When your Pet is Sick

Discover how pet owners can take better care of their pets, especially when professional veterinary health care is not immediately available.

By Mark D. Harris

People across the world are growing more and more lonely.[1] We have fewer children and other family members.[2] We have lost confidence in everyone and everything.[3] Hungry for companionship and trust, more of us own (or “parent”) pets, and our pets become more important in our lives.[4] First responders and emergency management personnel know that pet owners will sometimes risk their own lives to save their pets, and such owners are spending more money on their pets than ever before.[5]

But what do you do when your pet gets sick or injured? Too often professional animal health care is not available. America has a severe shortage of veterinarians.[6] Europe needs more veterinarians as well.[7] Veterinarians care for our pets, but also farm animals, zoo animals, and wild animals. They ensure our food safety and perform research into zoonotic and other conditions. Veterinary technologists and technicians are integral parts of the system at all levels, and their numbers are also limited.

The cost of veterinary care can be prohibitive. Serena, our plot hound rescue dog, has been with us for 18 months, after 12 months without a pet since our miniature Dachshund died. Serena’s recent sickness and hospitalization has already cost almost $1500, and she hasn’t fully recovered. Sometimes interventions are futile, such as unnecessary surgeries. MRIs and CT scans can be as expensive for pets as they are for humans…sometimes more. The cash price for the canine antinausea medication Cerenia (Maropitant) is $6.00 per pill, compared to $3.00 per pill for the human antinausea medication Reglan (Metoclopramide).

When professional animal health care is not available, due to cost, distance, time, or simply absence, what can pet owners do to keep their pets healthy and to care for them in sickness or after injury?

Overall Health

The best things for your pet’s health are the same as the best things for your health: a healthy diet, exercise, sound sleep, plenty of water, and staying clean. Checking pet foods carefully and buying the high-quality varieties makes a difference. Dogs need to walk every day and they need to go at their own pace. As a hound, Serena loves to stop and smell everything, including things that humans consider disgusting.  While sniffing is OK, we try to stop her from eating. Other pets, from rabbits to hamsters, also need exercise.

All animals, like all humans, need sleep. Animals can sleep in water, snow, or many other environments, but still need an environment within a specific temperature range with few distractions (like a dark, quiet room if you are a dog, or a dark cave, if you are a bear) to sleep. The amount of sleep needed varies directly with meat intake, as carnivores need more sleep than omnivores who need more than herbivores. Animals need clean, cool water for kidney function, blood volume, metabolism, and other key functions. Finally, cleanliness decreases skin diseases and other health problems.


Fractures or other major acute injuries should be treated by a veterinarian. If one is not available, owners should splint the damaged area securely and get the animal to professional care promptly. Injuries to the feet are common and should be irrigated copiously with warm water. Antiseptics such as hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, and iodine solutions damage normal cells and should not be used in open wounds. Regular soap and water are adequate.


As a physician for humans, I appreciate the skills of veterinarians in getting information from their patients. A human with a kidney infection, for example, will typically complain of fever, back/flank pain, pain with urination, nausea and vomiting, and dirty urine on exam. A dog with a kidney infection will complain of none of these, and so the vet has a lot less information to make the diagnosis.

  1. Common diseases in dogs – giardia, distemper, parvovirus, parasites, Lyme disease, rabies, leptospirosis, kennel cough, heart worm, hepatitis.
  2. Common diseases in cats – conjunctivitis, diabetes, feline immunodeficiency syndrome, distemper, kidney failure, feline leukemia, hyperthyroidism, upper respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, obesity.
  3. Common diseases in birds – Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD), psittacosis (Parrot Fever), Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), polyomavirus, candida.
  4. Common diseases in reptiles – poxvirus, iridovirus, herpesvirus, flavivirus, adenovirus, metabolic bone disorders, fungal infections, external parasites, salmonella, campylobacter, botulism, leptospirosis.[8]
  5. Common diseases in fish – piscine tuberculosis, fin rot, mouth fungus, swim bladder disease, vibrosis, pseudomoniasis, saprolegnia fungus, egg fungus, lymphocystis, iridovirus, Singapore angelfish disease, Malawi bloat, White Sports, Hole in the Head, Neon Tetra Disease, skin or gill flukes, ankle worm, dropsy, tetrahymena, cryptocaryon, marine velvet (coral reef fish disease), anemonefish disease, septicemia.

Many other diseases can occur, and specifics on each disease can be found elsewhere.


Many medicines exist specifically for animals, but many other medications are used in humans in different formulations or different dosages. Pet owners should not use human medications for their animals without consulting their veterinarians.

  1. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories – human formulations such as ibuprofen or naproxen are generally discouraged, while aspirin is sometimes used in low doses in dogs (not cats).
  2. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – generally not used due to liver toxicity.
  3. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) – can be used in dogs and cats at low doses, often for motion sickness, allergies or as a sedative. Avoid in pets with glaucoma, high blood pressure, or heart disease.
  4. Histamine blockers (Tagamet, Pepcid, Zantac) – useful for heart burn.
  5. Glucosamine – can be useful for pain control in arthritis.
  6. Neosporin topical – can be useful for small open wounds.
  7. Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) – used for stomach upset, diarrhea. Do not use in cats as salicylates are not well metabolized in cats. Bleeding can result. We have had good luck with Pepto-Bismol with Serena for stomach upset and vomiting.
  8. Anti-nausea medications – metoclopramide (Reglan) and ondansetron (Zofran) have been used. Again, check with a veterinarian for advisability and dosage.

One of the biggest problems with giving animals human medications is dosages. A 200 lb. human usually requires a lot more medicine than a 20 lb. dog. Never store human prescriptions where animals can reach them.

Other modalities

Physical therapy for arthritis, neurological disease, and other problems can be as useful in pets as it can in people. Post-operative rehabilitation is also available. Acupuncture can help with pain and other problems in animals.


My favorite bumper sticker reads “Real doctors take care of multiple species.” Pets are a growing part of life in America and throughout the world. Veterinarians and techs play a vital role in animal health, but sometimes pet owners have to treat their pets with little professional guidance.[9] Consult a professional when possible, but hopefully readers will be able to take care of their animals a little better than before.

Related Articles

  1. When your pet is sick
  2. Will my dog go to heaven?


[1] Bianca DiJulio, Liz Hamel, Cailey Muñana, Mollyann Brodie, Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey Kaiser Family Foundation, last modified 30 Aug 2018, https://www.kff.org/report-section/loneliness-and-social-isolation-in-the-united-states-the-united-kingdom-and-japan-an-international-survey-section-2/#:~:text=Japan%20has%20unique%20terms%20for%20two%20specific%20conditions,that%20these%20are%20very%20or%20somewhat%20serious%20problems.

[2] World Fertility Rate 1950-2021, accessed 2 Jan 2021, https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/WLD/world/fertility-rate.

[3] Yuval Levin, How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything? Our institutions lost the capacity to mold character and have become platforms for performance instead, last modified 18 Jan 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/opinion/sunday/institutions-trust.html.

[4] Pet-ownership is booming across the world, It seems not to be doing the owners as much good as they think, last modified 22 Jun 2019, https://www.economist.com/international/2019/06/22/pet-ownership-is-booming-across-the-world.

[5] The pet business is booming as Americans spend more on their animals while they work from home, last modified 5 Dec 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/05/americans-are-spending-more-money-on-their-pets-during-the-pandemic.html.

[6] Neil C. Olsen, America’s Veterinarian Shortage Is Bad for Animals and Humans Alike, last modified 5 Jun 2018 https://fortune.com/2018/06/05/veterinarians-public-health-food-safety/.

[7] Putting vets on shortage occupation list is an ‘immediate priority’, say vet leaders, British Medical Journal, Vet Record, Vol 181, Issue 19, https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/181/19/496.1.

[8] The last four of these diseases can easily be transmitted from pets to people.

[9] Much of the information here comes from the Merck Manual of Veterinary Medicine, 2020.

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