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What to Do About a Lethargic Dog

What to Do About a Lethargic Dog

Critter Culture Staff



When a high-energy dog is suddenly not as exuberant as normal, it's ok to feel a moment of relief. However, behavior changes can indicate illness. Dogs are limited in how they can communicate, so it is up to their owners to notice subtle mood shifts that may be a sign that something is wrong. Loss of energy is one of these signs. A lethargic dog is not always cause for concern, but if you notice your dog is losing interest in activities and becoming more subdued, keep an eye on them — the early signs of illness are often subtle.


A big sign: exercise intolerance

Dog on leash with owner Michael Hall / Getty Images

An overall lack of energy is one sign of lethargy in dogs, but it isn't the only one. Exercise intolerance is another indication that something is wrong and should not be ignored. Disinterest in playing or going outside are often early indicators illness. You can see your dog struggling to recover from an activity if they are panting heavily much more quickly or longer than usual. Coughing and labored breathing can also highlight exercise intolerance. In its most advanced stages, a lethargic dog may experience confusion, be unsteady on its feet, and even overheat.

Symptoms of exercise intolerance can develop for a number of reasons. Until your dog returns to its normal activity level or you receive a diagnosis from the veterinarian, don't attempt to force them into activity.


Other signs of lethargy

Dog resting in bed Ray Kachatorian / Getty Images

Exercise intolerance is not the only symptom of lethargy. If you have an older dog or one who is naturally lower in energy, the signs of lethargy might not be immediately obvious. However, a change in your dog's interest in any activity that used to excite it can signify a problem. Even an elderly dog typically perks up when you pick up their leash or fill up their food dish. If you notice these reactions have been replaced by more sluggish attention or no reaction at all, lethargy is likely.

A lethargic dog may also sleep more than usual. If their normal sleeping quarters are in an area with activity, such as the living room, they may retreat to a quieter corner to rest.


What to do if my dog is lethargic

Dog resting with owner gollykim / Getty Images

If a lack of energy is your dog's only symptom, you may want to wait and see if they bounce back. If they have been unusually active or the weather is warmer than usual, they may experience some normal fatigue. Dogs, like humans, can have an occasional low-energy day.

As long as your dog is willing to go outside for bathroom breaks, is eating and drinking, and doesn't seem uncomfortable, wait a few days to see if their energy level rebounds. If they experience other symptoms, such as a loss of appetite, shaking, digestive or breathing issues, or appear confused or weak, schedule an appointment with their veterinarian.


Common causes of lethargy in dogs

Dog at veterinarian LWA / Getty Images

Dogs develop lethargy as a symptom of several health conditions, many of which are progressive and chronic. An early diagnosis will give your dog the best chance of a successful recovery.

Infections, including parvovirus and distemper, can cause lethargy. Parasitic infections, either on the skin or internally, can cause anemia, which leads to lethargy. If your dog spends time alone outside or is prone to digging through your trash, the vet will need to rule out the ingestion of something toxic. Anything from onions to antifreeze can make your dog sick and lethargic. Many of the conditions your dog is prone to as it gets older also have lethargy or fatigue as an early symptom.


How to care for a lethargic dog

Woman and dog outside chabybucko / Getty Images

The most important step in caring for your lethargic dog is to keep them comfortable. If there are no other obvious symptoms of illness, watch them for a few days to see if they return to their normal activity level. During this time, make sure they are eating and drinking, and when you take them outside, check that their stool is normal in color and texture. Notice if they are urinating less than normal or seem to have trouble going to the bathroom.

If your dog doesn't resume their normal behavior in a few days or develops other symptoms, such as a loss of appetite, confusion, restlessness, or digestive upset, get in touch with your veterinarian.


Infections that cause lethargy

Puppy at the veterinarian FatCamera / Getty Images

Lethargy can be the first symptom of a dangerous infection. Parvovirus and distemper are both highly contagious. Treatment for parvovirus requires early intervention from your veterinarian, and there are no effective treatments for distemper, and it can be fatal or cause lifelong neurological damage. Aside from lethargy, signs of these infections include vomiting and diarrhea. Parvovirus infections can also cause a high fever and loss of appetite.


Ingesting something toxic

Dog getting into trash Peter Cade / Getty Images

Determining if your dog has ingested something toxic can be a challenge. Different toxins cause different symptoms, and things that you may not consider dangerous can cause serious harm. Generally, excessive drooling, difficulty breathing, and vomiting accompany lethargy in a dog who has eaten something bad for it. Get in touch with your veterinarian immediately, and if you have any ideas of what they may have gotten into, let the doctor know.


Injury and pain

Injured dog in protective collar yulkapopkova / Getty Images

You don't want to think about your dog being in pain, but it is important to recognize the symptoms so you can help. In addition to lethargic behavior, a dog who is in pain may appear agitated, pant heavily, whine, cry, or otherwise vocalize in a different way than normal, or even become aggressive or aloof. Pain can be the result of injury or a health condition such as cancer. If your dog is giving you multiple symptoms it is in pain for more than a couple of days, take it to the vet.


Heart disease and other metabolic conditions

Dog drinking water PK-Photos / Getty Images

In addition to lethargy, a dog experiencing metabolic conditions such as heart disease may pant, cough, or otherwise have difficulty breathing. They may experience swelling in the abdomen due to fluid buildup. Their skin may develop a blue tint from low oxygen, or in the case of liver disease, a yellow tint due to jaundice. In more advanced cases, the dog may cough up blood.

Loss of appetite, an increase in thirst and urination, confusion, weakness, and seizures are all possible indicators of metabolic conditions and you should get your dog medical attention.


Parasitic infections

Dog scratching magdasmith / Getty Images

It is relatively easy to determine if your dog has external parasites, such as fleas, as they are visible, and you will notice frantic scratching. Internal parasites can be a little tougher to recognize. If your dog is lethargic due to parasitic infection, they may be experiencing anemia. Early signs of parasites include diarrhea and vomiting, scooting their bum along the ground, weight loss, coughing, and abdominal distention. Your vet can run tests to determine what parasites your dog has and provide an effective treatment.



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