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The Physical Exam: What The Vet Learns From This Hands On Approach

Every office visit includes a physical exam, whether your dog is having his vaccinations updated or if he isn’t feeling well.  In addition to a thorough history, having their hands on your pet is the most important factor for your vet in determining the health of your pet and providing a diagnosis in the case of sickness.

What exactly is the doctor looking for when he shines a light in your dog’s eyes or palpates your cat’s stomach?

Here’s the checklist for a physical exam.

EARS: The doctor uses an instrument called an otoscope to look inside the ear canal. Is the tympanic membrane visible and intact?  Is the ear canal pink and healthy looking, or is it red and painful?  Is there a smell to the ear?  Are there any signs of ear mites or any discharge indicating an infection?

EYES: The doctor uses an ophthalmoscope to look for signs of disease.  Do the pupils respond to light?  Is there abnormal discharge or tearing?

HEART: The doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to the heart.  Is there a murmur present or an irregular heartbeat?  Is the pulse too fast or too slow?  Does the heart sound the same on both sides of the chest?

MOUTH: The doctor looks for signs of periodontal disease.  If the patient is a puppy or kitten, how many teeth are present (for use in providing an age) or have the adult teeth started to come in?  In older patients, are there any missing, broken or abscessed teeth?  How do the gums look?  Are there any oral growths or bad breath?

LUNGS: A stethoscope is used to listen to breath sounds.  Are there any wheezing or crackling sounds? Are the breath sounds the same on both sides of the chest?

LYMPH NODES/THYROID GLAND: Are the nodes and glands a normal size?  If any irregularities are found, how widespread is any swelling or pain?

ABDOMEN: Are any masses or tumors present?  Can the kidneys, bladder and other internal organs be felt and are they a normal size?  Is the abdomen soft and pain free?  Is the patient overweight or underweight?

UNDER THE TAIL: Are any parasites present (such as tapeworm segments)?  Are there any anal gland abscesses?  Does the patient have evidence of diarrhea or are there fecal mats in the fur? If the patient is male and intact, are both testicles descended?

SKIN AND NAILS: What is the quality of the hair coat?  Does the patient have fleas, ticks or other parasites?  Is there flaking skin, saliva staining or areas of thin or missing hair?  Are the nails and paw pads healthy looking?  Does the patient need a nail trim?  Does the skin feel and smell healthy?

LEGS/HIPS/JOINTS: Do the joints have a normal range of motion?  Is the patient showing signs of arthritis or pain?

Feel free to ask questions during your pet’s exam.  As always, your observations as the owner and companion to your pet are always essential in determining the health of your pet.

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