Caring For A Sick Dog: The Dos (And The Dont's) How To Make Your Dog Feel Better, Not Worse

Caring For A Sick Dog: The Dos (And The Dont's)
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vet verified PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian DVM

When your dog is feeling a bit under the weather, it can be a stressful time for both of you. Here are some ways to nurse your sick canine back to health, without making them feel worse than they already do.

Dogs can’t care for themselves when they are under the weather, so it is up to pet parents to provide loving support and the conditions for a successful recovery. Properly caring for your sick dog not only helps them to feel better faster, but it can also save you money by eliminating the need for return trips to the veterinarian.

This article will cover everything you need to know when it comes to caring for a sick dog, including proper rest and exercise, how to avoid tummy upsets, post-op care, and identifying problems.

Rest and Exercise

All dogs need rest and exercise in the right amounts. You may need to adjust the amount of time your sick dog spends on these daily activities while they recover.

  • Sick dogs need a lot of sleep and rest. Provide a quiet and comfortable place for your dog to relax that is free of disturbances, including other pets or young children who may be a bother. You may want to keep your sick dog in a private room or separate area of the house to ensure that they are left alone.

  • Ask your veterinarian about any physical needs that your sick dog may have. Some dogs will have to take time off from exercise (including walking, running, jumping, and playing), and it will be up to you to make sure that they do. This may mean keeping your dog confined in a crate with a comfortable bed.

  • Other sick dogs are more capable of exercise, but be aware that sick dogs have weakened immune systems, and overexertion could make your dog’s condition worse. Focus on low-energy activities, and contact your veterinarian if your dog seems to be struggling.

Avoiding Tummy Upsets

Sick dogs can be susceptible to tummy upsets, but there are a number of ways to help your dog avoid this uncomfortable side effect.

  • If your veterinarian has prescribed a special type of food for your sick dog, feed them separately from other pets so they cannot access the regular food.

  • Make sure that all members of the household are aware of your dog’s dietary restrictions and that even small pieces of treats or other food could cause your dog’s stomach to get upset.

  • Eating or drinking too fast can cause an upset stomach. Monitor your dog’s consumption, and if you see that they are not able to slow down, separate their food and water into smaller servings.

  • Many foods can ease an already upset stomach, including small amounts of bland foods such as boiled chicken, white rice, and scrambled eggs. Always consult your veterinarian first to be sure that the food you are offering your sick dog is OK.

Post-Operative Care

If your dog has undergone an operation, chances are that you will need to follow up with some at-home care.

  • If your dog’s surgery requires the use of anesthesia, it might take a while for them to return to its old self. Provide a quiet and comfortable place for your dog to rest and keep an eye on their balance. You may need to help your dog walk while they recovers from the effects of sedation.

  • Your veterinarian may limit your dog’s activity for several days, or several weeks, after an operation. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions very carefully -- failing to do this is a common cause of post-surgery complications.

  • Depending on what kind of operation your dog has had, your veterinarian may prescribe medications such as painkillers, ointments, or drops. Make sure that you understand the proper dosage and how to administer the medication correctly.

  • Follow all instructions provided by your veterinarian with regards to feeding, bathing, cleaning wounds, changing bandages, and post-op gear such as Elizabethan collars. Many veterinarians provide a fact sheet for pet parents to reference following surgery.

Common causes for sickness in dogs

It's always a good idea to know what could be causing your dog's sickness, so here are the most common causes:

  1. Allergies. If your dog is sneezing, itching, or coughing more than usual, it's possible that he has an allergy. You can find out what he's allergic to by taking him to the vet and having him tested for allergies. If he does have an allergy, you'll want to try and find ways to reduce his exposure to whatever's causing it.

  2. Worms. Worms are a very common cause of sickness in dogs and can make them feel miserable. Not only do they make your pet feel sick, but they also make it harder for him to gain weight! Worms are easily treatable with medications from the vet; just make sure you're treating all types of worms at once because some may not be visible without testing!

  3. Fleas and ticks. Fleas and ticks can cause irritation on your dog's skin as well as transmit diseases between animals (and even humans!). It's important to treat them as soon as possible so that they don't spread further and make other pets sick too!

  4. Heartworm disease. Heartworm disease is a very serious condition that affects dogs and cats; it's transmitted by mosquitoes, which can bite both animals and humans too! If left untreated, heartworm disease can be fatal. So make sure you give your dog heartworm medication at the beginning of every summer (or any time he goes outside).

  5. Infections and bacteria-related illnesses such as UTIs (urinary tract infections), diarrhea, and vomiting can all be caused by bacteria or viruses that enter your dog's body through contact with water or soil outside; through contact with other animals; or even through contact with people who have infections themselves!

  6. Injuries caused by accidents at home or outdoors can lead to serious illness if not treated quickly enough (like broken bones). Even if your dog seems fine after an accident, it's important to take him to a vet to get checked thoroughly. 

Identifying Problems

Dogs can’t tell us when something is wrong, so it’s up to pet parents to carefully monitor their pet’s recovery and take note of any problems.

  • If your dog is taking medication, be aware of any side effects. While some may be normal, others could signal that something is wrong.

  • Keep an eye on your dog’s urine and feces. In some cases, your veterinarian may warn you that these processes might not return to normal right away. In others, abnormalities could be a sign of a serious problem.

  • If your dog has been injured or undergone an operation, regularly check wounds and look out for any redness or swelling which may indicate an infection.

  • If your dog’s condition is not improving or getting worse, or if you observe any unusual symptoms or behavior, contact your veterinarian.

What To Feed A Sick Dog So They'll Feel Better 

Sometimes a brief change in diet will upset a dog’s stomach. Overindulgence on holidays like Thanksgiving, for example, could also produce lethargy, diarrhea, or apparent discomfort. These stomach issues will often resolve themselves fairly quickly. While your dog is on the mend, you may be wondering what to feed a sick dog that will help rather than upset them further.

Note: If symptoms like diarrhea persist beyond 48 hours, or vomiting for more than 24, get in touch with a vet. If it’s just a little case of the over-did-its, try any of these remedies to ease your dog back into wellness and comfort:

Let Your Dog Eat Grass

Let them eat cake! And by cake, we mean grass! Grass is one of those instinctual remedies dogs may go for when they’re feeling unwell. Grass may cause a dog to vomit. This is okay (as long as it’s not on your favorite rug or, heaven forbid, a pillow). Let your dog’s instincts lead you both. If they want to eat grass when they’re not feeling well, if they want to vomit a bit, that may be just what they need to do to feel better. Just make sure to keep them well hydrated. If they vomit more than twice or persistently eat grass and vomit every time they take a trip outside, call a vet.

Simple Foods

Your dog’s kibble may be a bit too rich for them when they have an upset stomach. Try some simple boiled shredded chicken with a bit of white rice, or try some mashed pumpkin. Offer small amounts at a time, rather than a full meal. If they appear eager for more, it’s a good sign. Their tummy might be on the mend. If they’re still dubious, consider a no-salt chicken broth to entice them to eat a bit. Add water to whatever you offer them, as dehydration is the real danger of your average run-of-the-mill upset tummy.

You May Not Have to do Anything

Your nauseated or gassy dog may refuse food. This is not the cause for concern in the short term. 24 hours is probably the longest amount of time you should allow to lapse with nothing ingested. 48 hours could be okay if they’re drinking water but not eating solid foods. Anything beyond that, and you should call your vet.

Check for Dehydration

Lift your dog’s lips and look at its gums. Gums should be pink and slick. That is, wet in appearance instead of dry. If you’re not sure, press on your dog’s gums until you see the color change. Remove your finger, and note how long it takes for the color to come back. Color should come back immediately. If it takes a couple of moments, your dog could be dehydrated.

You can also pull at the scruff of their neck, the way a mother animal may lift their young. If the skin snaps back, it should be fine. If it takes a long time for the skin to retract, they could be dehydrated.

How to Prevent and Treat Dehydration

If your dog is showing the above signs of dehydration, it’s time to take their condition seriously. Many people offer their dehydrated dogs unflavored Pedialyte, which is a child’s electrolyte drink. Even if your dog is drinking water, it sometimes isn’t enough, and Pedialyte will help replace electrolytes they may have lost from vomiting. Other dog-friendly products like Rebound may also help.

If they don’t drink it on their own, you may wish to use a feeding syringe (needleless) to feed them the Pedialyte. Put the syringe into the side of the mouth, between the cheek and gums, and go slowly to prevent your dog from choking or breathing in the liquid. Be careful, take it slowly, and keep them calm. Really sick dogs sometimes don't have the greatest gag reflex, and aspiration of these liquids can be dangerous.

How much should you give? A dose to help a dog maintain hydration should be at least 15 mL per pound of body weight per day. This can turn out to be quite a bit of fluid to deliver with a syringe, so you may want to divide the dose into 4 a day.

You can also simply take your dog to the vet, where they'll be able to treat dehydrated dogs by delivering fluids under the skin.

Over-The-Counter Treatments For Upset Stomach In Dogs

Some pet parents offer their pets human Pepto-bismol or Famotidine (Pepcid) for an upset tummy. These over-the-counter drugs can be safe if administered minimally, at the proper dose. Be sure to ask your vet what the dosage should be for your dog.

What helps dogs feel better when sick?

According to Dr. Jamie Lovejoy, DVM, soft stool in dogs can be managed with a bland, easily digestible diet like boiled chicken and rice. Avoid roasting or frying meat for the diet to prevent pancreatitis. If diarrhea persists, contact a vet, especially if there's blood in the stool, decreased appetite, or vomiting. Localized skin inflammation, known as hot spots, can be treated by preventing licking or scratching. Using Elizabethan collars and trimming the hair around the lesion can aid healing, but severe cases may require oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatories from a vet. For itchy, irritated, and dry skin, use oatmeal-based, fragrance-free shampoos for mild cases. However, antiseptic products may be needed for severe itching. Increasing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can help with managing dry skin. Dogs can suffer from allergies, with symptoms like sneezing, eye discharge, and itching. Antihistamines can help, but consult a vet for appropriate dosing and if symptoms worsen. Excessive paw licking may indicate allergies or irritants. Epsom salt soaks can help soothe and heal the affected part of the skin. Severe cases may require a recovery cone to prevent licking. Excess ear wax can be managed with proper ear cleaning techniques, but avoid using household items like Q tips. Seek vet assistance if the ears are inflamed or painful. Gas in dogs can be due to diet, eating habits, or underlying issues. Consider high-quality diets, slow-feeding bowls, or dietary changes, and consult a vet if diet and feeding adjustments don't improve flatulence.

Should I leave my sick dog alone?

According to an article reviewed by Dr. Karyn Kanowski, BVSc, MRCVS (Veterinarian), discuss the dog's care needs with the vet to determine the level of attention required. Planning beforehand is crucial to ensure proper care for the dog, particularly for older dogs or those with chronic health issues. If you cannot leave your dog alone, seek assistance from loved ones to check up on the dog or stay with them while you're away. You can also consider professional pet-sitting services to ensure the dog's comfort and care at home or inquire about boarding options at veterinary clinics if other solutions are not feasible. Another option is to install a pet camera to remotely monitor the dog's activities and well-being and have someone on call for emergencies.

How do I know if my dog being sick is serious?

Dr. Emma Chandley, BVM, MRCVS (Veterinarian), says there are some situations when you should take your dog to a vet or an emergency clinic. If your dog struggles to breathe, take them to the vet immediately. Subtle changes in breathing patterns, such as excessive panting without exertion, are concerning. Breathing difficulties may be harmless or easily treatable but can become fatal quickly. Seek immediate veterinary attention if a seizure lasts longer than 2 minutes or if there are repeated seizures. A single short seizure with recovery or seizures in a dog already on medication still requires a vet visit. Immediate vet attention is needed if a dog collapses or is extremely weak. Possible causes can be internal bleeding, heart issues, shock, poisoning, drug overdose, or endocrine issues like Addison’s disease. If a dog has a severe, non-stop bleeding injury, seek veterinary attention immediately, as it indicates possible injury to a major blood vessel or a blood clotting disorder. Any eye injury with symptoms like pain, squinting, redness, discharge, different pupil sizes, glassy or milky appearance, or protruding eyelid requires immediate veterinary attention. Eye injuries can lead to loss of sight without prompt treatment. Take your dog to an emergency facility if it is exposed to poisons or toxins, like antifreeze, chocolate, raisins, xylitol, rat poison, or bitten/stung by venomous creatures. Signs of severe pain in a dog (crying, panting, aggression, withdrawal) always require veterinary attention because dogs often hide pain until it becomes severe. Sudden coughing or choking can indicate a serious issue. While some coughs are mild, it’s best to have a vet check to determine the cause and provide appropriate treatment. You need to see a vet if a dog goes without food for 24 hours or more. Lack of eating may indicate pain or illness, requiring attention to ensure good nutrition. Also, dogs dehydrate quickly when they stop drinking, which is an emergency. If a dog cannot urinate, seek veterinary help immediately, as that can indicate cystitis (treatable with medication) or more serious issues like bladder stones causing blockages. Occasional vomiting is usually not an emergency, but repeated vomiting or inability to keep food/water down can indicate an intestinal blockage or obstruction. Blood in vomit requires immediate vet attention. Similarly, single instances of diarrhea may not be urgent, but monitor and consult a vet. Explosive diarrhea, signs of unwellness, or blood in diarrhea require immediate vet attention. A sudden swollen abdomen can indicate serious conditions like gastric dilatation and volvulus.

What human medicine can I give my dog for an upset stomach?

According to Dr. Debra M. Eldredge, DVM, Pepto Bismol (Bismuth Subsalicylate) is safe for reducing signs of nausea, heartburn, stomach gurgling, discomfort, and diarrhea in dogs. However, some dogs may get stomach inflammation due to salicylic acid. The recommended dosage is 0.25 to 2 ml per kg of the dog's body weight (0.1 to 0.9 ml per lb) and can be administered a maximum of three to four times a day. Pepto Bismol may change the color of the dog's stool to gray or greenish-black. Some dogs may drink Pedialyte, but it is not always the best choice due to its high salt content, especially for dogs with heart or kidney diseases. The sugar level in Pedialyte is also not suitable for dogs. Veterinarians may also suggest Pepcid, Mylanta, or Gaviscon for constipation, except for dogs with kidney disease. Imodium can also be a good option for treating diarrhea in dogs. Oral probiotics may help with stomach issues. Ensure the chosen brand does not contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Probiotic supplements can restore and maintain healthy gut flora, aiding in healing upset stomachs. Always consult your vet before giving your dog any medications or supplements to ensure safety and appropriateness.

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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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