Many people ask us why they should bring their pets to the veterinarian for routine examinations when they seem healthy. Especially since vaccinations are no longer given on an annual basis, there has been a trend toward skipping these important annual visits due to a misperception that there is no benefit to being seen and examined by a veterinarian annually.
For starters, there are important screening tests that should be done annually, such as a fecal exam and a heartworm test (for dogs). Cats and dogs can pick up parasites from being outside, eating grass, chewing on sticks, eating things off the ground and from hunting. Some of these parasites are zoonotic, which means they can be transmitted to humans, with children most at risk. So any family with pets and children should absolutely have routine fecal exams performed on their pets on a regular basis.
Dogs that are not on a monthly heartworm preventative should be tested for heartworm disease annually. And, those that are on a monthly preventative should be tested every two years. The earlier this fatal disease is diagnosed, the less damage to the lungs and heart will have occurred and the more successful treatment will be.
There are additional benefits to being seen and examined by a veterinarian annually. Even though your cat or dog may “seem” healthy, there could be early changes that only a veterinarian can detect by performing a complete physical exam.
Starting at the head, your pet’s eyes will be examined using an ophthalmoscope, to view the inner structures including the iris, lens, and retina. Using an otoscope, the ears are examined down to the horizontal canal and eardrum (which cannot be seen with the naked eye). We frequently find foxtails down there, sometimes embedded in the eardrum! The mouth and teeth are examined to look for fractured crowns, cavities, gingivitis, foreign bodies and oral tumors.
Your pet’s skin is then examined closely to identify skin lesions, parasites, infections, and growths. The heart and lungs are auscultated (using a stethoscope) to listen for heart murmurs and abnormal lung sounds. The abdomen is palpated to feel for enlarged organs, masses, and other abnormalities. The urethra, rectum, and external genitalia are examined visually and a prostate check is performed on all male dogs.
Your pet’s musculoskeletal system will also be evaluated and if your pet is showing any abnormal neurologic signs, a full neurologic exam will be performed. Finally, we will check all of your pet’s lymph nodes for enlargement or asymmetry, which may indicate infection or certain types of cancer.
As you can see, a complete physical examination is a very thorough process, much more detailed than what your doctor does on you! That is because our pets cannot speak to us directly to tell us when they are feeling pain or other abnormal sensations, so in veterinary medicine, we rely much more on our physical examinations in order to detect abnormalities.
The earlier something is found, the more success we will have treating it. By the time something becomes apparent or noticeable to an owner, it is often very late in the disease process.
So, don’t skip those important annual visits to your veterinarian! Your pet’s life may depend on it.