3 things you can do to help your doc diagnose disease

Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Apr 21 2014

“Something’s just not right.”

Those four words are either a veterinarian’s worst nightmare or best friend. They’re my BFF.

Many times a veterinarian is faced with a dilemma; the pet simply doesn’t appear to be sick, hurt, or otherwise abnormal when it visits the clinic. A limping dog bounds playfully; a cat in pain appears comfortable; a weak senior pet suddenly surges with energy. What’s going on?

What’s going on is the animal’s natural self-preservation mechanism. Pain and illness are viewed as signs of weakness by predators and weaker animals end up as dinner. Take a sick pet, place them in a potentially unusual or stressful environment, and, voila, no more limping! Who could blame them? Beats becoming the main course.

I recently wrote about this phenomenon in a veterinary journal. In the piece I cautioned veterinarians against dismissing even the most trivial complaints by pet owners. If we ignore these observations, we risk missing the subtlest signs of significant disease. I’ve learned in more than 22 years of clinical practice that an animal must be really, really sick or in tremendous pain before it can’t hide it anymore. In other words, if a veterinarian sees an obviously ill or aching animal, it’s extremely serious. And that’s often too late to help.

What can a pet owner do to convince their veterinarian that the clinical signs they’re seeing at home are real? How can a client articulate the seriousness of their concern? Here are the three steps I ask every client to do to help me sift through the signals a sick pet may be sending.

Keep track of what, when, and where. Many pets occasionally vomit, limp, won’t eat, or cough. Occasionally as in once every one to three months. Is this a cause for alarm? To help your vet answer this, start by logging it on a calendar or in your smartphone. Record as much detail as possible: time of day, recent meals or treats, activities, and other possible triggers. I’ve discovered that many serious issues have a distinct pattern. For example, the vomiting happens nearly every time after feeding a particular treat, first thing in the morning, and so on. Arm yourself with this important information before you visit your vet.

Prove it with pictures. Many pet owners have phones with cameras. This has become one of my most powerful allies in diagnosing intermittently appearing conditions. If your cat is coughing, pull out your phone and video it. Snap a picture of loose stool, vomitus, or anything weird your pet produces. If your dog or cat is developing an undesired behavior, a 30-second video clip can help your vet create an appropriate treatment plan. Pictures and videos have become incredibly vital diagnostic tools for me; it’s often the first thing we ask for when a client calls to schedule an appointment.

Don’t ignore the subtle. Many times pet owners tell me they’d noticed a symptom months before, but didn’t think it was serious or important. Others complain they consulted Dr. Google and 1) couldn’t find anything that indicated the symptom was noteworthy, or 2) became unnecessarily upset after searching the internet. Don’t delay seeing your veterinarian if your sixth sense says something’s wrong. Subtle signs can be significant. The earlier most conditions are diagnosed, the better.

Pet owners’ observations are my secret weapon in diagnosing hidden diseases. Trust your gut. Make sure your vet trusts you by providing accurate and thorough information. By closely working together, owners and vets can better help those that cannot help themselves. And don’t forget to take pictures!