A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

14 Ways Your Dog May Be Asking for Help

Listen up, pet parents: Your fur baby is trying to tell you something important!

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Wide-angle POV portrait of cute Puck dog
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Your dog’s SOS signals

As pet parents, we want to keep our fur babies happy and healthy, as well as give them what they want and need. Unfortunately, that whole “language barrier” thing can sometimes make it tricky to figure out exactly what that is. So, how can you deftly navigate your way through the world of canine communication? Generally, there are three primary ways that you can tell when a dog needs your help: physiological changes, behavioral changes, and signs of pain or discomfort. We rounded up some common SOS signals that your dog may be sending your way—and what you should do about them. While you’re at it, make sure to avoid these things you do that your dog actually hates.

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dog eating
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Eating and drinking differently

“A sudden and unusual change in activity is one of the first signs that your dog isn’t feeling well and may need help,” says Jesus Aramendi, DVM, a veterinarian at Chewy. This is especially true if those activities are vital to their survival. If your dog has lost his appetite, is suddenly ravenous, or is drinking far more or far less water than usual, it’s time for a check-in. Sometimes, these signs can be subtle. Dr. Aramendi says that red flags might include leaving a bowl full of food or water, not being as excited about mealtime, or scouring the house for new sources of food and water—like, checking out your pantry for a bite or heading to the toilet for a drink.

Here’s the good news: It’s possible that your dog might have a harmless bug passing through his system, or maybe he’s been running around more than usual and his appetite or thirst has increased accordingly. And now for the bad news: It could also be a sign of something more serious, such as Cushing’s disease, diabetes, or kidney or liver disease. If this behavior lasts more than 24 hours—or if it’s accompanied by other serious symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or whimpering—see your veterinarian. Don’t miss these other signs that your “healthy” pet is showing dog illness symptoms.

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Dog lying on sofa at home, looking ill and sad
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Limping and lameness

“If a dog is experiencing pain in one of their limbs or another body part, they will most likely present some sort of lameness (an inability to move one or more limbs), or they may yelp when touched in the affected area,” says Dr. Aramendi. Other symptoms might include scratching or licking the area, vomiting, diarrhea, discharge, difficulty breathing, or coughing.

But don’t panic yet: Dogs can be drama queens, and understandably so. After all, they don’t know what’s happening to them, and they’re often afraid of the discomfort they’re feeling, which can cause them to act worse than what the problem might call for. For example, lameness or limping could be something as minor as a broken nail or twisted ankle. On the other hand, it could also indicate something chronic, such as arthritis, or a serious issue like hip or elbow dysplasia or Lyme disease. If your dog is able to walk around and otherwise seems OK, monitor him for 24 to 48 hours. If the issue gets worse or doesn’t improve, schedule a visit with a vet. Here’s what your vet might suggest if your dog is in pain.

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Close-Up Of Dog With Mouth Open Looking Away
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Whimpering, whining, and trembling

To translate this SOS signal, you need to put your detective hat on, because the reason for it highly dependent on your pup and the situation. One common reason for this behavior is anxiety, which could be caused by a variety of things, including separation from you, loud noises (from storms, fireworks, or cars), or adapting to new people or pets in your home. Once you determine the cause, you can figure out the best way to calm your pup. For example, soundproofing your windows or placing your pup in a contained, interior space in your house can help with noise-related anxiety. You can also try these 12 products to help calm your dog’s anxiety.

For separation anxiety, being aware of your own behavior and adopting a slow and steady course of action are your best bets. “Dogs pick up signals easily—for example, you picking up your keys or putting your shoes on—so try desensitizing your dog by randomly giving these signals and leaving for short trips. You can also offer environmental enrichment treats when you leave,” says veterinarian Justine Lee, DVM, a spokesperson for Pumpkin pet insurance. “[In more severe cases], prescription anti-anxiety medications can help. Top it off with lots of exercise and play time, and your pup will be OK.”

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Close-Up Portrait Of Pug At Home
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Whining or whimpering in one spot

Has your dog ever whined or whimpered repeatedly in one area for no reason? Oh, there’s a reason, all right. Your dog wants something—you just have to figure out what it is! Perhaps there’s a ball trapped under the sofa and your pup needs you to get it. Or maybe your dog wants to go for a walk or is feeling frisky and simply wants to play. Or if your dog is whining or whimpering next to the food bowl, it’s probably a sign that he’s ready for a little grub. If your dog is always begging for food, even when he’s been adequately fed, curb that behavior by redirecting him to play with a chew toy or snuggle with you on the couch. If the hunger is persistent, it’s time to schedule a visit to the vet. Learn more about the noises dogs make—and what they mean.

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Guilty dog looking at you
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Eliminating inappropriately

Your potty-trained dog isn’t “bad” when he has an accident in the house—he needs help. “Dogs tend to get used to a routine, just like babies. They tend to wake up and go to sleep around the same time every day, and they tend to eat and go out to eliminate at the same time every day,” says Dr. Aramendi. “If your dog begins urinating or defecating inside the house when they would normally do it outside, that is a sign something is off. Having to go outside more or less than usual is another indicator.”

Changes in your dog’s pooping and peeing regimen can mean a variety of things, ranging from a minor stomach bug to a urinary tract infection, or it could indicate a more serious illness. It could also mean that your dog needs to use the bathroom more frequently than you think he does, which is particularly common if owners are away from home for long stretches of time. In case you were wondering, this is how long it’s OK to leave your dog home alone.

Though it can be frustrating to deal with accidents in the house, anger and punishment won’t solve the problem—and it can even make thing worse. In almost all cases, this behavior is a cry for help. If the change lasts for more than 24 hours and more frequent walks don’t help, schedule an appointment with your vet for a diagnosis and any necessary treatment.

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Exhibiting a change in activity level

“Any sudden and unusual changes in your dog’s activity level could mean there is an underlying condition,” says Dr. Aramendi. Again, there could be many reasons why your dog is suddenly experiencing persistent boosts of energy or lower-than-normal energy levels, so it’s important to see your vet for a diagnosis if the behavior goes on for more than 24 hours. Dr. Aramendi says that lethargy is a particularly common symptom of illness in younger, active dogs. It could just be an off day or something they ate, but it’s important to seek answers from a professional to make sure. This is how to tell if your dog has a fever.

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A dog scratching itself
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Licking paws and scratching

Constantly licking their paws and scratching are two signs that your dog may be dealing with a bout of gnarly allergies. Other signs can include red or inflamed skin, stinky ears, brown staining near their feet, and, in rare cases, sneezing, diarrhea, or vomiting. “There are three common causes in dogs: flea allergies, hay fever (called atopy in veterinary medicine), and food allergies,” says Dr. Lee. “The symptoms for these three allergies do tend to overlap, so it’s difficult for an owner to pinpoint their pet’s issue without visiting their vet. Regardless of the cause, it causes discomfort to your pet and needs to be treated. Untreated allergies can lead to secondary bacterial or fungal infections.”

Dr. Lee says that, depending on the specific issue, flea-preventative shampoos or prescription medications are usually necessary to get things under control. Sometimes, a strict food trial with a hypoallergenic prescription food is also necessary for several months. Here are more possible reasons your dog is so itchy.

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Senior mixed breed dog smiling at camera and standing at grass
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Walking gingerly or with stiffness

In addition to dealing with allergies, dogs are susceptible to developing Lyme Disease from a tick bite. This disease is common in canines and causes inflammation and swelling in their joints, which makes it uncomfortable to walk, run, or move around. Other symptoms usually include fever, skipping meals, and sometimes lameness.

“The signs for Lyme disease are really subtle, but if not caught early, it can result in a rare, life-threatening kidney failure in dogs, especially in Labrador and Golden retrievers,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s critical to contact your vet as soon as possible if you suspect your dog may have Lyme disease or any other tick-borne illness, so they can diagnose and treat it right away. With most cases of Lyme disease, dogs do respond well to antibiotics, but it’s always safer to minimize the risk altogether by using year-round, fast-acting flea, tick, and heartworm preventative medications.”

Lyme disease is most likely to occur in areas where ticks live. According to the CDC, the species of ticks most likely to spread Lyme live in the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions of the United States.

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Dog Chewing A Shoe
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Destroying your possessions

While separation anxiety is one reason why your dog might rip up the couch, munch on the baseboards, or gnaw on your favorite pair of shoes, this behavior is sometimes simply due to boredom and/or not having access to necessary chew toys (especially when young). The fastest way to curb this behavior? Make sure your dog gets enough physical exercise and mental stimulation every day. Spend more time walking, playing, and interacting with your dog, replace the chewed-up possession with a dog toy in the middle of the act, and use bad-tasting (pet-friendly) repellents on objects they tend to go after. Dog puzzles can help curb dog boredom, too.

If your dog continues on his rampage of destruction, professional intervention might also help. “While it can be expensive to treat, the issue is just that: treatable. In some cases, it’s even covered by pet insurance,” says Dr. Lee. “Sadly, I [have seen] owners surrender their dogs to a shelter, where they may be euthanized, because they didn’t think the problem was treatable. Know that there’s always help.”

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Angry dog
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Barking is part of a dog’s DNA, though some breeds do bark more or less than others. If your dog suddenly starts barking excessively—a change from his usual yapping—it could be a sign of boredom, anxiety, or fear. Just like a baby’s cries, these barks tend to be distinct. For example, an incessant high-pitched bark is usually a sign of stress, while a monotonous bark tends to be a sign of boredom. In the former case, it’s important to help manage your dog’s stress by pinpointing the cause. If it’s the latter, it’s time to play. Barking is also your dog’s way of getting your attention and communicating certain needs, such as wanting to go outside or be fed. If barking is a constant problem, check out these tips to get your dog to stop barking—without yelling.

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Chocolate labrador looking up to camera
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Not being as affectionate as normal

If your otherwise affectionate dog is suddenly keeping his distance or is acting uninterested in snuggles or toys, it’s a sign that something is off. Though there could be a number of reasons why your dog is acting this way, one of the most common is that he’s dealing with some sort of pain or illness. In some cases, however, it could be something as simple as your dog not getting enough exercise or getting too little food.

Note that while dogs do feel emotions, they don’t experience feelings of active resentment. For that reason, it’s really important to decipher the potential cause of their sudden lack of affection. If the behavior persists for more than 24 hours, head to the veterinarian. If the behavior is accompanied by other serious symptoms—such as diarrhea, vomiting, or the inability to move—go to the vet right away. Review these 13 warning signs your dog is in pain.

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Happy dog with mouth wide open
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Coughing or having difficulty breathing

“A dog that is experiencing nasal discharge, coughing, or having difficulty breathing could have a respiratory infection, a disease such as pneumonia, and/or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” says Dr. Aramendi. If the respiratory distress comes on suddenly, it could be a sign they inhaled or ingested something that triggered the reaction. “When any of these symptoms appear, it is recommended to take your dog to the veterinarian as soon as possible,” adds Dr. Aramendi. Can dogs get coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know.

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Parson Russell Terrier lying on the carpet on his side
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Showing you their stomach

Not all SOS signals mean that something is wrong—sometimes a pooch just wants a belly rub! When a dog lies on his back and exposes his belly to you, he’s telling you that he absolutely trusts you. If his tail is tucked up close to his belly and his legs are positioned up, he likely wants you to rub his belly and give him some serious affection. Pay attention, though: If your dog does this and then rolls over, focus on his back or head instead. Here are some other telltale signs your dog is happy.

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Brown Chihuahua snarling with teeth showing
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Hiding, barking, or growling around company

“Dogs usually react the same way to similar situations. For example, dogs that are typically sociable, playful, and greet new people in a friendly manner will most likely always behave the same way around strangers if they are accustomed to new people coming to the house and playing with them,” says Dr. Aramendi. “If the same dog that is typically friendly suddenly starts hiding when people come over to the house, or starts barking or growling in a hostile manner, it could mean that this dog is experiencing anxiety or aggression.”

Dr. Aramendi notes that sudden and unusual changes in behavior are sometimes difficult to identify. It could be caused by injury or illness, stress, or cognitive ailments such as canine dementia, which occurs in senior dogs. It’s best to consult your veterinarian if you observe behavioral changes in your dog. Next, learn the reasons for your dog’s other weird behavior.

Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a Phoenix-based veteran lifestyle reporter covering home and garden, pets, wellness and travel for outlets such as Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Insider and Reader's Digest. She received her bachelor's degree from Franklin College of Indiana's Pulliam School of Journalism, graduating magna cum laude. She has a second bachelor's degree in Philosophy.