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Dog Weakness and Lethargy: Causes and Treatments

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Lethargy and weakness -- these are vague but common symptoms of illness in dogs. And many things, some of them quite serious, can make your dog weak or lethargic. Here's information about the most common conditions, how they are treated, and when your dog should see a vet.

When to See a Vet

Things that can make your dog lethargic and weak can range from infection and disease to pain and medication. And because weakness and lethargy can indicate anything from a chronic condition to a life-threatening illness, you should always talk to your vet when you notice either symptom.

Dog Weakness and Lethargy: Common Causes and Treatments

A few of the more common causes of weakness or lethargy in dogs include the following:

Infection. Any kind of infection -- including serious ones such as parvovirus, distemper, kennel cough, leptospirosis, and heartworm disease -- can make your dog lethargic.

  • Parvovirus is spread through feces. Symptoms of parvo can include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Treatment includes aggressive supportive care with fluids, anti-nausea medications, and antibiotics.
  • Distemper can cause symptoms such as fever, lethargy, discharge from the eyes and nose, and coughing. The signs of distemper are broad and vary from dog to dog. Treatment may include antibiotics, fluids, and anticonvulsants.
  • Kennel cough is a contagious respiratory disease. Its most distinctive symptom is a dry, honking cough. Dogs with kennel cough can be lethargic and feverish. Treatments may include cough suppressants, antibiotics, and bronchodilators.
  • Heartworm disease is caused by heartworms that find their way into your dog through mosquito bites. Symptoms of heartworm infection can include lethargy, depression, fever, and weakness. Prevention is the best option. That includes keeping pets indoors at dusk (when mosquitoes feed) and giving them monthly preventive medicines. Treatment for existing disease requires a series of injections and weeks of strict cage rest.

Metabolic and Organic Disease. A wide range of chronic conditions can leave dogs weak or lethargic. That includes heart problems, liver problems, diabetes, and hypoglycemia.

  • Heart disease. Lethargy and reduced tolerance for exercise are the early signs of congestive heart failure in dogs. As the condition worsens, other symptoms develop, including loss of appetite and rapid breathing. Treatment depends on how far along the condition is. It may include ACE inhibitors, diuretics, and diet changes.
  • Liver disease. Signs of liver disease in dogs include lethargy, loss of appetite, jaundice, depression, and abdominal bloating. Treatment of liver disease is critical and may include medication, diet changes, or surgery.
  • Diabetes mellitus. Signs your dog may have diabetes include lethargy, excessive thirst, weight loss, and changes in appetite. Treating diabetes requires insulin injections, along with diet adjustments.
  • Hypoglycemia. This is low blood sugar, which is the opposite of diabetes. It can make your dog weak and lead to seizures. Treatment will depend on what's causing the hypoglycemia. Short-term therapy may include giving corn syrup orally or intravenous glucose.

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