Is your dog dull and not eating? Time to see the vet
I received three phone calls one afternoon last week, each about a different animal with a slightly different problem.
Tommy was a three year old Springer Spaniel who had not eaten his breakfast. He was bright and well otherwise, with no other signs of illness. Should his owner be worried?
Tibby was a seven year old cat who was normally active and energetic, but today he was quieter than normal, just sleeping. He had woken up and eaten his breakfast, but then he'd gone to sleep again. It was unlike him. Should his owner bring him down to see me?
The third case was Sammy, a five year old Golden Retriever who was normally cheerful and friendly. He had refused to eat his breakfast, and he seemed drained of energy, refusing to get out of bed that day. Did his owner need to do anything?
To many people these cases may seem similar, but on careful appraisal, each was different in a critical way. Tommy had just lost his appetite: he was still bright and active. And although Tibby was low in energy, he was still eating hungrily. Meanwhile Sammy was showing both of these signs: he had lost his appetite and he was also dull and depressed.
My conclusion? Sammy needed to come and see me straight away, while it was OK for Tommy and Tibby to be kept at home under careful monitoring until the next morning.
It was the combination of dullness and inappetance which was the problem. If a pet shows just one of these signs for a short period, there may not be too much to worry about, but the two together strongly suggest that there's something going on that may need urgent action.
A dog can be dull and quiet after a long day of exercise, running through the hills, or after a busy day at the local doggy daycare centre. Dullness can simply be a sign that an animal is unusually tired, and if there are no other signs of illness, and if the animal tucks into their food hungrily, it's generally safe to wait until the next day to see if their normal level of energy and enthusiasm returns.
Equally, a temporary lack of appetite can be a common occurrence. It's important to take note of this when it happens, but it's not unusual for a dog or cat to miss one meal. They may have found a food source somewhere else, they may have eaten something unsavoury which is causing a mild gastroenteritis, or they may simply not be hungry for no particular reason. But as long as they remain bright, active and enthusiastic, a short period of reduced appetite is not something that means that you need to rush to the vet.
It's the combination of dullness and inappetance that can be worrying, and it should never be ignored. There's a long list of possible causes, and it's up to your vet to work out what's going on. Your job as an owner is to take your pet to the vet for an assessment. Sometimes no action is needed after this check up, but other times, urgent treatment is indicated.
The key goal for the vet is to make as precise a diagnosis as possible: i.e. to find out exactly what is causing the problem or the animal so that appropriate advice and treatment can be given.
Typically, there are three stages involved for a vet to achieve this goal: a detailed discussion with the owner about the pet's recent background, a careful clinical examination, and finally, if needed, further investigations such as laboratory tests and x-rays.
Sammy came down to see me straight away, and I went through the three stages with him.
First, his owner had little to report: he had been perfectly normal till that morning, when he had refused to get out of bed, and he had turned down breakfast.
Second, when I examined Sammy, he had a very painful abdomen: when I ran my hands down his sides, he tensed up, as if there was something very sore happening inside him. He also had a high temperature. From this examination, it was obvious that there was something seriously wrong with him.
Third, I went on to take a blood sample: he had a raised white blood cell count and elevated enzymes which suggested that he had a problem with his pancreas, and this was confirmed with an ultrasound examination. Sammy was suffering from acute necrotising pancreatitis.
This is a rare disease where the pancreas starts to release its digestive enzymes directly into itself, rather than through the normal ducts into the intestinal contents. The pancreas then starts to digest itself, which is a painful, dangerous situation. Fatal peritonitis often follows.
Sammy had to go onto an intravenous drip at once, with high levels of pain relief and antibiotic cover. He went on to have a difficult 48 hour period where it could have gone either way: it's impossible to predict whether or not animals with this condition will pull through.
As it was, Sammy made a full recovery. If his owner had not brought him in so promptly, it mightn't have worked out so well. In all cases of serious illness, early treatment makes a huge difference to the outcome.
If your pet ever becomes dull and depressed, with a complete lack of appetite, don't delay: take them to your vet.