How to Know If a Dog Is Sick or Nervous

Written by carol sarao
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Dogs display distinct signs when they are sick or fearful. When your dog is nervous, he will begin to exhibit signs known as "calming signals"--these are the dog's attempts to restore his equilibrium by comforting himself. Your dog might be a relaxed, confident pet that is temporarily spooked, or he may have a nervous temperament that has been aggravated by trauma or improper training. In any case, it is helpful to know when your dog is uneasy so you can work with him to allay his fear. There are also classic signs of sickness your dog might display; it's important to recognise them so that you can begin prompt treatment. By being familiar with the signs of nervousness and illness, you can ward off health and behaviour problems that could become serious or even life-threatening.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy


  1. 1

    Watch your dog's mouth--although he can't talk, his mouth still speaks volumes about his mood. Licking his lips rapidly and panting are both signs of uneasiness. One clue to nervousness that is often misread by owners is yawning--this does not indicate boredom in a dog, but stress. A dog that is very fearful may also begin to drool.

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    Watch your dog's eyes. If he suddenly breaks his gaze and looks away--what trainers call "surrendering eye contact"--he is probably uncomfortable with whomever he's avoiding looking at. If one eye rolls so that it shows the white, while taking on a fixed, staring appearance, this is called a "whale eye" and it is a very serious sign of extreme fear mixed with defensive aggression--this dog is ready to bite.

  3. 3

    Check your dog's tail. If it is tucked so tightly between his legs that it curls against his belly, this is a sure sign that your dog is intimidated. If your dog is a boxer, spaniel or other stub-tailed breed, you can still determine his mood by the tail's angle.

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    Take note of the dog's body positioning and degree of stiffness. Look for a tense body, rigid muscles and trembling. A nervous dog will cower and back away or hide behind you; conversely, he may lunge forward and even try to bite.

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    Listen to your dog--if he is fearful and growling, he is warning you that he feels so threatened he may resort to biting. Although some trainers used to recommend punishment for a dog that growls fearfully, this is now considered harsh and ineffective. Remove your dog from the stressful situation and talk to him calmly, but don't coo and fuss over him--this actively rewards the dog for acting fearful. It is important to begin a program of desensitisation training and positive reinforcement; a good trainer can help you.

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    Observe his eating habits and behaviour to tell if your dog is sick. If your dog suddenly stops eating or drinking, begins drinking large amounts of water or vomits repeatedly, you should call a veterinarian if the dog is not back to normal in 24 hours. Uncharacteristic lethargy or snappish behaviour can also indicate sickness.

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    Examine your dog's gums carefully. They should be pink, unless they are normally pigmented with black or grey. If they are pale or whitish, this could mean your dog is in shock; get him to a vet immediately.

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    Observe your dog's fur. A normally glossy coat that goes from shiny and healthy-looking to dull and lifeless is an indication of illness.

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    Check the dog's stools. Blood in the faeces, diarrhoea that persists for more than a day, or straining to urinate or defecate are all signs of sickness; consult your veterinarian.

  10. 10

    Be alert for any sign of wincing, flinching or pulling away when petted; this could indicate pain. Listen for sudden, unexplained yips, whines or howls, especially when the dog is touched. A dog in pain may point with his nose at the painful area, or lick or chew at it incessantly.

Tips and warnings

  • Carry a favourite toy with you when you walk your dog, and show it to him at the first sign of calming signals. You may be able to distract and soothe him with a quick play session, and get him to associate the frightening object or situation with something pleasant.

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