Written By: Dr. Jen Woods
A complete physical examination involves a thorough nose to tail evaluation of your pet and all their body systems. It allows us as veterinarians, to ensure that your pet is as healthy on the inside as they appear to be on the outside. Evaluation of all of the body systems helps our veterinarians piece together your pet’s symptoms and is arguably the most important part of coming to an accurate diagnosis for a sick pet or reassuring you, the owner, that your pet is in good health. Checking body weight and body condition are important as well. We want to ensure puppies and kittens are gaining at a good rate, making sure pets aren’t gaining unwanted pounds or losing weight unexpectedly. Even subtle changes such as 1/2lb of weight loss in a 10lb cat, for example, can be one of the first clues that something isn’t right.
Every exam starts with taking a thorough “history” of the patient. This involves the veterinary staff collecting pieces of information about your pet’s lifestyle, habits and symptoms to help focus the appointment and uncover clues about possible health, behaviour or nutrition concerns. As well, this information helps us formulate recommendations for pet’s care that are appropriate for them, and that will work for you as an owner.
The physical exam itself involves a systematic evaluation of every body system including the ears, eyes, mouth, teeth, heart and blood vessels, breathing/airways, digestive, nerves, bones, muscles, joints, skin and coat, urinary and reproductive organs, and lymphatic systems.
Although every veterinarian has their own specific method for performing the exam itself, it generally starts with an exam of the head. Ears are checked for redness, signs of infection, parasites and growths. From there, the eyes are evaluated, including examining the cornea, iris and retina at the back of the eye. The eyes in fact hold clues to the health of the whole body. Did you know that the eye exam can point to the potential for many systemic diseases including hypertension (elevated blood pressure), diabetes, Cushings disease (overactive adrenal glands) and hypothyroidism?
Evaluation of the gastrointestinal system in fact starts with the oral exam. This involves visualizing the teeth, gums and oral cavity of the patient, looking not only for signs of gum disease and tartar, but also looking for masses or other abnormal lesions within the mouth. An abdominal palpation is usually performed next. During this part of the exam, in an animal of normal body condition, the organs (liver, spleen, and kidneys) are more easily palpated and evaluated for size and shape. The intestinal and colon contents are assessed and the veterinarian is able to ensure no obvious abnormal masses are palpable. Catching a mass in the abdomen before the pet shows any symptoms from it, can be a life saving discovery.
Next, the vet will evaluate the cardiovascular system by palpating the animal’s pulse, observing breathing, listening to the heart and lungs and taking respiratory and heart rates. The results of this portion of the exam hold an enormous amount of information about the pet’s health overall. Even subtle changes in breathing patterns, for example, can allow us to find potentially serious lung disease before it becomes more difficult to treat.
The examination concludes with examining the paws, nails, skin and coat, palpating the lymph nodes as well as an orthopedic and neurological exam, depending on the patient. The veterinarian’s observation of the pet’s movements in the exam during the first several minutes of the appointment are very helpful in assessing the animal’s gait, attitude/mentation and neurological status.
From head to tail, and all the parts in-between, the physical examination is a crucial first step in evaluating a sick pet. For all of our patients, our goal is to keep them as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. By having a thorough physical examination performed on your pet each year, we have our best change of catching problems before they become apparent to you as the owner, and have our best chance of succeeding at that goal.