Pet Tips

Dogs – Cats and the Physical Exam – Pet tip 167

When we take our pets to the veterinarian, we all assume that our pet will be given a ‘check-up’, a physical exam. But what exactly does a physical exam include? Veterinarians do physical exams on every animal they see, and it becomes such a routine for them that they sometimes forget to explain it to you. In fact, after reading this, perhaps you will have a better idea of how to evaluate your pet’s general health. Some things you can’t see, feel, touch, or hear without special tests and equipment but many times you can gain a lot of information about your pet through simple observation. If you understand what changes to look for in your pet, perhaps you can catch any problems before they get worse. Your pet should always have a yearly check-up by your veterinarian, but during the other 364 days of the year, you can be a big help to your veterinarian by occasionally checking your pet’s health as well.

In a physical exam, your veterinarian looks for anything abnormal. What is considered normal is a combination of what is normal for the breed, and what is normal for your specific unique pet. Every pet is a little bit different, just like every human is different. One person may have blood pressure that is lower than ‘normal’, but that can be acceptable and normal for that individual. It is the same with pets.

Your veterinarian will start the physical exam before he/she even touches your pet. While you and the vet are greeting each other, your vet (almost without thinking about it) is evaluating your pet. He/she will rate the body condition, which is how fat or thin your pet is. Your vet will look at how well your pet is walking and moving, and how alert or depressed your pet is. All of these observations will also take into consideration the age, health, and history of your pet. For example, if your pet is limping, your veterinarian will be more concerned about the limp if your pet had slipped off the bed than if it was simply recovering from surgery.

Every veterinarian does the ‘hands-on’ part of a physical exam differently, in a different order. Some vets are so experienced, and see so many pets, that you barely notice their skilled hands performing the physical examination on your pet. Let’s say we start at the head. The main things that are looked at are the ears, eyes, and mouth. The ears are inspected for redness and ‘gunk’ (you know, that black, smelly stuff). The eyes can be red, watery, or cloudy. If you pet allows it, your vet will look at its mouth to discover bad breath, gingivitis, dirty teeth, and any other cuts in the mouth.

Your vet can also feel for the lymph nodes that are located near the jaw and all of the other lymph nodes that are located all over the pet’s body. Lymph nodes are areas with lots of immune cells. The location and number of swollen lymph nodes can tell your veterinarian a lot about the health of your pet. Lymph nodes can get swollen for a variety of reasons. Most often the nodes swell due to an increase in the number of immune cells. The body senses an intruder and brings more immune cells to help fight off the intruder. This intruder could be anything from bacteria to cancer cells. Your vet will gently feel for bumps and lumps, for sore spots and weak spots. The vet will feel your pet’s belly to make sure all of the organs are in their proper places and are the proper size. It is possible to feel enlarged organs such as kidneys and liver. Then your vet will take out his/her stethoscope and listen to your pet’s chest. By listening to the chest, it is possible to hear and evaluate both the lungs and the heart.

Once the veterinarian does the basic physical exam, any areas of concern will be given more attention. For example, if the lungs sounded odd, your veterinarian might decide to do more tests to further diagnose the problem. Hopefully, however, there is nothing wrong with your pet and it is simply given its yearly ‘clean bill of health’! An annual health check at your veterinarian is one of the most successful ways of preventing and reducing disease. Once you understand what happens during the physical exam, perhaps you will better understand the importance of a yearly examination. Together, with your veterinarian, you can work to keep your pet as healthy as possible.

By Ashley O’Driscoll – writer

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