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Pet Docs: Subtle changes in pets habits can indicate illness

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Pet Docs

Perry Jameson (left) and Henri Bianucci. File/Staff

A portion of my (Perry Jameson) day consists of consulting on patients with general practice veterinarians. I receive so many of these calls that I routinely do not remember most of them. Occasionally, however, there are those that for various reasons are unforgettable.

One such patient is Copper, a 6-year-old hound mix whose family veterinarian called me because he was suddenly vomiting and not himself. He had a slight fever and slightly elevated liver levels. When I called, he was already being treated with antibiotics and IV fluids. He was improving, but his veterinarian just wanted to know my thoughts.

His quick response made it sound like symptoms secondary to dietary indiscretion that would resolve in several days, making it hard to recommend any changes to what he was already doing for Copper. So the dog went home on antibiotics and continued to gradually improve. No further vomiting and his normal energetic self was returning each day.

On day 10, however, his mom and dad could tell he was just not right. His veterinarian again called me for advice and finally recommended that I take a look at Copper. Physically, he was quiet but alert and not in pain anywhere when I examined him. Repeat blood testing revealed his liver values to have increased, but not significantly.

As the liver enzymes were all we could find abnormal, I recommended an ultrasound. His gall bladder wall was thick, the bile that should normally be thin as water was thick like honey and the tissue around his liver was inflamed looking. These changes were consistent with an infection in his gall bladder, so he went to surgery.

We were all shocked at what we found. His gall bladder had ruptured at some point, probably before he was taken to the vet two weeks earlier, spilling small gallstones into his abdomen. It then had closed only to rupture again. It took 11 liters of saline to rinse all of this out of his abdomen. He did great and is now home returning to normal.

It is not uncommon for pet parents to be unaware their dog has a chronic disease before it is brought to the office. How did Copper, and so many of my other patients, mask these symptoms? More importantly, how can parents determine earlier if they are sick?

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A pet’s parents are the first one to know when something is wrong. Dogs are creatures of habit, so any change in routine could be an early sign of a problem. Are they drinking more or less than usual? Has their appetite changed? Do they no longer want to go on walks or play? Are they anxious or restless?

If even a subtle change is noted, have them looked at. To do this, you must have a good relationship with a veterinarian you trust so you can bring discuss these problems. If they see your pet on a regular basis, they, too, will be able to identify changes that have occurred between examinations.

For this to happen, the vet must see your pet annually and performing a full physical examination. After the age of 7, a blood profile, CBC and urinalysis should be performed annually as well. Even if values are in the normal range, your pet’s doctor may notice a steady change that could be missed without routine testing.

Even the best, most observant parents, like Copper’s, can miss disease. Dogs inherently hide symptoms from us. They are pack animals, and often the weak pack member is left behind. So their masking of disease is partially a survival mechanism.

They also want to make us happy, and if they appear distressed for any reason, they learn that it distresses us too. Most of us have experienced the comfort our dogs provide by being close when they know we are upset. They live to please us, and when we are upset about them, they sense this and hide the symptoms as long as they can.

We are not always going to be able to detect disease in our pets as early as we do in ourselves. So do the best you can by observing for any subtle changes. Better to go early and everything is OK rather than wait until the disease has progressed to an emergency, or even fatal, point.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to

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