Physical Exam

A yearly physical exam helps you make sure your pet enjoys a healthy, happy life. The doctor is checking more than you might think. The following article gives you an insight. Also, if your pet needs prescription medication (or food), Maryland law requires a current yearly physical with a veterinarian in order to get these prescriptions, just to make sure your pet is healthy enough for the medication.

Reprinted with permission from The Virginia-Maryland Dog, author Dr. Michelle Kluchurosky

How important is the physical exam?  You may wonder if it is really necessary for your dog to have a physical exam before receiving his vaccinations each year. The physical exam is very important for the continued health of your pet. It may appear that your veternarian is merely petting your dog during your office visit but the vet is checking for lumps, looking at the quality of the hair coat, checking for fleas, ticks and lice, and assessing the condition of the body.

Most veterinarians have a systematic approach to the physical exam, beginning at the head of the dog and proceeding to the tail.

First, the teeth are assessed for tartar, abscesses, and malocclusion. The tongue, gums, and palates (the roof of the mouth) are examined for ulcers, masses, and color. Pale gums could indicate anemia in a dog. Yellow gums may indicate liver disease.

Next, the doctor may palpate the lymph nodes for enlargement. Enlarged lymph nodes may indicate that the dog is fighting a virus, tick-borne disease, bacterial disease or even cancer. Dogs have lymph nodes located below their lower jaw, in front of their shoulders, in their inner thighs, and below their gluteal muscles in the hind legs.  All of these are assessed for size and symmetry.

The abdomen is palpated for organ enlargement. It may appear that your veterinarian is massaging the dog’s belly, but the vet is actually checking the spleen, liver, kidneys, and abdominal lymph nodes for enlargement. The intestines may also be felt for thickenings, which may raise suspicion of inflammation or cancer. It may even be possible to feel bladder stones in some dogs during abdominal palpation. Next the heart and lungs are ausculted for murmurs, arrhythmias, and abnormal lung sounds. This is especially important in puppies, as dogs with murmurs should not be used for breeding, since this is a heritable trait. Murmurs in adult or senior dogs may require medical treatment to slow the progression of heart disease.

The next two organ systems examined are the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. The veterinarian may perform an orthopedic-neurologic exam by assessing the muscle condition of the dog and manipulating the shoulder and carpal joints, elbows, knees, and hips to check for painful areas that may indicate tendon or ligament problems such as cranial cruciate  ligament tear or luxating patellas, arthritis or bone cancer.

The ear canals are examined with an otoscope for signs of ear infection, ear mites, inflammation, polyps, or masses. The eyes and eyelids are examined for abnormalities such as tumors, inflammation, congenital diseases (such as ectropion), cataracts, corneal ulcers or abnormal corneal pigments. The size, shape, and symmetry of the pupils are evaluated, as are the retinas, during the ophthalmic exam.

Your veterinarian will likely be able to perform all of these things within five to ten minutes, while simultaneously talking to you about your pet. Your veterinarian is also educated in breed differences when it comes to health problems. Vaccines are tailored to the dog’s lifestyle, based upon examination findings and the history that the owner provides during the exam. For example, a senior dog who has a history of cancer may not receive any vaccines, depending upon the results of his physical exam. A Labrador puppy who will be attending puppy classes and will be going on camping trips with his owner will likely receive all of the important vaccines.

Your veterinarian will help you decide which vaccines are most appropriate for your dog, based upon his exam. So yes, the physical exam is necessary before your dog receives his vaccinations!