You know that veterinary visits are important. Vaccines protect against deadly infectious diseases, and blood work tests organ function. But, is it really important to bring your pet in for an examination if they’re not due for those things? Does your senior pet really need a checkup every 6 months? Here’s what your veterinarian is really doing when they perform a physical examination of your pet and why it’s perhaps the most important thing we do:



  • One of the first things the veterinarian will evaluate about your pet is observed from a distance. How are they acting? Do they seem to be reacting appropriately to their environment? Are they running into anything or circling?
  • Next is a gait evaluation. Do they seem painful or unwilling to move? Do their movements seem coordinated? Are they having any balance issues?



  • Now the veterinarian can get hands-on. The first close-up is usually of the eyes. Do they seem bright and shiny? Any signs of ulcers or irritation? Do the iris and pupil react appropriately to light? Can they see well? Is there any indication of cataract development?
  • Next is an assessment of the rest of the head. Is the muscle mass even on both sides? Does everything look symmetrical? Any swelling or tender areas?
  • Ear infections can fly under the radar, and foreign objects like grass seeds can get lodged in the canal, so your pet’s ears always get checked out.
  • The mouth is important, as dental disease affects all pets. Your veterinarian will grade tartar accumulation and gingivitis on a scale of one to four. Anything graded a two or above will lead to a dental cleaning recommendation to prevent complications, such as tooth loss, bone degeneration, and abscesses.



  • Your veterinarian will feel your pet’s superficial lymph nodes, located underneath the jaw, on the chest in front of the shoulders, and directly behind the knees. Enlargement of one can indicate a local problem, whereas enlargement of multiple lymph nodes can indicate serious illness.
  • Your vet also evaluates your pet’s hair coat and skin. Are there any signs of hair loss or thinning? Any redness or flaking skin? Is the hair shiny and glossy, or is it dull?
  • Your veterinarian will assess your pet’s body condition to determine if they are underweight, overweight, or just right. Body condition is graded on a scale from one to nine, with a score of one indicating emaciation, nine indicating morbid obesity, and five being an ideal score. We pay particular attention to how much fat is covering the ribs—you should be able to easily feel the ribs, but not see them. Every animal, regardless of breed or age, should have a defined waist from both the top and the side. Overweight animals are predisposed to several diseases, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, osteoarthritis, and ACL tears.
  • Next comes a good rub down. You veterinarian feels all over your pet’s body to check for any lumps, bumps, or abnormalities that might be hiding under the hair coat.
  • Your veterinarian may slip a hand between your pet’s abdomen and rear leg to feel the pulse and check the heart rate, rhythm, and pulse strength.
  • Because of their horizontal nature, dogs are prone to slipped discs. Your veterinarian can palpate all the way up and down the spine to check for signs of pain and tenderness.


The internal examination:

  • Your veterinarian is highly skilled at being able to feel your pet’s internal organs through the outside of their body to detect things like organ enlargement and masses. If your pet has an ideal body weight, it will be easier for them to detect these serious abnormalities.
  • Now the stethoscope comes out. Your veterinarian first evaluates your pet’s heart rate and rhythm. They will listen for premature beats, missed beats, an increased or decreased heart rate, and other abnormalities. They will also listen over each of the heart valves for a heart murmur. If abnormal sounds are detected, your veterinarian may recommend further testing by a veterinary cardiologist.
  • Next, your vet will listen to your pet’s lungs. Are their breath sounds unusually harsh or muffled? Do they hear wheezing or crackles that could indicate pneumonia or heart failure? What does the whole breath cycle look like? Are both inspiration and expiration easy and comfortable?


Whew, all done! This whole process is completed in a few minutes, often while your veterinarian is holding a conversation with you. Your veterinarian’s practiced eye and familiarity with your pet can help catch changes before they become problems—especially in older animals—to give your pet a long and happy life by your side.


Ready to schedule an examination for your pet? Give us a call!