Our pets can't tell us when they're not feeling well or that something isn't right, so it's up to us to recognize warning signs. Below are some of pet expert Marc Morrone's tips for detecting those red flags that just might signal a trip to the vet is needed.

And remember, as petkeepers, it's always best to be proactive when it comes to our pets' health. You should always have access to a good vet, have an established relationship with him or her, and make scheduled visits so you can nip the small problems before they get to be big ones!

Predatory Animals: Dogs, Cats, and Ferrets

Naturally predatory animals are confident and comfortable enough to let us know right away if there's something wrong. We're so in tune with these pets it's very easy for us to see when their dietary and elimination habits are not what they usually are, or their skin and coat aren't up to par. There are many old wives' tales when it comes to pet care. For example, pet owners often worry their dog is sick if its nose is dry or warm. Sometimes a dog's nose is wet and sometimes it's dry -- both are normal.

What you should pay attention to are the mucus membranes of the eyes and gums, which should be pale pink. If they're very light in color, it could be an early sign that your pet is suffering from a heart or other circulation problem. To measure your pet's circulation response time (CRT), lift its upper lip and press your thumb against the gum area over the teeth for 5 seconds or until the gum area blanches white. The area should go back to pink in one second after you release your thumb -- any longer may be the sign of a problem.

Prey Animals: Birds, Bunnies, Guinea Pigs, and Rodents

Prey animals that we keep as pets -- birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, and rodents -- are creatures who are very good at hiding their symptoms of illness. The predatory animals that feed on them are adept at detecting weakness. It's in the best interest of any prey animal to look healthy even if there's a problem.


Check bird's feet on perch: A bird that is healthy will sleep with one foot on the perch and one pulled up into its plumage. If a bird is sound asleep with both feet on its perch, something is wrong.

Check feathers on bird: There should be no gaps in the plumage, and feathers should always be laying flat against the body. If the feathers are at right angles to the body or they have a puffy or fluffy look to them, it's a sign that the bird does not feel well. Vets have the technology to do tests and X-rays on birds just like other animals. Direct heat from a 100-watt bulb attached to your bird's cage with a clamp light will help the bird feel better until you can get to the vet.

Check tail feathers: The underside of a bird's tail feathers should always be clean and dry. If they're stained or dirty, it's an indication the bird is suffering from loose stools -- another indication something is wrong. The vet will perform diagnostics -- cultures and blood tests -- to determine the problem.


Bunnies in particular do their best to hide anything that is wrong with them since they have more enemies than any other mammal.

Check for abnormal scents: Bunnies are usually clean and odor-free animals. If there's a strong ammonia-type smell, it could be an early indication of a digestive problem.

Check chin and neck: If the bunny is drooling, it most likely has a tooth problem.

Guinea Pigs

Like the bunny, if your guinea pig is drooling, it could have a problem with its teeth. If you notice dry and crusty ears, it could be an early indicator of a skin condition called scaly mites, in which invisible parasites live under the skin and cause severe pain.

Pocket Pets: Hamsters and Gerbils

Check eyes: They should always be round and bright. If they're oval or look squinty, it means that the animal is dehydrated; either the pet's water bottle is empty or not working, or it could be an indication that the animal is dehydrated from some other fever or ailment, and it's time for the vet.

Check tail: Periodically, check your hamster or gerbil's tail area -- a place you normally wouldn't notice in such a small pet. If the tail is wet, don't dismiss it as a leaky water bottle. It means that the animal is suffering from a digestive infection that is causing loose stools. The vet will conduct cultures and administer a course of antibiotics.

Comments (1)

Martha Stewart Member
March 28, 2012
??? is there a cure for dropsy in a fancy tail goldfish my poor little fish is in need for desperate help ASAP