You probably get a reminder postcard or email once a year telling you it’s time for your dog or cat to have a check-up. Even if you have elected not to have your dog or cat vaccinated annually, you still need to make that appointment. Your pet should have a complete physical examination by your veterinarian at least once a year; increase that to twice a year once they reach senior status (age 7 to 9, depending on breed and size of dog). The purpose of the visit is not to “get shots”, but rather to determine the health status of the animal.

A complete examination should include:

  • discussion of weight and diet
  • examination of teeth and mouth for tartar, gingivitis, masses, inflammation
  • examination of eyes for aging changes, infection, inflammation
  • examination of the external nose for discharge, ulceration, color changes, dryness
  • examination of the ears and ear canals, using an otoscope! It is impossible to determine the health of the ear canal and eardrums without this piece of equipment.
  • examination of the coat and skin for infection, flaking, dryness, parasites, or any other changes
  • palpation of all lymph nodes from the neck to the hind legs
  • auscultation (listening) to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope on both sides of the chest for murmurs, fluid, abnormal breath sounds or dull areas
  • palpation of the abdomen for masses, pain, fluid, thickening of the bowel, enlargement or diminished size of organs, bladder size and thickness
  • palpation of the entire body for lumps, bumps, and tumors
  • range of motion of joints on limbs, palpation for arthritis, pain
  • examination of pads and nails and between toes
  • examination under the tail and around the anus for swelling, lumps, parasites

Ask for the following tests to be performed:

  • blood sample for CBC (red and white blood cell counts, hemoglobin, platelet count)
  • blood sample for chemistry screen (checks liver, kidneys, pancreatic enzymes, cholesterol, blood sugar, cardiac enzyme, electrolytes)
  • blood sample for thyroid testing
  • blood sample for heartworm testing
  • blood sample for tick borne diseases (Lyme, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma most commonly tested)
  • blood sample for vaccine titers for distemper and parvovirus – may not need annually depending when pet was last vaccinated
  • stool sample for parasites (take this with you, the fresher the better)
  • urine sample for infection, kidney function, crystals, glucose testing (take this with you, the fresher the better, can catch in a clean jar or pan – we use a ladle)
  • aspiration and cytology of any new lumps and bumps (using a needle to pull a few cells from the lump, looking under the microscope to see if the mass may be cancerous)

If you have a breed prone to glaucoma (spaniels, brachycephalic breeds) you should ask for pressure testing on the eyes.

If you have a pet with a heart murmur, chest x-rays should be performed at least once a year, if not twice, to monitor size of heart and progression of disease. Blood pressure should also be monitored. An EKG should be added if any irregularity of the heart rhythm is detected on auscultation.

If your pet is on chronic medications, lab work should be performed more often, particularly in older pets. I recommend every three months, but four to six would be allowable if there have been no changes in health or activity recently.

When you are pro-active with your pet’s health care, you will find small changes in health before they become big problems. It’s much better to be armed and prepared than to wait until disease has progressed to the point of no return.