Husky dog with a vet

If you notice your dog behaving differently, it is best to take them to a vet.

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How do you know when to take your dog to the vet?

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

As the owner, you'll know better than most if your dog is ill and it's this and certain emergency signs that'll tell you whether to head to the vets or not.

If you notice any of the emergency signs listed in this article, you should contact a vet immediately. However, dogs can be very good at hiding signs of pain or feeling unwell, so in less severe cases they can show quite subtle symptoms of illness. If you are unsure whether your dog needs a vet visit booked in, it is best to contact a vet practice for advice. This should be during their regular opening hours unless you are unsure whether it is an emergency.

What are emergency symptoms and emergency cases for a dog?

Certain symptoms are associated with life-threatening conditions, or suggest that your pet is in significant pain. If your pet is showing any of the following signs, they will require immediate veterinary care. If the emergency occurs out of hours, you should contact the usual vet practice telephone number, which will redirect or sign-post you to the out-of-hours service. Some clinics provide this in-house, whereas others will have a relationship with a nearby veterinary hospital or veterinary service provider.

If your pet is bleeding and you are unable to stop this after five minutes of pressure with a clean dressing, this will require immediate veterinary care. Other emergency symptoms include any difficulty breathing, bloating of the tummy, collapse or inability to stand up, non-weight bearing lameness, possible poisoning, eye injuries, complications with pregnancy or birth, and severe vomiting and diarrhoea. Difficulty urinating or defecating can also be emergencies.

When should you take your dog to the vet?

Nobody knows your dog better than you do. This means that if you notice your dog behaving differently or showing signs that something isn’t right, it is best to take them to the vet. It is always OK to book them in for a check-up, no matter how subtle their symptoms are.

You should go to a vet if your dog has:

Odd eating habits 

If your pet’s appetite has changed or they are having apparent difficulty eating. This is associated with a wide range of underlying health problems and should be investigated.

Excessive thirst 

This can be a symptom of many health conditions, particularly hormonal imbalance (such as Cushing’s disease or diabetes) or urinary tract disease. Try to measure how much your dog is drinking during the course of 24 hours. You can keep track by using a measuring jug to fill up their bowl and keeping a diary. This information can be very helpful with diagnosis.

Rough or dry coat

Changes to your pet’s coat quality can be a sign of a skin disease, which have a myriad of causes including allergies, infection, parasites and hormonal conditions. In this case your pet will need a general health check and a dermatology examination.


Lethargy is a very non-specific symptom and can suggest a short-term illness such as an infection, or a longer-term medical condition. Contact a vet for advice. Depending on what other symptoms your pet is showing – and the degree of lethargy – you will be advised whether an appointment is necessary or whether to leave a few days to see if your pet gets back to their normal energy levels. Chronic lethargy should be investigated. If your pet is suffering from a hormonal condition, the lethargy can be improved with the right medical management.


If your dog vomits as a one-off, they do not need a vet appointment unless they are showing other symptoms or you are concerned. Dogs are infamous scavengers, and so occasional episodes of vomiting are not uncommon. But you should contact a vet immediately if there is a possibility of poisoning or your dog has eaten something toxic. Other warning signs that you should contact a vet include: vomit that contains blood, lethargy, foul-smelling diarrhoea, a bloated stomach, several episodes of vomiting in one day or regularly vomiting over a period of time, and bringing up undigested food hours after eating.

Unusual stool

Occasional episodes of gastrointestinal symptoms are very common in dogs. If your dog has softer faeces than normal or diarrhoea, they do not need a vet appointment unless they are showing other symptoms. However, if their faeces smell rotten, contain blood, are very dark in colour or your dog is having difficulty defecating, you should contact a vet for advice.

Sudden weight loss

If your pet has lost weight – whether this is sudden or gradual – they need an appointment for further investigation.

Cloudy or red eyes

If your dog looks like they have injured their eye, you should contact a vet as an emergency. For other symptoms, a vet appointment is recommended to investigate the cause of these symptoms.

Scooting or dragging their rear

Book in for a vet appointment for this because a very common cause of ‘scooting’ is when your dog has full or impacted anal glands. If left untreated this can lead to infection and abscesses. Other possible causes include skin allergies, infection, parasites and behavioural problems.

What are signs of illness in dogs?

There are a lot of different signs of illness in dogs. These can be highly suggestive of a certain disease, but they can also be non-specific including weight-loss, inappetence, lethargy, and changes in behaviour. If in doubt, seek veterinary advice.

When should I see a vet?

If your pet is showing any emergency symptoms, you should seek immediate veterinary care. Otherwise, contact a vet’s practice during their opening hours to book an appointment slot.

How often should your pet see a veterinarian?

If your pet is receiving ongoing diagnostic tests or treatment, the vet will let you know when to book their next appointment and the frequency of these. Even if your pet is well, an annual check-up is recommended. They will often receive a general health check and their booster at this appointment. Some practices also offer additional screening to pick up early signs of disease. For example, they may offer an annual blood screening for common diseases in elderly pets.

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