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Contemplating Sick as a Dog

The Caninologist

Consumer Reports stuck a thermometer in the mouth of a pug for the cover of the magazine’s January issue.

“It’s Cold & Flu Season,” the headline observed. “You’re Sick as a Dog. Here’s Help.”

The Caninologist immediately wondered: Just how sick is it when you’re sick as a dog?

There’s no evidence that a dog is more sick than a penguin or a rattlesnake or a cockroach.

McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs reports the first recorded usage of “sick as a dog” came way back in 1705. That’s the same year Farinelli, the famous castrato who could hit a C6 — said to be the highest note any singer could sing at the time — and was the darling of European opera, was born in Italy. I think there may be a connection.

But while people have used the dog to express a state of human illness for centuries, it seems to be a particular kind of illness, the sort you can laugh about. Sure, you can call the boss to say, “I can’t come to work today. I’m sick as a dog.” But it isn’t terminal. In fact, you better show up Monday.

Not that many cancer patients are heard saying, “Man, I’m sick as a dog,” as the end draws near. More likely, that expression comes pretty early in the course of chemotherapy. The cowboy gasping for breath, arrow sticking out of his chest, doesn’t say, “Charlie, help me, I’m sick as a gol-durned dawg!” He’d more likely get to the dog after a few too many shots of whiskey in the saloon.

We asked one of the actual scientists in the family, a professor at a local medical school who writes textbooks about medications, what she understood “sick as a dog” to mean, and whether there’s any scientific evidence or even logic to explain the simile.

She had no idea, of course, but offered a couple of theories.

“As an expression, it means, ‘I’m not only too sick to go out. I’m puking my guts out.’  Pretty sick. I don’t know why people say it that way. Maybe it’s because people are used to seeing dogs puke. We also say ‘work like a dog.’ I guess dogs must puke a lot, but they also are pretty hard-working.”

It’s true, of course, that dogs can vomit pretty much anytime they want, whereas for humans, it usually takes nausea, poison, or extended contemplation of our current political situation. But this theory seems shaky to me. When dogs throw up, after all, they aren’t usually sick at all. They are just trying to make you sick. And think about the last time you saw a cat throw up. They vomit the same things they eat. Talk about sick.

Moreover, veterinarians warn that dogs in the early stages of serious illness sometimes don’t even look all that sick. They hide it well. That’s probably a good survival strategy: a sick-looking dog is a sitting duck, which is a problem if the other dogs are hungry as horses.

So, really, “sick as a dog” should be used to mean “possibly quite ill, but showing few symptoms.” Sort of like a walking stick, which, when ill, simply walks slower, until, in the end, it’s just a stick.

Here’s to a healthful new year.

Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter and journalism instructor who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe, Word.


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Main article photo by: Oliver Ruhm-Creative Commons