What Do Animals Do When They Get Sick?

What happens to fido when he gets sick?
••• Mikhail Dmitriev /iStock/GettyImages

Ever started hacking up a lung or been laid out on the couch with a fever, and wondered if your dog sometimes feels the same?

Well, your pup may not feel exactly the same way. But all different kinds of animals get all different kinds of illnesses. From the sea to the sky, critters can get infected with a variety of diseases, sometimes the same kind that you might get. Some just make them a little sleepy, but others can take down populations. Keep reading for some of the types of sicknesses, and how they recover without the help of a doc.

Types of Animal Illnesses

Animals may not get exactly the same set of illnesses humans can. But there are a few similarities. Like these common ones.

The Flu

Influenza A is found in all kinds of animals from seals to pigs to cats. Symptoms range for infected animals. Sometimes, they may just seem a little off or sluggish, and need a little rest. Other times, especially in animals like domesticated birds and swine, it can cause symptoms like trouble breathing, sneezing, inflammation and even death.


This one is way less common than the cold or flu in humans, but in super rare cases animals like bats, monkeys, raccoons and foxes can pass it on to humans through bites. But it’s way more likely that they suffer from it themselves.

Rabies is an ugly disease that can take up to a year to travel to the brain, depending on where the animals contract it through a bite or a scratch. It’s been around since 2000 BC, and throughout millennia has fascinated physicians and made appearances in folklore, thanks to the kind of symptoms it produces.

Rabies-inflicted mammals can foam at the mouth, suffer from confusion, paranoia and hallucinations and have partial paralysis, which is why it’s been the basis for stories about zombies or vampire-like behavior in writing throughout history.

Additionally, patients can get what’s known as hydrophobia, or fear or water. Even thinking about having water can induce pain. This is particularly interesting, because the rabies virus multiples in the salivary glands, so doctors believe this may be the brain’s way of warning the infected mammal against spreading. Of course, this only leads to dehydration and weakness. Eventually, rabies can cause delirium and death.


The Biblical skin disease can hit one animal – the armadillo. There have been cases of these guys transferring it to humans, so be careful if you ever come in contact with one of these scaly beasts.

Venereal Diseases

Remember, animals don’t use protection, and they can get sexually transmitted infections. In fact, two major ones – gonorrhea and syphilis – first passed to humans via cattle and sheep, respectively. A chlamydia outbreak in Australia wiped out about half of the wild koalas in Queensland, causing blindness, respiratory and infertility issues that led to declining populations and death.

Another popular one among domestic livestock is brucellosis, also known as undulant fever. Farmers and zookeepers check for the bacteria that carries this in their animals, as it can cause major damage to reproductive and digestive systems.


We don’t typically think of animals as having mental health issues, but at least one study has shown that fruit flies can have physical symptoms from feelings of despair or helplessness, similar to humans.

When put in situations beyond their control, they would eventually realize there was nothing they could do to make their situation better, and would stop trying to fight it, move more slowly and take longer rests. This encouraged neuroscientists to learn whether other animals have similar responses, and dive into what could be a deep biological backing to illnesses like depression.

How Do They Get Better?

You probably have a lot of things that help to cheer you up when you’re sick – maybe it’s your coziest PJs, a steaming hot cup of your mom’s chicken soup or a chestful of Vick’s VapoRub. But most animals don’t have the luxury of camping out on their couch or getting a prescription from their doctor for the right medicine.

Some have similar remedies, of course. Their caretakers or farmers might recognize something is wrong, and use antibiotics or other treatments to try to nip the disease in the bud. And there’s some evidence that wild animals have different methods of naturally treating themselves or preventing illnesses. For instance, different types of monkeys have been observed eating plants and fruit that help to fight parasites, and pregnant elephants are known to switch up their diets to include labor-inducing plants. When an ant dies, its fellow colony members move the corpses away from the area to prevent harmful bacteria from spreading.

But the lack of medical care in the wild is one of the reasons that animal illnesses tend to spread quickly. Living in big herds where bodily fluids are often exchanged doesn’t help either. That’s why prevention, as opposed to treatment, is so important when dealing with animal illnesses.

Scientists have developed some vaccines for animals, and farmers and other people dealing with animals are taught to recognize and report the signs of disease immediately so that authorities can take action. They also work to keep things as clean as possible, since dirty living conditions can increase the spread of disease. Been on a flight to a different country lately? You may have been asked if you came into contact with any wild animals or livestock. The question can seem silly at first, but it’s incredibly important for officials to put measures in place that stop the spread of disease across borders. It may not be your mom's soothing touch, but it is an important measure for keeping animals happy and healthy.

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