Why Wellness Exams? – Dr. LeeAnn DuMars, ABVP
A wellness exam is a routine medical examination of a patient that is healthy and part of preventative medicine for our pets. These exams should be conducted monthly on puppies and kittens during the first six months of life, then yearly for healthy middle-aged pets. Our senior pets should be examined every 6 months, as they can rapidly change conditions. Pets age much more quickly than we do – this is seen by the time our dogs reach one year of age – they are equivalent to a human teenager. Aging slows after the second year of life and depending on your pet’s size, he will either be middle-aged (if a small or medium breed dog) or geriatric (if a large breed dog) by his seventh birthday! Cats are considered seniors by their tenth birthday. Veterinarians can help determine how often your pet should visit us for a wellness exam based on his age, breed, risk factors and lifestyle.
What does my veterinarian check during a wellness examination and physical exam?
During a routine wellness exam, we will ask you questions about your pet’s diet, exercise, thirst, breathing, behavior, habits, bowel movements and urination, lifestyle and general health. We will ask about preventative medications that your pet may be taking ie. for heartworm, flea, tick, intestinal parasites; any prescription medications he may be taking and any supplements, herbal remedies or over-the-counter medications you may be giving your pet. Don’t forget to bring a list of these – nothing is insignificant! The veterinarian and assistant will then complete a physical examination and make recommendations about diet, weight gain or loss, nutrition, skin and coat care, dental care, vaccinations, parasite control, behavior concerns, and any other life-stage or individual care recommendations that may be appropriate.
The veterinarian will then complete a physical exam that consists of observing the general appearance of your pet, listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and palpating or feeling specific parts of the body. Here is what we are looking at during an exam:
-Does the pet walk and move correctly?
-Is the pet bright, alert and responsive to his surroundings?
-Is the pet’s body weight and general condition good – neither too heavy or too thin?
-Is the skin oily, dry, spots of dandruff, any lumps, bumps, or abnormal pigmented areas or thickenings present? Is the haircoat full and shiney or is there patches of hairloss, itching, redness, crusting, excessive dryness/oliness, or excessive shedding or is the haircoat thinning symmetrically?
-Are the eyes bright and clear or is there excessive discharge, redness, cloudiness, squinting or pain, any lumps or bumps on the lids and how well the eyelids close.
– The nose and face – how well the pet breathes, symmetry from side to side; discharges, skin fold issues or other problems
– Mouth and teeth – we look for tartar build-up, periodontal (gum) disease, retained baby teeth, broken teeth, excessive salivation, staining around the lips, ulcers or infection in and around the mouth and recommend dental cleanings and extractions as needed.
– We then auscultate or listen to the heart for abnormal heart rate, heart rhythm, or heart murmurs and listen to the lungs for normal breath sounds or increased, decreased or abnormal lung sounds.
Palpation or “touching” then occurs in the region of the pulse on the inside of the back legs – usually while listening to the heart. We also feel the lymph nodes in the neck, head, and legs – looking for pain or swelling. We check the legs looking for lameness, muscle or nerve problems, problems with toenails or paws.
– We then palpate the abdomen – we feel the area of the liver, spleen, stomach, intestines, kidneys, bladder to determine if any organs are enlarged, any areas are painful or if any masses are noted.
– We may further complete a rectal exam to check anal sacs – common site of infections and tumors and complete an otoscopic exam of the ears to rule-out any infections or foreign bodies.
Whew – that is a lot to look at in a few minutes!! We get pretty good at this and can do it pretty quickly – but we are not very good about telling the clients what we are doing – so be sure and ask us what we are doing when we are examining your pet – we do a complete exam each time your pet is in for a wellness exam. Then – we have to write it all down in the pet’s record.
What else may be completed during a wellness visit?
Depending on your pet’s age and lifestyle profile, we will usually recommend some additional screening tests such as a fresh sample of your pet’s stool for a microscopic parasite evaluation and giardia antigen test and heartworm testing annually for parasite control in both dogs and cats. Puppies and kittens will be tested more frequently than adult pets that are on monthly preventatives and are indoors or in limited contact with other pets.
Other important testing includes a complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry panel, urinalysis, and thyroid hormone testing. Within each category, the veterinarian will recommend how extensive the testing should be based on your pet’s individual circumstances. Simple testing is usually adequate for younger pets, while, like us, older pets need more extensive tests. Additional tests to consider for our older pets include imaging studies such as chest and abdominal x-rays to assess the size and appearance of the internal organs (heart, lungs, kidneys, liver) and bones and joints. Sometimes an electrocardiogram to check the heart’s electrical function may be recommended – especially before anesthesia considerations.
These tests are even more important in our pets because our pets cannot tell us how they are feeling, and as a result, disease may be present before you are aware of it. Also, as part of their survival instincts, most dogs and cats will hide signs of subclinical disease, making treatment challenging or more costly if the condition advances before detection. Veterinarians are trained to detect more subtle signs in our pets and labwork complements the physical exam to detect underlying conditions. Baseline labs are handy to compare to as the pet ages. Because senior pets age rapidly, twice yearly wellness exams are warranted to detect any problems early and begin treatment so that our senior pets can live a comfortable and quality-filled life!
Please consider Wellness Plans and visits for your pet – they help spread out the financial costs of having a pet over the year, minimize the “fire engine medicine” approach to bringing in a sick pet, as we can hopefully, practice preventative medicine and determine conditions before they become advanced, and help you and your pet enjoy a long, healthy life together!