10 Secrets Your Pets Won’t Tell You About Their Health
Published on June 01, 2012
Our pets may be nonverbal, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to tell us when they’re not feeling so hot.
Nonetheless, some can be super-secretive, hiding everything from how they feel physically to what their emotional landscape looks like.
As a veterinarian, I’m constantly interpreting subtle signs of distress and translating very specific cues into real health-care decisions.
You, too, can learn to read certain signs of potential problems, and then take your pet to the vet. All you need is a little insight — and plenty of practice.
With that goal in mind, here’s my list of the top 10 ways our pets keep secrets that we’d rather they didn’t.
As you can imagine, this is a huge issue for veterinarians. Identifying pain can be hard to do when pets' pain-relieving adrenaline is pumping and they’re obviously doing their very best to be sure that they don’t show any weakness.
Just so you know, dogs’ and cats’ wild ancestors imbued them with the ability to mask pain. This is an especially attractive quality when you live in mortal fear of predators who share your ecosystem. There’s no time for visible suffering when a predator is looking for his next meal!
Although dogs will show you when their skin is irritated by chewing and scratching, cats are infinitely subtler. Most itchy kitties will display their discomfort by over-grooming. If the irritation is intense enough, hair loss can even result. It's only in the most extreme cases — such as with ear mites and mange — that cats will scratch to relieve itching, sometimes with claw marks to show for it.
“That’s more food than I need.”
Can you imagine your food-obsessed dog ever confessing to this? The truth is that dogs, cats, goats and horses are the only species I know of that will eat themselves to death. It’s kind of sad — but true — that most canines are capable of taking in as much food as we’re willing to give them. And cats? That bottomless bowl of kibble that so many of their owners offer them means that they never have to ask for more.
Lots of things can make a dog tired: hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, diabetes, malnutrition, anemia, osteoarthritis, heart disease, cancer, fevers, etc. To you, it may seem like your pet is just getting old or settling into that couch potato middle age thing, but the truth of the matter may be more sinister.
“Why do you look so fuzzy?”
It’s hard for pets to convey a loss of vision. While sudden blindness may lead to obvious signs of distress and confusion, a gradual loss of vision is hard to get a handle on if pets are good at adapting — and they almost always are!
Here’s a tough one. Unless pets are actively vomiting, most owners have a difficult time determining whether pets are nauseous. Guess what? So do veterinarians. If your pet is salivating, licking his lips constantly or swallowing frequently, nausea could be the culprit.
“I’m too hot!”
When dogs pant hard and they lag behind on walks, it’s time to stop. Many dogs will continue to walk, run or play until it’s too late and heatstroke results. Cats are much smarter about this, but even they can hide overheating in confusing ways. Consider the feverish cat: Felines handle high fevers with sedated aplomb. They don’t look like they’re hot, and they appear as if they’d like nothing better than to sleep and hide.
“My paws are burning!”
It happens when dogs are walked on hot pavement or sidewalks. It’s amazing how they’ll continue to walk when their feet are clearly on fire. Burnt pads are not only really painful, but they take weeks to heal.
“What did you say?”
Hearing loss is not something that pets can communicate. We have to figure this one out on our own.
“Is it my belly or my back?”
Here’s another tough one: Pets with back pain sometimes appear to have belly pain — and vice versa. Part of the problem is that pets who have back or belly pain tend to show the same signs: They shiver, shake, fail to jump or run and generally don't act like themselves. Pets with either belly or back pain also react adversely when they’re picked up from underneath, so it can be extra hard to figure out whether it's back or belly pain.
Check out more opinion pieces on Vetstreet.