You’ve heard me talk about the importance of a yearly (or, for older pets, twice yearly) physical exam in all of our pets, but maybe you’ve wondered what exactly a physical exam entails? I consider the physical exam one of the most important tools of the trade. It’s relatively non-invasive, generally painless and incredibly important for vets to check what is normal – and might be abnormal – in your furry friends.

Usually, the first step is your pet will step on the scale and have her temperature taken. Even healthy animals will have their weight and temperature checked because it’s good to have a baseline reading. Sometimes your veterinarian will do this, and sometimes the veterinary technician will do it first, and then pass the information along when the vet comes into the exam room.

From head to tail

First, your pet’s general appearance is assessed. I usually step back and take a look at your pet from afar, allowing your pet to check me out as well. Your pet’s body condition score is noted. This is a number that describes your pet’s weight – kind of like a BMI in human medicine.

When assessing general appearance, I also will note your pet’s attitude – is she a happy dog or cat? Or quiet? Or does she feel too ill to even give me a little tail wag? If your pet is free to roam around the room, I note any changes to her gait that may indicate lameness.

Eyes, ears and mouth

Next, I begin the hands-on portion of the exam. I always start at the top and assess your pet’s eyes, ears, and mouth. Using a light and an ophthalmascope, I check your pet’s pupillary reflexes and examine the retinas at the back of your pet’s eyes. I’m also looking for cataracts and redness, swelling or eye discharge that may indicate ocular disease.

Your pet’s ears are checked for discharge, which may indicate an ear infection or ear mites. Often, I’ll use the scope to check down your pet’s canals all the way down to the ear drum just to make sure everything looks fine.

An oral exam is performed, provided your pet is willing. In this line of work, I’ve learned that often times, a pet’s bark is worse than his bite, and you’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve been able to sweet talk a shy or nervous dog or cat into letting me examine his teeth and gums. Still, though, it’s safety first – if I think there’s a chance your pet may bite myself or my staff, we’ll skip the oral exam and consider a soft muzzle.

I’ve written many times about the importance of oral health. Dental disease is not only painful for your pet, but can exacerbate certain cardiac and kidney issues and make your pet feel just plain bad. When performing an oral exam, I’m looking for signs of dental disease, such as gingivitis, tartar buildup and loose teeth. I am also looking for oral masses.

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Cardiovascular and respiratory

From here, I usually move backward to the chest.

With my stethoscope, I listen to your pet’s heart and lungs. I am listening for a nice, steady heart rate with no murmurs. In addition, quiet lung sounds on both sides indicate healthy lungs.

While I am listening to your pet’s chest, I am also feeling an artery on the inside of her hind leg to make sure that her pulses are strong and coincide with her heartbeat.

Skin conditions

Even pets who come in for a routine exam should have their skin examined. Dry skin is a common problem in the winter when forced air heat makes the house a little drier than normal. The presence of ectoparasites, like fleas and ticks, is noted, and the general condition of the skin is assessed. Conditions such as skin infections will be further investigated.

When examining the skin, I’m also looking for suspicious lumps or bumps. If you notice a new lump, bring it to the attention of your vet while she’s doing your pet’s exam so that she can assess it. I try to be thorough during a skin exam, but some lumps are easy to miss.

Did you ever think your vet was doing so many things in a simple physical exam? 

Jan 8, 2013
Pet Health

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