Have you ever wondered what the vet is actually looking for when they poke and prod at your pet when you go for the yearly check-up or vaccination appointment?
What the vet is doing is called a physical examination. As much as we wish they could, our pets cannot talk to us so vets have to very carefully look them over to check that things are normal and if not then try and figure out why.
To start, your vet will do the dreaded weigh-in. This is important because too much excess weight can lead to problems like obesity while weight loss can indicate sickness or an underlying problem.
The general attitude of your pet will be checked: are they bright, happy or nervous and shy, and can they walk around normally during the consult?
Then we get into a little bit more detail. Usually a vet will start at the head and work their way to the bottom.
The mouth is examined for dental disease, broken or dead teeth and any lumps or cuts in the mouth. Next are the eyes. We are looking for bright, open eyes with no discharge. If anything looks abnormal this will be followed up with an ophthalmic exam and often stains or drops are added into the eyes to investigate further. Dark rooms are key to eye exams so don’t worry if the vet turns the light off!
Ears are looked at to make sure there is no discharge or funny smell - an otoscope is used to look into the ears and check for signs of infection further in the ear canal. A small amount of brown wax can be normal for most dogs and cats.
Lymph nodes are palpated to check for enlargement, which could indicate inflammation, infection or neoplasia.
The heart is checked to assess for murmurs and arrhythmias. Both sides of the chest are checked because some murmurs only show on one side of the heart. Then the vet moves on to the lungs to listen on both sides for any abnormal sounds such as wheezing, popping or crackling of the lungs. These sounds can be really hard to hear so it’s really helpful during this time to be as quiet as possible and gently hold your dog’s mouth closed (panting makes the lung sounds very hard to hear).
The belly is palpated to check all the organs are of a normal size and shape and that there is no pain anywhere in the abdomen. Some nervous patients can be quite reluctant to allow a vet to palpate their belly so if this is your pet try and soothe them with calming words or treats to distract from what is happening. Normally, if given enough time, most pets will relax enough to allow a full palpation of the belly.
The skin is thoroughly checked for missing hair, infections, parasites and any lumps or bumps that are abnormal.
Each limb is palpated to make sure a normal range of motion is present and there is no heat, swelling or pain in any area. Sometimes in older patients we can see stiffness when doing this test which gives an indication that arthritis may be present in the joints.
Finally, the worst bit! The thermometer! The temperature in cats and dogs is taken rectally (inside the anus) and can be a bit of a shock for most patients. Thankfully, new thermometers can usually take a reading within 1 minute so it’s only a short term invasion of privacy.
Increased temperature can be a sign of infection or inflammation so is a very important reading to have as part of the examination.
As you can see, your vet is actually checking a large number of things when you take your pet in for a health check, so it is a really valuable assessment of where your pet’s health is at. The physical examination gives a good baseline to have a discussion around diet, behaviour, parasite control, vaccinations and other tests such as blood work or X-rays if needed.
Finally, I would encourage you to ask about the result of the vet’s physical exam. It’s peace of mind if they say it’s normal and if not then you can have a discussion about what to do next.
The more you know about your pet’s wellbeing and current health the better so always ask if you’re not sure what a term means or if you would like more information on a particular topic you discussed with your vet during the appointment.