Veterinary Physical Exams

For humans, annual physical exams can detect and treat serious illnesses that can cost more in health and money if left untreated or undiagnosed.

Same goes for pets. Your pet can’t tell you if something is hurting, but your veterinarian can tell by giving your pet a full physical examination. A physical exam for your pet can range from $45 to $55 depending on your location and area of the country.

To prepare for your pet’s visit, ask whether your pet needs to fast before the appointment. Also, ask if you need to bring a fresh fecal or urine sample. Have the necessary information of what type and brand of food your pet eats, whether your pet eats table scraps or if you have noticed any problems.

During the Examination

Physical examinations are recommended during the puppy and kitten stage monthly. But for an adult dog, yearly exams are recommended, and for middle-aged or senior dogs a semi-annual examination is recommended. Keep in mind that pets age at a faster rate than people do.

During the exam, your vet will ask questions about your pet. They will ask about what your pet eats and how often and the amount of exercise he gets. They’ll ask about how much water he drinks, his habits, his behavior, how his breathing is and the elimination patterns. The vet will ask about your pet’s lifestyle and the general overall health.

What Your Veterinarian Checks

When you take your pet for their yearly physical exam, a technician will bring you a both to an examination room. The tech will take notes on your pet’s weight as well as vitals such as temperature, respiratory and pulse rate. The tech will also write down impressions of whether your pet was “depressed, responsive, alert, bright or unresponsive.” The tech may also make notes on the degree of thinness or heaviness if it’s an issue.

The Head: Most vets start with your pet’s head, usually in the front, and move systematically to the back of the head. Each zone of the head is examined so steps aren’t forgotten. The ears are checked for discharge, thickening, hair loss or any other problems. With the eyes, the vet checks for redness, evidence of excess tearing, abnormal bump or lumps on the eyelids, discharge, how well the eyelid closes, if there’s any cloudiness or other abnormalities. 

The nose is checked for how well your pet breathes, discharges, symmetry, skin fold problems or other problems. The mouth and teeth are checked for tartar build-up, retained baby teeth, broken teeth, periodontal disease, staining around the lips, excessive salivation, and ulcers in or around the mouth. A pet’s mouth can have objects stuck between their teeth or even tumors in their mouth.

The skin and coat: The vet will be checking for fleas, ticks, and lumps. Your pet’s coat can be a good indicator of their overall health. The coat should be shiny and healthy, not brittle and coarse. The skin shouldn’t be greasy or flaky but clean. Checking for hydration is also done by tenting the skin at the shoulders.

Many coats and skin problems are because of a poor-quality diet. A lot of times a pet will have a dermatological problem if he isn’t consuming an optimum diet. Sometimes a supplement may be needed to avoid reoccurring episodes of hot spots and skin issues.

The chest: When a vet puts a stethoscope to your pet’s chest, they’re listening to their lungs and chest. The vet also pays close attention to the heart sounds. The first way to get information about your pet’s heart is for the vet to listen to it. If you watch, the vet will place their hand on your pet’s nose and mouth trying to alter the breathing pattern.

When this is done, it alters the pulses as they relate to the beats of your pet’s heart. Your vet may do it for twenty to thirty seconds or longer. Try not to talk when the vet is doing this because they are either listening or counting the pulse. Some pets do make it difficult for the vet to accomplish this by purring loudly or shaking nervously.

Orthopedics: When the vet reaches this stage of the examination, there are a variety of steps. The vet looks for symmetry or lack of in the musculature. They will observe how your pet moves, walks around and will physically manipulate legs and joints. The vet will also run their hand along the intervertebral junction of the spine to feel if there are any painful spots.

The abdomen: The vet will palpate your pet’s abdomen and sometimes it isn’t easy. Some pets will suck in the abdomen and hold it tightly, so the vet can’t feel anything. If this happens, the vet will move on and then come back to it. The vet is pressing for the possible presence of abnormal masses and the size and texture of the organs. If your pet is overweight or obese, your vet won’t be able to feel much. The vet is touching the areas of the kidney/ liver, bladder, intestines, spleen, and stomach to see if these organs are normal or abnormal. The vet is also checking for signs of discomfort.

The lymph nodes: The vet checks in the region of the neck, head and hind legs for the lymph nodes. They will also check spots where enlarged lymph nodes can show up. The vet is checking for swelling or pain.

The paws: The paws and toenails are usually examined for pad injuries from too long toenails. Toenails should be clipped short, so the nails don’t puncture the pads. Pad injuries heal quickly, but if the nails are cut short, then there won’t be any injuries at all from nails.

Other Things Checked During a Physical Examination

One of the things your vet might ask for is a fecal sample. The sample will be examined to check for the presence of parasite eggs. The sample will be processed and looked at under a microscope. This is especially important for puppies and should be done monthly. Too, your vet will recommend testing for heartworms on a schedule for your part of the country.

Your vet may recommend wellness screening tests. These tests have four main categories for your pet: complete blood count, urinalysis, thyroid hormone testing and a biochemistry profile. In a young pet, simple testing may be fine. For a middle-aged pet or geriatric pet, a more comprehensive examination may be needed. For a pet who is older, an additional test may be suggested. These would include abdominal or chest x-rays to check the size and appearance of the internal organs. Or x-rays of the skeletal system to check for any changes in the joints or bones.

You may wonder why these tests would be recommended for your pet. Part of the reason is that a pet can’t tell you how they’re feeling. Some pets will hide any symptoms from you as part of their survival instinct. So, a disease or a condition can become highly advanced before you even know there is anything wrong. With a physical examination and routine testing, subtle changes or early warning signs could be detected which will call for further testing for results.

If the vet can find a disease or condition before your pet begins to show signs of illness, they can correct or manage the problem before irreversible damage happens. When found early, illness or disease can improve the prognosis. If an illness or disease is detected early, it can also be less costly than waiting for it to become advanced. Plus, if the illness or disease does become advanced, it can affect the quality and outcome of your pet’s life.

Keeping your pet healthy is important and preventive medicine can do that. Be sure to have your pet get their yearly physical exam when it’s due.