I’m Dr. Marissa, one of the associate vets here at Glanbrook Vet Services, and I absolutely love what I do. I get to have hands-on interactions with so many amazing and wonderful pets every single day. In the 20-30 minutes that I see each pet, my job is to use all of my training to integrate the information that my team has gathered through history-taking and combine that with the findings of my complete physical examination into an overall assessment of your pet. I use all of this information to create a plan that best suits the preventive health care needs of your fur baby.
I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the portion of each veterinary visit that takes place mostly inside my head – the physical exam. I’d like to focus on this because there have been many occasions where clients have made comments to myself and our support staff along the lines of, “Can’t I skip the physical exam – it’s too expensive” or “Fluffy is just due for shots – I don’t want the exam,” and I would like to offer a window into the minds of veterinarians everywhere that will hopefully explain just some of the many things that we assess when we see your pet for an examination.
Before I even put my hands on your pet, I observe them from a distance. Right now with COVID restrictions in place that prevent owners from coming into the clinic with their pet, I can watch each patient walk into the practice with my support staff and a checklist of assessments runs through my head. Here are just a few examples:
- Are they walking?
- Is their gait normal? Any limping?
- What’s their level of interaction with my support staff? How is their behaviour?
- Are they nervous? Happy? Overweight? Thin?
- How does their coat look? Any hair loss?
- Can they see? Can they hear if I call for them?
Once I’ve had the chance to say my hello’s and get in a few snuggles and cuddles, the hands-on physical exam starts. This runs from nose to toes to tail for each pet. Here are just a few of the things that I look at:
- Body weight and condition score – any weight loss? Weight gain? Muscle condition loss?
- All of these can suggest underlying disease processes that may be occurring, like low or high thyroid levels
- Temperature – do they have a fever? Are they cold?
- How do the eyes look? Can the pet see me?
- Is the surface of the eye clear? Any redness/squinting?
- Any new spots on the irises that could indicate a problem?
- Are the lenses turning blue, which would explain any hesitation in the dark/dim light?
- Are the eyelids normal?
- Any sign of redness/irritation/discharge/infection?
- Are they uncomfortable when I look in or touch the ears?
- Any discharge/cracking of the skin/thickening of the skin?
- Any broken teeth?
- Dental disease (plaque, tartar, gingivitis, etc.) that could explain bad breath?
- Any growths/masses that have come up and are new?
- Does the tongue work normally?
- Lymph nodes
- Any enlargement? Abnormal palpation? Painful?
- How does the heart sound?
- Is there a murmur? If so, what is the grade?
- Is there an abnormal rhythm?
- What are the pulses like?
- How are the lungs?
- Any crackling/wheezing/variation in sounds over the lung fields?
- How does the heart sound?
- Is it soft? Can I feel any masses/abdominal organ enlargement? Are they sore anywhere? Gassy? Any hernias? Mammary masses?
- Skin and coat
- Are there lumps and bumps? Where are they, how big are they, what do they feel like, are they uncomfortable, etc.?
- Any sign of fleas/ticks/mites?
- Any abnormalities?
If everything on this list checks out and they appear to be in good health, then I am comfortable updating their vaccinations or prescribing the medications that they need to stay healthy.
There have been many cases where we have found problems during annual wellness examinations that the owners were unaware of; some have been minor and have required small adjustments in their lifestyle to help to improve (ie. starting a dental supplement to help with their teeth), while others have been life-changing. Some examples of the life-changing findings include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes in a dogs with lymphoma
- Hearing an arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) in a dog with third degree heart block who is at risk of sudden death
- Hearing a heart murmur in an elderly cat who is at high risk of throwing a blood clot to their lungs or legs
- Palpating a large abdominal mass/tumour that could bleed into the abdomen and require emergency surgical intervention
- And many more…
A physical examination may not seem that important, however, a complete physical assessment is the greatest tool in a veterinarian’s arsenal. It can allow us to catch problems early and help us to make appropriate recommendations for ongoing preventive care, as well as to guide any next steps in the diagnostic process (ie. x-rays, blood work, ultrasound, urinalysis, etc.).
Plus, we LOVE seeing your pets – their health and welfare is our passion!