Common Symptoms: Lethargy Problems

Posted on by Christopher Bern, DVM

Most of my life I’ve practiced in the Southeastern U.S. and there are certain common phrases and abbreviations that have made it into the everyday language of the veterinary profession. My favorite is “ADR” and represents a pet with very vague symptoms that aren’t immediately obvious but the owner knows that something is wrong. “Doc, I don’t know exactly what’s goin’ on, but he ain’t doin’ right.” This is well enough understood that I actually saw “ADR” used in official medical records when I was in vet school in North Carolina.

Lethargy and a decreased appetite are the most common symptoms we see, and unfortunately can be associated with virtually every disease in the books. Something simple like discomfort from an insect sting could cause a reduction in energy and this is a problem that usually doesn’t require a veterinary visit. But things as serious and life-threatening as kidney failure and cancer can also cause similar signs.

Just to illustrate, here’s a quick list of the various things that could cause a pet to be “off” their food and not want to move around as much: fever, kidney failure, pneumonia, sprain, abscess, dental infection, cancer, heart failure, corneal abrasion, intestinal obstruction, hookworms, hypothyroidism, arthritis, dermatitis, depression, anxiety, stress, anemia… I think you start to get the idea. When the only problems are lethargy and decreased appetite we can’t be specific about the underlying cause. And unfortunately, these symptoms happen very commonly!

Sometimes on a thorough physical exam we can get a good idea of the problem. Perhaps we can find a mass in the abdomen or notice a fever. Sometimes we’ll see subtle lameness or an ear infection. But if the exam doesn’t show anything unusual and questioning about the pet’s history doesn’t give us any clues, we’ll have to start running tests. At a minimum this usually involves blood tests to assess organ function and blood cells, commonly with a urinalysis to give more details about kidney function and certain metabolic disorders. Without these tests it may be impossible for us to come to a proper conclusion, so be prepared for this discussion with your vet.

It’s important to realize that when a pet is sleeping more, has decreased energy, doesn’t eat much, and drinks less we are seeing very general, vague symptoms. If these symptoms are severe or persist for more than a day or two, you should have your vet examine your pet and run tests. It’s only once we start to narrow down the possibilities that we can figure out what we need to do to help your pet start feeling better.

About Christopher Bern, DVM

Dr. Bern has been with the practice since 1999 and currently works as the Chief of Staff for the Woodstock, GA hospital. View all posts by Christopher Bern, DVM →

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