Annual Checkups for Cats
Every year for a cat is equivalent to several years for a person in terms of aging. That means that even a wellness examination once a year is the same as a check-up for us every few year---maybe even every seven years. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that healthy adult cats should have a complete veterinary examination with laboratory testing once a year, and healthy senior cats have one every six months. A lot can happen in a year, especially when your cat can't---or won't---tell you about little aches and pains.
Your veterinarian will ask you about your cat's health history, if you have any concerns about his health, and if you've noticed any changes in him. Before you go to your appointment, write down any concerns or changes you want to mention, such as coughing, diarrhea, lethargy, limping, vomiting, eating more or less than usual, weight gain or loss, drinking and urinating more than usual, itching, irritability, hiding, avoidance of light, running into things, head shaking, or lack of coordination.
It's common for a veterinary technician to obtain the history from you, and to perform the preliminary examination including weight, temperature, pulse, and respiration rate. If you did not bring a stool sample, the technician will probably use a special instrument to collect one from the cat. This specimen will be checked for evidence of intestinal parasites. Any changes or abnormalities found during this preliminary exam will be reported to the veterinarian, who will then complete the exam.
Very often the veterinary exam goes from head to tail, starting with the mouth. She will check your cat'snose and nasal passages for abnormal discharge or signs of infection. She'll check the gums, teeth, tongue, palate and throat, making note of gum color, tartar accumulation, loose or broken teeth, tumors and any other abnormalities. She'll move on to the ears, possibly peering inside the canal with a otoscope, looking for debris and discharge that could indicate mites or infection. She'll look at the eyes, making note of discharge and staining, redness, cloudiness, or lid abnormalities. She'll part the lids to examine the conjunctiva, and possibly look inside the eye using an ophthalmoscope to search for lens or retinal problems.
The veterinarian will then move on to the body, perhaps starting with the hair and skin. She'll part the hair looking for signs of parasites or skin disease. Then she'll feel along the body, including the mammary glands, looking for abnormal growths. She'll palpate the abdomen, feeling for abnormal size of internal organs including the stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver and spleen. She'll check the thyroid and the lymph nodes along the neck and behind the knees for abnormal size. Finally, she'll use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal heart and lung sounds.
The veterinary technician may have collected a blood sample early in the examination, or the veterinarian may have chosen to wait until later in the exam to make sure additional tests on the blood aren't needed. In most areas, heartworm, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus tests will be performed with the blood. Although a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel are ideally performed for all cats, they're imperative for older or unhealthy cats. The CBC can detect anemia, leukemia and the presence of many infections; and the chemistry panel can detect problems with many internal organs, including the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. If kidney disease or diabetes are suspected, the veterinarian may also want to examine a urine sample.
Depending on whether she found anything suspicious, your veterinarian may suggest additional testing. These tests could include blood tests, radiographs, an electrocardiogram, ultrasound, cultures, skin scrapings or many other procedures. She may even refer your cat to a specialist.
The veterinarian will check your cat's vaccination history, and probably suggest you bring any overdue vaccines up to date. She may also discuss particular vaccines that may be recommended for your particular cat based on his lifestyle and geographic location. She may also make other suggestions about spaying and neutering based upon your cat's age and health.
Older cats, usually meaning those over the age of seven years, should always have a blood panel and urinalysis performed. They should also have a thyroid check (also obtained from a blood sample). In fact, your veterinarian will probably suggest what's known as a "senior panel," which is a collection of tests aimed at problems senior cats are more likely to have. Unless there's a rush, the veterinarian may suggest sending the blood out to a laboratory for this test, which saves you money but takes a few days for the results to come back. Because of the frequency of kidney disease in older cats, the veterinarian may pay special attention to checking the kidney function. Your veterinarian may also want to check your older cat's blood pressure. An older cat should also ideally get a chest radiograph to check the heart and lungs, and osteoarthritis check, in which the veterinarian will move all the joints, checking for pain or abnormal movement or feel.
With good luck, nothing abnormal will be found and you can consider it money well spent for peace of mind. With even better luck, if your cat does have a problem, it will be discovered and your veterinarian can start a treatment program---perhaps saving or prolonging the life of your cat.