This article was updated on August 6th, 2023
During the 30 years I’ve spent working as a veterinary technician one question I hear from clients again and again is “why is my dog acting weird or strange?”. Some weird behavior is just a dog being goofy, and some is indicative of illness. Being familiar with your dog’s individual idiosyncrasies and any unusual behaviors related to their breed type is helpful when trying to discern disease-related behavior versus silly dog antics. Is your dog eating normally? Is he or she urinating and defecating normally? How is your dog breathing? The presence or absence of other symptoms can sometimes help you determine what is going on. Drooling or hyper salivating is also one of the body’s responses to a lot of different situations and illnesses. In this article, we will review what it means when your dog is drooling, and also behaving differently.
How much drooling is considered normal?
A “normal” amount of drool is hard to pinpoint. There is a definite difference in the frequency and the amount of drool produced based on breed type. Mastiffs, Newfoundlands and Bulldogs are known to be slobbery dogs. Poodles and Chihuahuas are not.
A strand or two of drool and some small spots on the floor would be considered a normal amount of drool.
Continuous strands making large spots on the floor and coating the throat and chest would be considered excessive.
But even when the amount of drool is normal, there is still the question of why your dog is drooling. Dogs drool when they are hot, when they are mildly dehydrated, when they are excited or anticipating being fed. They drool when they are nauseous, nervous or in pain. Some dogs will drool excessively from excitement or fear. Dogs with thunderstorm anxiety often drool.
Why is my dog drooling and lethargic?
There are many reasons why a dog would be both lethargic and drooling. Here are a few common ones:
When dogs are nauseous, they may be lethargic and drool. Other signs of nausea that you may see include: 1) lip licking or “smacking”, 2) “hard” swallowing, 3) inappetence and 4) excessive licking of paws.
Causes of nausea include kidney disease, liver disease, gastroenteritis, pancreatitis, gastric or intestinal foreign body, gastrointestinal tumor, neurological disease, toxin ingestion, bloat or twisted stomach (GDV). Dogs drooling and acting lethargic need to see a veterinarian: call your vet and let them know your dog is sick and can’t wait too long for an appointment.
If your dog is drooling heavily (lots of strands of drool, big wet spots, throat/neck wet) you need to see a vet that day to prevent dehydration and to figure out the cause.
If your dog is lethargic to the extent that he or she is reluctant to get up and go outside or won’t lift up their head when their name is called, you need to see a vet immediately.
If you suspect your dog has ingested a toxin or an object that may cause an intestinal obstruction call your vet right away, both are potentially life threatening.
A twisted stomach, often called bloat, technically called a gastric dilatation volvulus is a surgical emergency. Dogs often pace, pant, drool and retch when bloated but some dogs in this condition become lethargic. Please read more about bloat under the section below ‘Why is my dog drooling and acting strange?‘
3. Heat stroke
A dog suffering from heat stroke will pant, drool and may have trouble breathing, they may appear lethargic, stumble around or appear disoriented. Heat stroke may occur with body temperatures above 105 F (Normal dog temperature is 100-102.5F). A rectal thermometer is the best way to check your dog’s temperature. Have someone hold their head so they don’t try to bite. Even the nicest dog may bite when not feeling well. Use KY jelly or Vaseline or cooking oil as a lubricant. Insert the thermometer into the rectum about 1-2 inches depending on the size of your dog. A digital bendable thermometer is best.
If the temperature is 105 F or above cool your dog, but not too quickly. Put your pooch in a cool room and wet down the hair on their head, belly, armpits and groin. Use cool water not cold water. You can place wet sheets on them and use a fan to lightly blow the air around them.
Call your vet immediately to let them know that your dog needs to be seen right away even if you have gotten the body temperature down to normal. The negative affects of heat stroke are not always evident and may not manifest until the next day.
Heat stroke can lead to serious illness or death if left untreated. Here is a link to learn more about heat stroke.
A dog may drool when mildly dehydrated. They may also become lethargic. Other signs of dehydration are inappetence, vomiting, sunken eyes and decreased skin elasticity. As dehydration progresses the drooling may stop.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
To check for skin elasticity pull up the skin at the nape of your dog’s neck. When you let go it will snap back in a well hydrated dog. If it goes back slowly your dog is moderately dehydrated, if it stays “tented” your dog is severely dehydrated.
You can also check the gums. A well hydrated dog will have moist gums, your finger should slide right across them. Tacky or sticky gums imply moderate dehydration. Dry gums indicate severe dehydration.
For cases of mild/moderate dehydration encourage your dog to drink water. You can syringe feed small amounts of water if your dog won’t drink on his own. Place a few drops of water in your dogs cheek pouch and allow him or her to swallow. If he or she doesn’t swallow the water stop. Do not force feed the water. Force feeding can result in aspiration pneumonia.
If your dog is moderately dehydrated and won’t drink water, or if he or she is severely dehydrated get to a vet hospital right away as severe dehydration left untreated can lead to life threatening situations.
5. Toxin or drug ingestion
Some toxins may cause drooling and lethargy. Many toxins are deadly if left untreated. Other potential signs of toxin ingestion include: vomiting, pacing, panting, abnormal neurologic behavior (vocalizing, trembling, twitching, seizures), collapse.
If you suspect that your dog was exposed to or ingested a chemical substance, disinfectants, antifreeze or insecticides for example or drugs of any kind call a veterinarian right away or a veterinary poison control hotline. The poison control hotline has a fee but is well worth it. They will let you know whether or not you need to take your dog to the vet hospital, and they will consult with your vet to form a treatment plan.
6. Internal bleeding
One type of cancer that dogs get causes a tumor in the liver or spleen that can rupture and bleed. Often the bleeding is the first sign of illness. The blood is contained inside of the abdominal cavity.
This occurs mainly in older dogs. Any breed can be affected but this tumor called Hemangiosarcoma is often seen in German shepherds and Retrievers.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
A dog who is bleeding internally may drool and become lethargic. If the bleeding is slow you may notice your dog slowing down over a period of a few hours to a day. When the bleeding is more acute your dog will become ill and decompensate very quickly.
Other signs of a bleeding tumor are pale gums and an increase in heart rate. Your dog may also drool or pant. Here is a video on how to obtain a heart rate. This situation is a surgical emergency. If you suspect this is what is going on with your dog call or drive to an open vet clinic immediately.
Why is my dog drooling and acting strange?
1. Prayer position
The term prayer position refers to a dog raising their butt and tail while the forelimbs and head are on the floor. This is a position that dogs assume when they have severe abdominal pain. It is similar to a position dogs take when playing.
When playing the dog will be wagging their tail, they may bark and run around. When in pain the dog will assume the position and hold it for a few minutes, they may exhibit other signs of pain such as drooling or whining. They may attempt to lay down but find it too uncomfortable.
If your dog is assuming the prayer position you should call a vet right away. Your dog is very painful and needs medical treatment. Causes of this pain include GI foreign body, pancreatitis or gastroenteritis.
2. Bloat, torsion or GDV
Gastric Dilitation Volvulus, commonly called bloat occurs when the dog’s stomach flips. The stomach is unable to empty into the intestines as it should and the dog can’t vomit. The stomach fills with gas and “bloats”. This can happen to any breed but deep chested dogs, Great Danes and German shepherds especially, are more prone to it.
A dog with a twisted stomach will act strange in that they will pace and pant and drool. They may retch in an attempt to vomit. They will lay down and get right up and pace again. Their belly will be hard and painful and will often be distended or round.
This condition is very painful. It is also a surgical emergency. You need to get your dog to the nearest open vet hospital right away. Left untreated a dog with a GDV will die.
3. Head Tilt/Alligator rolling-
When a dog keeps their head tilted to one angle significantly it may be a symptom of an ear infection, inner ear disease or brain disease. An ear infection usually causes rubbing or pawing at the ear and shaking of the head plus or minus a foul odor.
A head tilt absent of those additional signs is indicative of inner ear or vestibular disease.
When a dog has their head twisted around and can’t lay in a normal position, is unable to walk or is literally rolling around it is most likely vestibular disease. These dogs will often drool a lot and may vomit. Dogs in this condition should be seen by a vet right away. This disease process causes extreme discomfort, anxiety and nausea, all of which can be alleviated with medication. Many dogs with vestibular disease recover with treatment.
4. Neurologic Disease
Any dog with neurologic symptoms should be taken to a vet right away. It is impossible to know without diagnostic testing which disease process we are dealing with and some neurologic diseases require immediate medical attention to prevent the symptoms from progressing.
When a dog walks in a circle continuously it is referred to as “circling”. This a sign of serious neurological disease. Your dog may also have a slight head tilt. A dog in this condition may also drool due to nausea or anxiety.
Causes of circling include brain tumors and degenerative brain diseases. This occurs most often in small breed dogs, white fluffy dogs especially. Pugs also have a predisposition for this type of disease.
Medical treatment is needed. While not immediately life threatening an emergency visit to the vet is warranted as this is a very unpleasant condition which causes suffering. Your dog’s symptoms can be alleviated with the appropriate medications. Prognosis depends on the final diagnoses but some of the degenerative diseases do respond positively to treatment.
6. Head pressing
Head pressing is seen in dogs with a variety of neurological disorders. A dog who is head pressing is literally pressing the top of their head against the wall or some other stable structure.
The disease most commonly associated with head pressing is a liver shunt where the blood vessels that normally travel through the liver are diverted so they bypass the liver. This leads to high blood ammonia levels which causes neurological symptoms. This can be congenital (dog is born with shunt) or acquired (happens slowly over time).
Puppies or older dogs may present with signs such as head pressing, seizures, becoming lethargic and mentally dull after eating, and young dogs tend to be smaller than usual.
Liver shunts can be successfully treated medically or with surgery. Here is a link to learn more about liver shunts.
7. Other neurologic symptoms
Other signs of neurologic disease that may be considered “acting weird” include “star gazing”, “fly biting”, and “bubble gum chewing”. These are signs of neurologic or brain disease and warrant a call to a veterinarian right away.
A dog who is star gazing will stare blankly at the wall, or into the air. They may or may not respond when you speak to them.
A dog who is fly biting will appear to be biting at invisible flys.
Bubble gum chewing
Bubble gum chewing is a form of seizure activity. When this occurs a dog will appear to chew rapidly with his or her front teeth, often accompanied by drooling.
Contacting a veterinarian
As soon as you are aware that something is wrong it is a good idea to chat with your veterinarian. If they are not available call the closest veterinary emergency hospital. Even if they are far from you and it may be difficult for you to get there they can give you good advice over the phone.
Veterinary telehealth is gaining in popularity. If you have a plan where calls or video calls are free by all means utilize them. The veterinarian will guide you as to what to do next and it is helpful if they can see the odd behavior your dog is exhibiting.
Keep in mind that they are limited by not being able to do diagnostic tests and obviously they can’t treat your dog.