How to Check up on your Dog’s Health

The aim of this section is to give you some simple ways to check the health of your dog. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examination.


Keeping a close eye on your dog’s weight or body condition can help you to pick up problems at an early stage.

  • Gaining too much weight can be bad for your dog’s health. Most commonly, weight gain is caused by too much food or not enough exercise.
    Certain health problems, such as an underactive thyroid, can also cause weight gain.
  • Losing weight or failing to grow normally can be a sign of health problems or incorrect diet.
  • Weighing your dog frequently is a good way to spot any problems early. Most vets have specially developed scales, which they will be happy for you to use.
  • Condition scoring is a good way to check your dog is the correct weight. Ask your vet or nurse to do this for you to get an accurate score. You can look for the main points yourself, see below.

Condition Scoring your Dog – Ideal Score.

  • Ribs: You should be able to feel them with light pressure. There should not be a fat layer over the ribs. They should not be prominent.
  • Hip bones, shoulder blades: You should only be able to feel these if you apply moderate pressure. They should not be prominent.
  • Waist: You should be able to feel an obvious waist between the chest and abdomen.

Coat condition

Different breed of dogs have very different coats but in general they should look clean, and the skin should look healthy underneath. Here are some general points you can look out for:

  • Black particles : You may be able to see black particles of ‘flea dirt’, droppings formed by the adult fleas. To differentiate these from sand or dirt perform the wet paper test (below)

    Wet Paper Test

    1. Comb your dog’s coat vigorously
    2. Collect any debris from the comb onto a piece of white, wet paper.
    3. Leave aside for a few minutes.
    4. If flea dirt is present you will see black particles surrounded by a rusty red pigment.
    5. The red pigment is your dog’s blood which has been swallowed by the flea. If you see this it means that your dog has fleas.
  • Greasy coat: This can be a sign of a skin infection, your dog needs to be checked by a vet.
  • Matts of fur: Long haired dogs are prone to their fur tangling which can develop into matts. Matts can cause the underlying skin to get sore. Groom dogs with long hair every day to prevent matts. If matts form they can be carefully trimmed or clipped off. Contact your vet for help if the matts are close to the skin or if your dog will not tolerate you removing them.
  • Areas of baldness: This can arise in different ways.
    • If the skin is itchy for example, due to fleas, mites or allergy, dogs can scratch and bite at themselves pulling fur out.
    • In certain conditions eg. ringworm the fur falls out.
    • Some hormone problems prevent the hair growing normally. Old hairs that fall out naturally are not replaced.

Skin tenting

This is used to assess hydration levels.

In a normal dog if you gently pull up the skin around the neck it will instantly fall back to normal. If the skin stays in the ‘tented’ position it is a sign of dehydration. If your dog is ill and the skin is tenting you need to visit the vets as soon as possible.

Lymph nodes

These are the ‘glands’ that as humans we may notice become raised or swollen when we are ill. In animals there are glands behind the angle of the lower jaw, in front of the shoulder joint and in the back of the knee.

Familiarise yourself with the normal size of these glands for your dog. If your dog is well, they may be hard to identify or very small. If they are bigger than usual it can be a sign that your dog is fighting infection or of other health problems. Ask your vet if you are unsure.


The teeth should be clean, smooth and white in colour. There should not be any swelling or redness of the gums.

  • Calculus is a hard, yellow-brown deposit that can cover the teeth. Calculus is formed by bacteria and quickly builds up on dogs’ teeth if there is no dental care. Calculus can cause other tooth problems, if you see it you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. It is usually caused by bacteria on the teeth. It gives a red and swollen appearance to the gums. It is usually worse on the margin of the gums near the tooth. Gingivitis is uncomfortable for your dog and you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Caries This is a lot less common in dogs than in humans. It is erosion of the enamel usually on the chewing surface of the back teeth. You will see a black or brown hole. This is very difficult to spot and is usually only seen under general anaesthetic.

If you notice any of the above problems with your dog’s teeth you need to see your vet for advice. Dental work, usually under general anaesthetic, may be required.


  • The ears should look clean. There should not be any pain when you gently feel around the base of the ear.
  • Ear cleaner can be used to remove wax from the surface of the ear. You should not put any drops down your dog’s ear without getting it checked out by a vet first. If the ear drum is ruptured you could do serious damage to the middle ear causing neurological problems including loss of balance.
  • If you suspect that your dog has problems with its ears do not put off visiting the vet. Long term ear infections can cause narrowing of the ear canals, damage to the eardrum and middle ear disease. The longer you leave an ear infection the more difficult it is to get rid of it.


The eyes should be:

  • Clear
  • Wide open
  • There should be no swelling
  • No discharge
  • The pupils should be the same size

Mucous membranes

When humans go ‘pale’ you can tell just by looking at their skin, dogs only show this on their mucous membranes for example the gums.

Normally the gums are moist and approximately the same colour as cooked salmon.

  • When dogs are shocked the gums go paler and drier or brick red.
  • If the dog isn’t getting enough oxygen they develop a blue tinge
  • If the liver is not working properly, or red blood cells are damaged, the membranes can turn yellow.
  • In the rare case of carbon monoxide poisoning gums can turn cherry red.

If you notice any of these changes in your dogs gums you need to take your dog the vets URGENTLY.

Important point: Some dogs have pigmented gums, this can take the form of black patches or in some dogs the whole of the gums are black. Familiarise yourself with the normal appearance of your dogs gums, that way you’ll be able to notice if there is any abnormal change.

Capillary Refill Time

Capillary refill time is the time taken for the capillaries, small blood vessels, to refill with blood after pressure is applied.

Capillary refill time is increased if the dog’s circulation is not very good. Poor circulation can be caused in several ways including shock, dehydration and heart failure.

Capillary Refill Time:

  1. Gently push your fingertip on to the gum (take care to avoid your nails digging in).
  2. The gum should turn white in that area.
  3. Count how long it takes for the colour to return to normal.
  4. It should take less than two seconds.
  5. If your dog is ill and it takes longer than two seconds you need to take your dog to the vets URGENTLY.

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