Say ‘Ahh’: Why that yearly physical is a good idea for your pet too

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH

So, we’ve talked a little bit about spring worries and shots (the irony is not lost on me that we now have snow up to my knees), but the other thing that should come with annual visits is an annual exam. I will talk a little bit about what your veterinarian should be looking at at least annually. We see many of our patients more than that, and on those visits still perform an exam. However, your pet should be getting a thorough once-over yearly. You may be in a hurry, but don’t let your vet rush through this one thing.

So, while I was thinking of a topic, my dog helped me realize that annual screens should be brought to the forefront. She, as she sometimes does, got up and went straight to the rug just to throw up for me the other night. Since she is a gross dog, I typically need to run over to clean it up in order for her and my other dog not to eat it (I hope none of you are eating.) Needless to say, I was on the sleepy side and not moving as fast as usual, when I realized that she had left her vomit pile and gone back to bed. I couldn’t believe it! Had my dog finally learned decorum? Was it my lucky day? The answer is that she had thrown up a big roundworm that was sitting happily on top of the pile.

Why am I telling you this gross story? Mostly to emphasize that things we recommend like fecals aren’t just to line our pockets. Also, even vets’ dogs with extremely consistent monitoring get things like roundworms. Even more alarming, I actually de-wormed her in December. Our pets don’t read the book when it comes to things like how often they get parasites, at what age arthritis starts, how fast tartar builds up on their teeth, etc. For this reason, keeping track of their health takes a team of you and me. So I’ll talk about what we look at on annuals.

Mouth

We look at teeth, assess for any broken teeth or uneven wear. We determine the amount of calculus built up on the teeth and the amount of gingivitis, then give your pet an overall periodontal disease score. This will lead us to either recommend a dental cleaning, at home care, or give you a pat on the back. We also check for any little growths inside the mouth, and look at the color and consistency of the gums.

Skin

We always check for fleas, ticks, lumps and the overall skin and hair condition. Dull hair or flaky skin may be an indication of another problem, or may let us know that it is time to change something in the diet. We also assess BCS, or body condition score. We do this by scaling dogs on a standard scale by looking at their fat cover over various areas. We compare lumps to previous years, take samples or recommend removal.

Musculoskeletal

We move each leg and joint through a range of motion while feeling them for any swelling or bone changes. We also assess muscling and determine if there is any muscle loss that points to more-concerning things. Any limping is cause for concern, but we often find changes that haven’t led to limping. We have had several dogs that have had decreased range of motion on exam, only to find serious degenerative joint changes when we took x-rays. Though the dogs haven’t seemed to notice, once we treat them owners always notice that they feel better.

Heart and lungs

We listen to the heart and lung fields. The rate, rhythm and overall quality of the beat is important. We also often feel the pulse to make sure that it is in synchrony with the heart. New murmurs don’t always need treatment, but we certainly should monitor changes in conjunction with changes in the pet. We listen to lung quality and the rate of breaths. All of these are not only important on their own, but also with their history.

Abdomen

In the abdomen we feel for liver, intestines, spleen and bladder. These are easier to feel in some pets than others, which is another great reason to keep pets on the leaner side! Enlarged organs, discomfort on palpation and intestines that don’t feel right are all causes for concern.

Screening

Every pet should have a fecal yearly, and dogs get a heartworm/tick-borne disease screen. However, I also love annual screening bloodwork. I love it so much that I recently put together a package with big savings to encourage people to do it more often. My animals all get labs every single year. Some may think this is overkill, but I want to see trends. If a normal range is 10-50, then 40 is fine. But if values have been 15, 18, 25, 30 and 35 over the last five years, then we need to worry that values are trending upwards.

There are two important things to note. The first is that no matter how thorough an exam we do, we only have your pet for 20 minutes. You see them, walk them or pet them daily. Make a list of changes, concerns or lumps that you might have felt. Sometimes we find lumps owners don’t know about, but sometimes we miss lumps that you do. So help us do a better job for your pet and let us know what goes on the other 200 days we don’t see them.

The next thing is that sometimes I find people wondering why they should do one test if it will just lead us to recommend more. Many people also put off going to their doctor (MDs and DVMs both) when they know the news will be bad. The truth is, that not knowing about something isn’t going to make it go away. We can often intervene after some testing to help slow issues. It is less expensive to treat early heart disease and slow its progression than it is to treat emergency heart failure. This is true of most diseases. You can always decline further testing, but if you know what we are worried about and know the signs to look out for, you can be a better advocate for your pet.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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