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January 2012 – The “Nose to Toes” Comprehensive Physical Examination

Do you ever wonder what your veterinarian is looking for when he/she examines your pet? Why is she shining that light in Fluffy’s eyes? Why is he feeling all her bones and joints?

The short answer is: we are looking for any sign of problems that needs to be addressed.

Dr. Sumakeris - a veterinarian at Care First Animal Hospital in Raleigh NC

Dr. Sumakeris taking a break from examining pets to just love on one!

Pets aren’t able to communicate when they are hurting or feeling poorly, so it is critical that we examine them at least yearly to be sure there aren’t any detectable signs of illness.

Many pets are stoic and will not show pain unless you very specifically look for it. Read on to find out some of the things we are looking for during a physical examination, using our hypothetical pet Fluffy as an example:

First, I look at Fluffly’s overall attitude – is she bright and alert, or dull and depressed?

Does she seem interested in her surroundings? Does she seem to see and hear normally? Does she have a normal balance and ability to walk, or is she off-kilter?

Next, I use my stethoscope to listen to Fuffy’s heart and lungs.

I am listening for abnormal heart sounds (murmur), abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmia), or abnormal lung sounds (wheeze or crackle). I can also gain information about the size and health of her heart and lungs by noticing where their sounds are the loudest and softest.

Then I focus my attention on her abdomen.

By massaging their belly from the outside, I am able to feel her internal organs to make sure they are not enlarged or painful. Although many animals tense up when we first touch their abdomen, a normal pet will relax and allow us to feel the organs. Persistent flinching when touched often indicates pain in the abdomen.

Next, I feel all over Fluffy’s body checking for pain, swelling, lumps and bumps, wounds, infections, etc.

Since most animals are completely covered with hair significant disease can be hidden by their fur coat. Using the “Braille” method allows me to check their body thoroughly. I will also pick up and check each leg and foot. Since pets generally don’t wear shoes I check the underside of the foot and in between the toes, in case Fluffy has picked up any foreign material. I check her bones and joints to be sure she doesn’t have pain or stiffness. I look at all areas of the skin, including under the tail and in the groin, to be sure there is no problem hidden where most owners don’t normally look.

The last area we examine is Fluffy’s head and neck.

I use an ophthalmoscope to look into her eyes, and we evaluate both the parts of the eyes that are visible to everyone, and the interior of the eye (lens and retina). Many systemic diseases, such as high blood pressure, cancer, and infections can be picked up with a thorough eye examination. I check her ears for drainage or infection, using an otoscope and a green plastic ear cone to direct the light into the ear. I check her mouth, looking for signs of broken, infected, or decaying teeth, as well as determining the color of the gums. Gum color is an indication of overall health and I can pick up on important conditions, such as anemia or jaundice (common with liver disease), just by looking in the mouth. I also look for drainage from the eyes or nose, any odor coming from the mouth, and any enlarged lymph nodes around the neck which can indicate infection.

As you can see, your veterinarian gives your pet a complete, comprehensive physical, looking from “nose to toes” to be sure that your pet is healthy and pain free.

Catching illnesses and problems early, when they are more easily treated, avoids needless pain and suffering for our animal companions. It is critical that we examine your pet every single year, even if they are not due for any vaccines, to help keep them healthy. Even cats that are kept completely indoors often develop health problems as they age, and cats in particular often hide their illnesses from their owners as long as possible.

Training Tip:How can you help your pet become more comfortable with veterinary visits? Try going through these physical exam steps at home with treats available!

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