Regular Checkups for Dogs
Your dog's not sick, and he's not due for any vacinations---why should he go to the veterinarian? Just as with you, he should get a regular checkup to make sure he doesn't have a hidden problem that can be caught early. How often should he be checked? Every year for a dog 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 checkup for us every few years--maybe even every seven years. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that healthy adult dogs should have a complete veterinary examination with laboratory testing once a year, and healthy senior dogs should have one every six months. A lot can happen in a year, especially when your dog can't---or won't---tell you about little aches and pains.
An important part of the exam is your pet's health history. Before you go to your appointment, write down any concerns or changes you want to mention, such as coughing, sneezing, diarrhea, lethargy, limping, vomiting, eating more or less than usual, weight gain or loss, drinking and urinating more than usual, panting, itching, irritability, scratching at floors and furniture, reluctance to exercise, avoidance of light, running into things, head shaking, or lack of coordination.
It's common for a veterinary technician to obtain the health 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 dog. 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 (in fact, it's sometimes called a "teeth to tail: exam". She will check your dog'sgums, 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, tumors, 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 moving the neck back and forth to check for neck pain, but more often looking at 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 lymph nodes along the neck and behind the knees for abnormal size. She'll check the penis and vulva for abnormal discharge, and the anus for tumors, anal sac impaction, or other abnormalities.
If your male dog has not been neutered, she'll check the testicles for changes in size and firmness. If he's an older male, she'll pop on a glove and check his prostate. Finally, she'll use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal heart and breath 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, a heartworm test is performed with the blood. A complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel are ideally performed for all dogs. 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. Your 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 specific blood tests, radiographs, an electrocardiogram, ultrasound, cultures, skin scrapings or many other procedures. She may even refer your dog to a specialist.
The veterinarian will check your dog's vaccination history, and probably suggest you bring any overdue ones up to date. She may also discuss particular vaccines that may be recommended for your particular dog based on his lifestyle and geographic location. She may also make other suggestions about spaying and neutering based upon your dog's age and health.
Older dogs, 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 dogs 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. An older dog 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.
The peace of mind gained from a clean bill of health is well worth the cost of an exam. The ability to catch and thwart a disease in its early stages is priceless.