fur, fluff and skin – Your rabbit is covered in lots of fur but sometimes it can fall out, contain scurf or lead to skin irritation and sores. This can be due to behaviour, parasites, infection amongst other causes. Your vet may take hair plucks to examine for parasites such as mites but if found these can be cleared up relatively easily.
Back end and bums – When it comes to flystrike season from April to October, you should be checking your bunny’s bum twice a day. Rabbits may get fur and faeces matted around their back end which can lead to sores, infections or even fly eggs being laid and growing into maggots. Fly repellent sprays or foams are available and regular cleaning can help keep your rabbit safe.
Monitor for urine scalding too which may appear as pink skin over your rabbit’s hocks or back end. If your rabbit is older this may be a sign of arthritis and being less active. Your vets may prescribe some pain relief to help keep your bunny comfortable and active. It’s important to keep the bedding changed regularly too to prevent the build-up of urine or faeces for your rabbit to sit in.
First Aid and Emergencies
Our pets like to keep us on our toes and situations can develop very quickly. Our advice is always to contact your vet if you suspect a problem with your pet. They may give advice or recommend that you should bring your pet in to the practice to be checked over. Having said this, it is always useful to have a first aid kit ready for your initial care of your injured pet. We’ve provided a list below of the most important items that this should contain;
First Aid Kit
If you decide to dress an injury on your animal, it should only be temporary (for a few hours) and should always be checked by your vet. Restrictive dressings could cause rubbing, sores or even prevent blood supply to the affected area.
There are some more serious conditions that require attention straight away. Whatever happens, keeping as calm as possible will always help your pet and help you to get them the help they need. It’s important to check with your vet what their provision is for their out of hours cover. Every vet in the UK must ensure emergency cover through the day and night, but this may be provided by an external service at a different location. Our advice is to check with your vet before you may need this service so you can prepare for the unexpected.
We’ve provided some points below which should help you to spot an emergency and some advice on what to do if you see these signs.
Seizures – Initial signs may include; Noise, spasmodic movement, drooling, change in behaviour
What to do; Turn off any lights and TV/music. It’s important to keep calm and remain safe around your pet. Normally it is best to leave the animal where they are. They may not know what is going on and in their confusion/lack of consciousness some animals have been known to bite. Try to time or film the episode if possible – this will help your vet to understand what happened. Phone your vet as soon as possible and they can advise you what to do based on what is happening.
Collapse – Initial signs may include; Loss of consciousness, weakness, pale gum colour, breathing difficulty, swollen abdomen
What to do; Keep calm. Provide good ventilation. If this could be related to heat stroke in hot weather, it is important to cool your pet down. Provide water if they are able to drink. Phone your vet and arrange to take your pet to the practice as soon as possible. You may need help lifting your animal into and out of your transport, so make your practice is aware.
Road traffic accidents – Initial signs may include; Bleeding, lameness, wounds, breathing difficulty, loss of consciousness, weakness, swelling/bruising
What to do; Contact your vet. If it is safe to do so they will advise of how to transport your pet to the practice. Your pet may need treatment for shock as well as investigations to know what else is going on internally so your vet can provide this. Your vet will administer an appropriate pain relief. Don’t be tempted to give any human drugs as these may interfere with your vet’s treatment plan as well as potentially being toxic for your pet.
Bloating in dogs – Initial signs may include; Swollen abdomen, collapse, weakness, retching/trying to vomit, pain, breathing difficulty
What to do; Contact your vet. This is a serious condition which is called either Gastric Dilatation (bloated stomach) or Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (bloated and twisted stomach). Sadly both can be rapidly life threatening but quickly seeking treatment gives your pet the best chance of survival. It is more common in deep chested dogs but can be seen in any dog. It is important not to exercise your dog 1-2 hours before or after food to try to avoid increasing the risk of this condition.
Inability to pass urine – an emergency especially in male catsInitial signs may include; Straining to urinate, vocalisation, frequent or inappropriate urination, lethargy, lack of passage of urine, swollen abdomen
What to do; This condition can be an emergency in any animal but male cats have more of a tendency to block their urethra from the bladder. This causes a very large bladder with risk of rupture, leakage of urine into the abdomen and back pressure on the kidneys. Therefore this condition needs immediate treatment. Phone your vets and take your animal straight away if they can’t pass urine. Your animal is likely to have a catheter placed to relieve the pressure if possible but your vet will assess what is the best treatment for your pet. This condition can be confused with cystitis – pain and inflammation when passing urine which is less of an emergency but still requires veterinary attention as soon as possible.
Severe vomiting or diarrhoea – with or without blood – Initial signs may include; Vomiting, diarrhoea, reduced appetite, passing blood or vomiting blood, weakness
What to do; If the vomiting or diarrhoea have been sudden onset and profuse or there has been blood in the motions, your pet may require fluid therapy to maintain their hydration status. Phone your vets for advice. Chicken (without bones) and rice or scrambled egg are bland diets which may help but always seek veterinary advice first as they can advise on the best nutrition for your pet. Medication may be required to stop the vomiting, settle the stomach or improve the consistency of the faeces passed.
Intoxication – Initial signs may include; Disorientation, collapse, vomiting/diarrhoea, change in behaviour
What to do; Depending on what toxin your pet may have eaten, your vet can advise you of the best treatment plan. It may be that your pet needs to be made to be sick (normally within 1-4 hours of ingesting the toxin) but sometimes this could cause more harm. For example corrosive substances are better not to be brought back up. Your vet may administer fluids intravenously and charcoal orally to bind up and flush out the toxins. Rapid veterinary attention should improve the chances of your pet’s survival so contact your vets as soon as possible.
Breathing difficulties – Initial signs may include; Collapse, laboured effort to breathing, open mouth breathing, noises when breathing, choking
What to do; Keep calm and phone your vets. Like with a collapse, urgent veterinary care is needed and your vets will be able to provide oxygen at the practice. Tests are likely to be performed to understand why your pet is having the breathing problems and provide the best treatment.
Eye problems – Initial signs may include; Squinting, inability to open the eyelids, discharge, pain, change in behaviour
What to do; Phone your vets and get an appointment as soon as possible. Depending on the severity of the eye problem, your vet may want to refer your pet to an eye specialist. Eye problems can progress rapidly so seek attention as soon as you can.
Womb infection/pyometra in entire females – Initial signs may include; Vaginal discharge (does not always occur), reduced appetite, vomiting, increased thirst, swollen abdomen, lethargy
What to do; Phone your vets and arrange an appointment as soon as possible. A pyometra is pus within the womb and this could rupture if left. Your vets will likely want to spay your female animal to remove the infection and prevent further problems as well as providing medication for the condition. Do not restrict your animal’s water supply.
Bloat and gut stasis in rabbits – Initial signs may include; Swollen abdomen, reduced appetite, reduced passing of faeces and lethargy
What to do; Phone your vets for an appointment as soon as possible. Bloat can be a condition which can become rapidly fatal if left untreated. Your vets will be able to administer drugs which should help with their reduced gut movement. Offer food at all times but monitor your rabbit’s hutch for signs of normal faeces and to check the food bowl is reducing.
Paralysis – Initial signs may include; Loss of movement in one or more of the limbs, with or without pain
What to do; Phone your vets for an appointment. Your vet can investigate the reason for the paralysis. For example it may be due to a spinal problem, a problem within the brain or could even be related to a circulatory problem. Your vet will perform investigations and provide appropriate medication to make your pet more comfortable and try to help the situation.
We hope this information has been helpful in ensuring your pet stays fit and healthy and understanding what symptoms require urgent attention. If you are concerned about your pet we would always recommend that you phone your vets for advice or for an appointment to be examined.