Have you ever wondered why we place so much importance on wellness examinations for your pet? It’s okay to wonder! It may surprise you that veterinarians and the state require yearly examinations for pets before filling prescriptions or giving vaccines, but there is solid reasoning behind this. While you can go to your doctor and describe personal symptoms in detail, your pet cannot! In fact, many of your pet’s more subtle symptoms of illness may not be apparent to you at all. Cats are especially good at hiding discomfort. This is because cats are both predators and prey animals, and as such they have evolved to hide signs of illness to an even more dramatic degree than dogs. Luckily, your veterinarian has many effective tools at hand to identify disease while there is still time to intervene successfully. The comprehensive physical examination may seem deceivingly basic. However, in less than 3 minutes a seasoned veterinarian can attain plenty of valuable insight to the health status of your pet. To give you a better understanding of what your veterinarian is evaluating, we have broken down the various components of a physical examination.

Your pet’s physical examination begins before your vet has even entered the room. The information you share with your vet’s technician is called a “history.” Your technician and vet will ask you questions that are not only aimed at issues you may have concerns about, but also will establish a thorough understanding of your pet’s lifestyle and general health. Next, your veterinarian will begin their assessment by inspecting your pet’s general appearance. This includes observations of how your pet is standing or walking, whether they seem bright and alert, or noting if they appear depressed or anxious. You have probably observed before that your vet will methodically work their way from the tip of your dog or cat’s nose, to the tip of their tail, noting any abnormalities in the eyes, ears, nose, coat, skin, muscle condition, legs, paws, toenails, and more. You have also probably seen your vet open your pet’s mouth to look at the condition of the teeth and gums. Depending on your pet’s age or breed, they may also perform an orthopedic exam to detect signs of patellar luxation (trick knee), hip laxity, or arthritis.

However, there are more subtle portions of the physical examination that you may not even realize are happening. For instance, as your veterinarian appears to be giving your pet a full body massage, they are in fact checking each peripheral lymph node to ensure none are enlarged. They are also feeling for lumps and bumps (potential masses or cysts) and looking for signs of external parasites. Your vet will also “palpate” your pet’s abdomen; this allows them to feel organs like the bladder, kidneys, liver, intestines, spleen, and stomach to evaluate them for overtly abnormal structure or subtle discomfort. Your vet may also take your pet’s temperature (if your pet is cooperative) to ensure your pet is not experiencing a fever. Lastly, your veterinarian will “auscult” or listen to your pet’s heart and lungs. They can hear heart “murmurs” or distorting of the normal heart sounds that may indicate heart disease, arrhythmias or abnormal rhythm in the heartbeat, or subtle signs of airway disease while listening to the lungs.

You may wonder what kinds of illness a physical examination can reveal; volumes have been written on the multitude of diseases that can be discovered through examination, so we will just discuss a few examples. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, one of the most common diseases pets experience is dental disease. In fact, recent studies have revealed that 80% of pets will have some sign of dental disease by the age of 2. A physical examination can reveal plaque, tartar, gingivitis, infection, and fractured teeth that may require further work up, treatment, or extraction. Likewise, patients that present with subtle changes in haircoat condition, muscle mass, skin turgor (hydration), and weight loss on examination would prompt your veterinarian to recommend further testing, which could indicate or rule out ailments like kidney disease or hyperthyroidism. Both illnesses are more economical and easier to treat when caught early. Lastly, there are many cases where abdominal palpation reveals an issue like an enlarged spleen or an intra abdominal tumor in a patient that may be otherwise acting normal. Speedy surgical intervention to remove the spleen or other type of tumor can potentially stop the progression of the disease. Unidentified and therefore untreated, splenic masses would almost certainly progress to a life-threatening splenic rupture.

Clearly, the physical examination is an important part of your pet’s preventive care, but it is just the beginning of a thorough evaluation of your pet’s overall health and wellbeing. Annual heartworm testing, intestinal parasite screening, and blood testing are just a few of many annual wellness screenings that can keep your pet healthier and happier for longer. It is also important to remember that because pets age much faster than people, biannual examinations aid in the early detection of signs of illness, allowing for more effective treatment and management. Dogwood Vet Clinic is here to serve Louisville, Prospect, Crestwood, Oldham County and the surrounding areas here in the great state of Kentucky. As always, if you have questions about your individual pet’s needs, we are just a phone-call away!