Pet Care Advice 》 Annual physical exams: what do they involve and should my pet have one?

Annual physical exams: what do they involve and should my pet have one?
- the vet’s perspective

An annual physical exam is probably what most people think of as their pet’s

‘annual vaccine’ but the truth is that there is much more to the checkup than an injection. Even if your pet is not due for any vaccines, they can benefit a lot from having a vet review their medical history and recent behaviour, and checking them all over.

WHAT CAN I EXPECT FROM A PHYSICAL EXAM?

  1. Your vet will begin by asking you specific questions about your pet’s energy levels, appetite, drinking, stools, urination, diet and exercise; whether there has been any coughing, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhoea; and whether there have been any recent changes in behaviour.
  2. Your vet will also check whether your pet is up to date with its preventative treatments, including heartworm, intestinal worm and tick prevention, as well as its vaccines.
  3. Your vet will then move on to the physical examination itself. This involves checking your cat or dog from head to toe. As they can’t tell us how they feel, we have to use our senses!
  • we look at their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, teeth, skin, fur and general condition
  •  we listen to their heart and lungs, checking for any abnormal heart sounds or signs of lung or airway disease
    • we feel their abdomens, checking whether any organs feel large, small or irregular, or whether there are any masses there which shouldn’t be
    • we also feel their lymph nodes, pulses and joints
    •  we sometimes have a sniff at their ears or mouth, checking for the smell of infection!
    • We also measure heart rate and temperature.
  1. You should feel free to ask any questions you have about your pet’s health or behaviour - there is no such thing as a silly question!

WHAT ARE THE TOP 5 REASONS FOR DOING AN ANNUAL PHYSICAL EXAM?

1. Your dog or cat won’t say ‘I’m in pain’

Our furry friends often won’t tell us when they feel unwell - their instincts are to hide discomfort in order not to appear vulnerable. For example, many dogs and cats will keep eating despite severe gum inflammation. A physical exam allows us to look for subtle or hidden signs of disease: mouth ulcers, heart murmurs, abdominal masses, early cataracts and so on. Problems can then be detected and treated at an earlier stage, improving your animal’s quality and quantity of life.

2. Your dog or cat might be showing subtle changes in behaviour

An annual check allows your vet to review your pet’s medical history and ask specific questions about its behaviour. Sometimes subtle changes can be present - for example, drinking a bit more, or being slightly lame first thing in the morning. If you’ve noticed something new or unusual, this is a chance for you to ask about it; equally, sometimes these changes can be so gradual that owners don’t notice them until the vet asks. Based on this two-way discussion, your vet can then advise whether it’s something to worry about, whether any tests are needed, or whether there are things you can do at home - for example, changing the diet, exercise routine or litter tray set-up.

3. To stay up to date with preventative care

Prevention is better than cure: tick fever, heartworm, and the various diseases we vaccinate against are serious illnesses. Your vet can check if you’re on schedule and advise you on different parasite prevention options (monthly vs yearly, oral vs spot-on, etc). Your vet can also advise on techniques for brushing your dog’s teeth, feeding a balanced diet, and many other things.

4. Pets age faster than we do

Depending on breed, dogs enter middle age at 5-9 years old and cats at 8-10 years old. As your pet ages, his/her dietary and exercise needs will change. Your vet can give you specific recommendations tailored to the individual animal, helping you to help your dog or cat stay comfortable for longer.

5. It can be better for your budget

Because animals hide discomfort (see above) they are often not brought in until they’re showing very obvious signs, by which time the disease is advanced and they are very sick. Examples of this are diabetic ketoacidosis (a crisis brought on by uncontrolled diabetes), late stage kidney disease, or congestive heart failure. Investigating and treating diseases at this stage is expensive, as it may involve hospitalisation, oxygen or fluid therapy, extra blood tests and extra medication. These situations are distressing for both owners and vets. By contrast, if your vet can catch the disease early on at a routine annual check, you can start treatment before the ‘crisis point’, save yourself some big hospital bills, and plan for your pet’s long term monitoring and medication in your budget. Similarly, it is cheaper to ask your vet to show you tips for brushing your pet’s teeth than to end up needing multiple dental cleaning procedures under anaesthesia.

Long story short: there is a lot more to your pet’s annual check than getting an injection! Annual physical exams make a big difference to your pet’s long term health, and are worth doing even if your pet seems fine

Dr R Snow MA VetMB MRCVS