It is always nice to know what to expect when you visit the veterinarian. Why? Because nobody likes surprises. So what is going through the doctor’s mind when your dog or cat is presented for an exam?
Let’s just say you came in for your pet’s routine yearly vaccination. Usually this is a good time for the doctor to take a really close look at your pet — a good time to do an annual physical exam.
Written notes on the patient’s medical chart are absolutely necessary in order to maintain a good medical history. So when the doctor isn’t probing and pulling, there will be some written data being recorded. Later this information is transferred to a computerized program that sorts and organizes yearly reminders, prescription data, important patient events or surgeries and billing data.
A good physical exam includes taking the patient’s temperature. Normal temperature for a dog or cat varies between 101 and 102.5 degrees; that’s a bit higher than our normal temperature. So if you see the veterinarian or their technician lift the pet’s tail up and come at it with the thermometer, don’t be shocked! The temperature is taken rectally and causes no discomfort. Every so often a seemingly healthy pet tips off the veterinarian that something isn’t quite right simply by having an elevated temperature.
Skin and coat are also good indicators of the pet’s health status. The coat should be shiny, not brittle and coarse, and the skin should be clean and not greasy or flaky and without a strong odor.
Many types of dermatological (skin) problems can be avoided if the dog or cat is consuming an optimum diet. In some cases, adding a supplement such as, a mega fatty acid supplement is the key factor in avoiding repeated episodes of hot spots and other skin afflictions. Ask your veterinarian for suggestions on any supplements that might complement their diet.
Your veterinarian will examine the ears as well. Obvious infections and allergies are problems the owner can see, like an infected ear. But often, deep in the ear canal is where infections can start and if noticed early, can be eliminated before they get to the stage where they create discomfort and more serious problems.
Many dogs and cats suffer from allergies. Skin and ear infections are commonly the result of repeated allergic episodes. The doctor will show you how to clean the ears and prescribe the right medication if signs of an infection are present. If allergies are part of the problem, you can work with your veterinarian to identify the allergens and how to help your pet combat them.
Every physical exam includes putting the stethoscope against the chest, listening to the lungs and paying close attention to the heart sounds. Your veterinarian can identify heart rhythm and heart valve problems as well as any possible respiratory problems. The first way to gain information about a dog or cat’s heart is to listen closely. (If your veterinarian seems not to be listening to you while the stethoscope is plugged into his/her ears, don’t be insulted!) If any deviation from normal is detected, further workup is a good idea. A cardiac workup usually entails an EKG to assess the electrical activity of the heart and X-rays or an echocardiogram to evaluate the heart’s size and shape.
A careful evaluation of the abdomen is part of the physical exam. Every veterinarian has made surprising discoveries while examining “normal” dogs and cats. Many owners were shocked to find out that their pet had only one normal kidney, or was harboring an undiscovered tumor or was pregnant!
So in addition to feeling what’s on the outside of the pet, what’s inside is just as important. Blood work may be indicated to best ascertain how the “inner workings” are doing. It gives a more complete picture of your pet’s health.
Next on the list of what is done during a physical exam is a look into the pet’s mouth — that is if the pet is willing! Oral hygiene is one of the most overlooked aspects of pet health care. The mouth can harbor infected gums, loose teeth, objects stuck between teeth, tumors and all sorts of other surprises. And often the pet shows no obvious signs of discomfort from even serious oral abnormalities. Older dogs and cats especially, may have oral hygiene difficulties that would vastly improve if dental and oral treatment was instituted. Just like us, good dental health will help hold off heart problems and kidney disease.
Although the eyes may not need a thorough exam where the veterinarian inspects the interior of the eye with special instruments, at least a close inspection of the visible eye structures and lids is a part of a complete physical exam. Early cataract formation may be detected, any haziness on the surface of the cornea can be detected and inflammation of the surrounding eye structures can be assessed. The most common difficulties are simple irritations that result from pollen, dust and contact with grasses.
Finally, the paws and toenails should be examined, and any really long nails should be clipped shorter. We are happy to help with this task, as it can be a daunting one for owners to do on their own.
Be sure to bring up any unusual behaviors, or changes in their daily routine. These can be indicators of the beginning of an illness and the earlier it’s diagnosed, the better chance there is for a treatment plan being successful. Your bond with your pet is your best opportunity to keep a close eye on their overall health. Make notes if you need to, so you can share them and know you are working with your veterinarian to create the best healthy lifestyle for your pet.
Now that your pet has had a head-to-toe examination, you and your veterinarian will feel more confident of moving forward with a treatment plan aimed at keeping your family companion in the best of health. It is our goal to help you help your pet enjoy every stage of their life with you to the fullest!