To the untrained eye of a pet parent, a wellness exam may seem cursory: a quick poke-and-prod, and the “clean bill of health” – hopefully – is signed. But there’s more going on in a wellness exam than you may realize, and what looks like a simple squeeze or a quick peek is often a critical step in the vet’s process of gathering information about your pet’s state of health. To demystify the all-important checkup, here’s a look at the anatomy of a typical veterinary wellness exam.
Taking the patient’s temperature
One of the first steps in the wellness exam is taking the pet’s temperature. The most accurate reading is obtained when the temperature is taken rectally, so don’t be surprised when your vet goes under the tail with a thermometer: this method isn’t causing your pet discomfort. They can also obtain a temperature from the ears that will give a good indication of the overall temperature of your pet. Cats and dogs have a normal temperature that’s higher than that of humans: a healthy temperature runs between 101o-102.5oF. An elevated temperature can indicate a health problem in a pet that may outwardly appear healthy, so getting a temperature reading is a very important part of the exam.
Examining the skin and coat
The skin and coat are excellent indicators of health status. A shiny coat and clean, clear skin are characteristic of a healthy pet. A dull and/or brittle coat and skin that is greasy or flaky usually indicate the presence of an imbalance or nutrient deficiency. Some dermatological problems, such as hot spots, can be corrected with diet modification or the addition of supplements like omega fatty acids. The vet will probably ask what you feed your pet, and he/she will then recommend changes, if necessary, to improve your pet’s state of health. Skin disease can also indicate underlying endocrine issues, this may indicate the need for further lab work to evaluate your pet’s overall health.
Checking the eyes and ears
An inspection of the visible parts of the eye and eyelids is a standard part of the physical exam. Looking closely at the eyes allows the vet to detect any inflammation, early cataract formation, or haziness on the surface of the cornea. In the process, the vet may spot irregular eye movements, which could be indicative of neurological issues.
The vet will also look inside your pet’s ears for signs of infection or inflammation. Problems inside the ears can point to broader health issues: chronic ear infections (as well as skin infections), for example, may indicate an allergic reaction. While severe infections may be visible to the owner, they often start deep within the ear canal, where they are not easily noticed. Your veterinarian will use a lighted tool to examine the ear canal and detect otherwise unnoticeable issues.
Listening to the heart and lungs
When it comes to evaluating a pet’s heart health, the best information comes from listening. In the wellness exam, your vet will use a stethoscope to listen to your pet’s heart and lungs. Heart rhythm and heart valve problems are fairly common in cats and dogs. If the vet hears an abnormal heartbeat or detects breathing problems, he/she will probably order further tests. Usually, the next step is a full cardiac workup: a cardiac workup typically includes an EKG to evaluate the electrical activity of the heart, and X-rays or an echocardiogram to detect abnormalities in the heart’s size and shape.
Assessing oral health
Oral hygiene is quite possibly the most overlooked aspect of pet care, yet it has a major impact on pets’ overall health and longevity. During a wellness exam, your vet will look inside the patient’s mouth for any inflammation or abnormalities. Infected and/or inflamed gums, loose teeth, tumors or growths, or objects stuck between teeth are often discovered during this exam in pets who may not have shown any outward signs of discomfort. Regularly scheduled professional dental cleanings and diligent at-home oral care are the best way to prevent these kinds of oral health issues; if they do arise, however, your vet will be able to identify them during the routine check and can recommend steps for further treatment.
The paws are inspected as part of a standard pet wellness exam. Your vet will look at the pads on the bottom of the patient’s feet to ensure no cuts, injuries, embedded materials or other problems are present. The vet will also look at your pet’s nails, and may clip any particularly long toenails.
The pet health exams that are performed by doctors at Central Animal Hospital incorporate all of these important components. While they don’t necessarily take a long time, the comprehensive, head-to-tail approach our vets use with routine exams ensures detectable health issues are identified and treated as early as possible, and supports your pet’s lifelong wellness.