It was the summer of 2009, my friends and I had just arrived back at my house ready for milkshakes and pizza. Having spent the afternoon trying to skateboard we admitted defeat and settled in for some comfort food instead. When I wandered into the lounge I gazed into the fish tank on the shelf, puzzled as to where he had gone – it had been a few days and I still hadn’t seen him. The others bundled into the lounge, sat on the floor and began eating, so I shrugged it off for another day and joined them. However, a distinct fishy smell drew the attention of one of my friends sat closest to the tank. I decided at this point to open the lid and check…

I’m sure you can guess what I found staring at my 14-year-old self from the top of the tank. I said something along the lines of “well I guess that makes sense” the confusion was written on my friend’s face. When I told her that I thought he’d disappeared we laughed, and then the mystery was solved. I don’t think at the time I thought anything had been wrong with my fish. However, sometimes I do wonder if he’d been trying to tell me something and I couldn’t identify the problem.

There is no perfect way to tell if your pet is hiding their ailments from you. They seem to be masters of putting up a front until it’s sometimes too late. However, there are some subtle hints that you could pick up on and that can prompt you to investigate further. So what I’ve got for you all today is a short guide to the subtle tells to look out for in your pets.


Reptiles are masters at hiding disease so you need to get to know your species thoroughly! The Pet Place website recommends keeping records to help assess your pet’s health and to always keep a keen eye on them. This way it’ll be easier to pick up on anything that isn’t glaringly obvious.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the following and maybe ask yourself these questions:

Changes in eating habits

  • When was their last meal?
  • How much did they eat?
  • How was it eaten?
  • What was eaten and where did it come from?


  • How often do they shed?
  • Was the shed complete or not?

Bowel movements

  • How regular are they?

Other things to keep an eye on are their weight, reproductive activity, breathing difficulties, oral health problems and any other influences or behavioural changes you think might be important. If you keep a note of these things and if your suspicions arise, it will be easier for you to explain your worries to your vet rather than trying to work from memory.


In a similar way to reptiles, aviary birds often hide signs of their sickness – often until they’re too weak to continue disguising it. The reason for this is to do with being a prey animal. Predators will look for signs of weakness when picking out their next meal.

There are some common signs that you can look for closely in all pet birds, that can help you to notice when something might be wrong. According to the PDSA some things to keep an eye out for include:


  • Has the consistency, colour or amount changed?

The way they sit

  • Are they huddled up whilst they’re sitting?
  • Are they sitting low on the perch or the bottom of the cage?


  • Have they been falling off their perch?
  • Do they look like they’re about to fall?

Appearance changes

  • Do they look more ruffled and puffed up than normal?
  • Do they look thinner than usual?
  • Have they stopped grooming or lost feathers?

It’s also good to check their eyes and nose, monitor their appetite, keep an eye on their energy levels and changes in behaviour. They could be less chatty or active than normal and that can also indicate that something may be wrong. The PDSA also recommend if you have other birds to see if the behaviour towards the sick bird has changed.


Man’s best friend are susceptible to illnesses just like us. The main difference, like with all the animals we’re talking about today, is that they can’t tell us. Recognising symptoms in your dog will help to speed up their recovery and help them feel themselves again, which is what we all want when we’re sick. Dogs can be good at hiding things like aches or pains as well, so it’s good to pay attention to subtle signs as well as looking out for the more common symptoms.

Things to look out for can include:


  • Are they eating more or less than usual?
  • Is a change in appetite accompanied by other symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea?


  • Are they less enthusiastic and active?
  • Are they sleeping more than usual?

Runny eyes/nose

  • Are they sneezing/have a runny nose/eyes
  • Is there any mucus-like discharge or bleeding from the nose?
  • Do their eyes look sore?
  • Are they blinking more excessively?

Skin complaints

  • Is there any itching or redness?
  • Are they experiencing any sort of hair loss?
  • Has their coat become dull at all?
  • Do they have any discharge or redness in their ears?

All these things should be investigated. It’s also important to look out for ticks and cuts on the paws and mouth, red or swollen gums, any general changes in behaviour along with excessive thirst or urination, or difficulty with their continence. Always keep an eye out for any lameness or stiffness as well, it can be a natural part of getting older but it could suggest your dog may have a bone or joint issue.


Like birds, rabbits are a prey species and are therefore good at hiding weakness and illnesses. Knowing your rabbit and their personality is always going to be a big help in figuring out if there is something wrong. It means you can respond to irregular behaviour quickly, rather than missing it and potentially being too late. Rabbits are known to be creatures of habit and if they start acting differently – be that in an insignificant way – it could mean that something is wrong. Recognising these changes is important – as it is with any pet.

Here are some symptoms that would be good to keep an eye out for:

Ear mites

  • Are there skin scales on the inner ear?
  • Have you noticed any crusted lesions or any hair loss around the ear?
  • Are they itching their ear, head and neck more frequently?


  • Has there been a loss in appetite?
  • Are they passing mucus instead of droppings?
  • Is there any increased saliva, dribbling or wet fur around the mouth?


  • Have you noticed them grinding their teeth?
  • Are they sat in a hunched position?
  • Do you hear any shallow fast breathing?

As with other pets, it’s good to look out for changes in behaviour and if your in any doubt about their health it is best to consult a rabbit-savvy vet.


As a rule of thumb, it’s good to remember that cats have a similar pain threshold to humans and are vulnerable to a range of infectious diseases or illnesses. It’s important to check your cat for signs of injury or illness daily and if you notice any unusual symptoms in your cat you should seek veterinary advice.

Keep monitoring your cat’s social behaviour as changes to this may be an early indicator that they are not well. Continue to keep an eye on their activity level, their eating and drinking habits, their breath, weight, grooming and sleeping habits, and any changes in routine or behaviours. Any irregular findings could indicate there is something wrong with your feline friend.

However, the RSPCA conducted a study around cat health and discovered some interesting results. The most common general problems in cats are:

  • Parasitic infestation which affects around 9.8%
  • Digestive problems can affect about 10%
  • Skin problems, 10.4%
  • Trauma, 12.8%
  • Dental, 15.1%

Specific disorders found in cats include:

  • Injury affecting around 4.6%
  • Heart murmurs which can affect around 5%
  • Obesity, which is about 6.7%
  • Flea infestation, affecting 8%
  • Dental disease, 13.9%

32% of cats used in the study had no health problems recorded and it was found that purebred cats have a higher liklihood of coat disorders. Whereas crossbred cats have a higher likelihood of abscesses and hyperthyroidism.

The general conclusion the study came too was that cats are generally healthy creatures and that we can help to maintain that health through these things:

  • Good dental care
  • Proper nutrition
  • Parasite control
  • Annual veterinary health checks


Fish aren’t simple creatures to look after and have specific needs. This means they need attentive and routine care. They are unable to show their feelings as clearly as mammals do and meeting their needs takes a lot of care and investment.

When checking your fish always ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they eating swiftly and enthusiastically?
  • Are they gulping for air at the surface of the water? This could be a sign of oxygen starvation or poor water quality
  • Are they being alert and sociable?
  • Do they have bright and clear eyes?
  • Are there any tears, splits, spots or blood on their fins?
  • Are the fins drooping?
  • How are they swimming?
  • Do they have any pale patches or sticking out scales?

If you keep an eye out for these things then you’re sure to be able to look after your fish with the utmost care.

Hopefully, with this information in hand, incidents like that of my fish can be avoided.

Sarah Griffiths
Sarah is a creative writer and lifestyle blogger based in Manchester. She loves dogs and can't wait to one day have a good boy of her own.

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