Your dog vomits all night, your cat is hobbling on three legs — we know your call will be to the vet. But what about when that pesky annual exam is due and they are healthy? Clients bring their pets in when they are sick, hurt or need vaccines. While almost all veterinarians send out reminder cards for annual examinations, how many of you place it immediately in the garbage if they aren’t due for vaccines? That is a question I don’t want to hear the answer to, but I’ll explain just what an “annual exam” should be and why they are so important (more important than vaccines sometimes!)
Dogs are due every year for a heartworm/lyme/tick disease blood screening. However, they may be due only every three years for vaccines. Since cats do not have a necessary yearly blood test, they can go for three years without being “due” for anything. Why is it that we want you to trap your cat, stuff it in a carrier, bring it for a loud stressful car ride just so that we can look at it? Why do you need to spend the time and money for an exam, instead of just having some blood drawn from your dog and heading home? This is because we want to make sure every part of your pet is working the way it should be, and catch any changes early.
Did you know that veterinarians go to 20 years of school total? That is high school, college and four years of veterinary school (or forever, if you ask a vet.) Certainly it does not take that long to learn how to draw blood or give a vaccine. What we spend so much time and money learning is how to examine your pet, and how to use those findings to guide us.
When we examine your pet, we feel and move every joint. We palpate their necks and backs for signs of pain. Your pet may be acting fine, but one joint might be less flexible than it used to be. We compare muscle mass and notice if they have been putting slightly less weight on one leg. This may be an indication to start a joint supplement, or might cause you to recall that they actually were limping a few months ago and further diagnostics are warranted.
We also look in their mouths and at their teeth. If you aren’t brushing your pet’s teeth, and even if you are, it isn’t likely that you look at their back molars very often (especially cats!) There are signs that tooth roots are failing or that your pet has gingivitis which may require intervention. Dental exams are a very important part of our annual exam, since it is an area that most owners don’t see every day.
Eyes are examined to make sure they are normal. Pets get things like glaucoma, eye inflammation, and chronic dry eye just like people do! We look at all of the structures, see if there are changes in tearing or vision, and make sure the lens is normal. We can even measure their intraocular pressure (our machine doesn’t require a puff of air, and pets don’t even mind it!) Eye problems like glaucoma are very painful to your pet, and essentially cause them to have a severe headache. They cannot tell us about these things, so it is very important to have a trained doctor examining them.
Of course, an integral part of all exams is listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. As animals age they can develop heart murmurs and arrhythmias. When diagnosed early, these problems can be treated and controlled before your pet goes into heart failure. A bout of allergies a few times a year can create changes in the lungs that become significant as the years pass. Chronic bronchitis may be present for years with changes that can only be heard with a stethoscope, even if they are breathing normally. When we become aware of these findings we can chart their changes and know when treatment is needed.
Did you know that we also feel their organs when we examine them? We feel their kidneys, spleen, intestines, bladder and liver. Changes in these organs from one year to the next help us identify problems early. Small masses can be removed before they become life threatening and enlarged organs can be examined further to make sure the changes aren’t going to be problematic. Your pet may have a loop of intestine that is painful to palpate, which may be the first sign of something more serious.
If you have questions about a part of the physical exam, make sure to ask! We will bring up concerns with you, but we are always happy to explain what we are doing even when things are normal. Veterinarians use our hands, eyes, ears, and noses (for better or worse) to carefully examine your pet and make sure we are aware of any changes.
The goal of veterinary medicine is preventative wellness. While you may argue that even YOU don’t go to the doctor every year, our pets do not have the advantage of communication. If your stomach hurts for long enough or your heart palpitates, you will go see your doctor. Our animals can’t tell us when something feels off; this is why veterinarians should take stock of their entire body at least once yearly. While baseline bloodwork and other tests can be a good idea, the first and most important tool is the complete physical exam.
So remember, physical exams are very important in keeping your pet healthy. We want to make sure they stay healthy and intervene before circumstances become even more difficult to treat (and expensive!). Next time you get a reminder for only an exam, think twice before tossing it. Pay close attention to everything your veterinarian is looking at on your pet’s next exam, you may be surprised at how much we can see in 20 minutes!