A physical exam is one of the most important things your veterinarian does for your dog. If your dog is sick, the first thing your vet will do is an examination. Routine checkups are also extremely important for healthy dogs so that health problems can be detected before your dog even seems sick.
Before You Begin
If this is your first physical exam for your dog, make sure you are prepared. Ask the vet if there is any special paperwork (such as vaccine records or adoption paperwork) or anything else that would be helpful for you to bring. Some dogs may be skittish going to the vet, so if possible, you may want to bring them in a crate or have an extra set of hands to help you bring the dog to the appointment.
What You Need
Essentially, all you need is your dog. In addition to your pet, you may need to bring:
- Important paperwork
- Crate and/or leash
- Dog treats
- Stool or urine sample if necessary
- Any questions about your dog (it may be hard to remember during the exam, so write them down ahead of time)
Get Your Dog Ready for the Exam
Your dog will likely be poked and prodded a bit at the vet. You may want to do a bit of practice at home by lifting and/or looking into your dog's ears, holding its face, and looking into its mouth. If your dog is not comfortable with these actions, try to work on them before the visit. Don't stress too much; a vet is a professional and is used to all types of dogs. If you do need to bring a urine or stool sample to the vet, ask if the vet has any special instructions, such as specific containers. If not, collect it the same day as your appointment and store it in a sealed container.
Up to a week before your visit, start to jot down any questions or concerns you (or anyone in your family) want to ask the vet. This will give you time to think about any issues and not forget to ask something while you have the chance. Help your dog feel comfortable. If the dog likes its crate, transport it to the vet in the crate. If there are certain toys or even a dog bed that your pooch loves, bring them in the car (and even into the office) with you. Finally, be sure you are well stocked with your dog's favorite treats to offer throughout the visit.
Know What Your Vet Is Looking For
When your dog is getting a physical exam, the veterinarian will check your dog's health from nose to tail.
- Eyes: Your vet will look at your dog's eyes for things such as signs of vision loss, old age changes, discharge, redness, and cataracts. The vet may also use a light to make sure the pupils respond to light and that the vessels and retinas inside the eyes appear normal.
- Ears: Your vet will check the ears for redness, odor, or ear debris. The vet may use a tool called an otoscope (a cone with a light inside) to see the ear canals. Redness, odor, or ear debris could be a sign of an ear infection.
- Mouth and Digestive System: Your vet will look at the teeth and gums for signs of dental disease. Your vet will also check mucous membranes: the gum color should be pink but not red; when the gum is pressed, it should turn white and pink color should return within two seconds. Your vet will briefly look at the anus, the end of the digestive system, to make sure there are no signs of issues. In some cases, a rectal exam is done if there are concerns about the rectum.
- Lymph Nodes: Your vet will palpate the lymph nodes around your dog's face, neck, axillary area (armpits), inguinal area (where insides of back legs meet the abdomen), and back of the knees. Any swelling of the lymph nodes could mean an underlying illness.
- Heart and Circulation: Using a stethoscope, your vet will listen to the heart to make sure the rhythm is normal and there is no murmur or other abnormal sounds. The vet will feel your dog's pulse as well.
- Respiratory System: Your vet will also listen to your dog's lungs with the stethoscope, making sure the lung sounds are normal during breathing. Your vet will also look at your dog's nose to check for discharge, redness, or a dry, cracked appearance.
- Abdomen: Your vet will palpate your dog's abdomen to feel for abnormalities and make sure the abdomen is not painful. The vet may be able to feel structures that do not belong, such as masses or organs that are irregular in size or shape.
- Skin and Coat: Your vet will check for skin issues, such as flaking, redness, and inflammation. The vet will also look for signs of fleas. The vet will look at the hair coat to make sure it is shiny and full, not dull or patchy.
- Joints, Bones, Muscles, and Nervous System: Your vet will feel your dog's joints for pain/stiffness and possibly look at the reflexes as well. The vet may also watch your dog walk to make sure gait is normal.
- Urinary and Reproductive System: Your vet will briefly look at the genitals to make sure nothing appears abnormal. The vet will also make note of your pet's reproductive status (spayed/neutered or intact). A rectal exam may be done in intact males to palpate the prostate.
- Overall Body Condition: Your vet will assess your dog's overall condition, and will likely rate your dog's body condition score as well. The body condition score is either rated on a scale of 1–5 or 1–10. The low end of the scale indicates the dog is severely underweight; the high end means morbid obesity.
Preventing Problems During the Veterinary Exam
The most common problems happen when you are just bringing your dog to the exam. Your pup may be skittish and not like the walk into the office, not to mention being confined to the waiting room. Remember, you are bringing your dog to a professional and the vet and anyone who works in the office will be able to help. They care for animals every day and will have seen all kinds of behavior.