Friday, July 30, 2010

Performing a brief monthly at-home exam on your pet

Just as physicians recommend monthly self-examinations for men and women (whether we do perform them or not is another story), I recommend a brief at-home monthly check-up of your pets. This of course DOES NOT replace the more thorough 6-12 month check-ups recommended by your veterinarian (more frequently if your pet has a health problem). The purpose of these brief at home exams is to identify changes in your pet that may require you to see your veterinarian sooner than the previously scheduled check-up.

A great time to do this is before you apply the monthly flea/tick/heartworm preventative medication and it should only takes a few minutes. The more routinely you perform this the easier it will be for you to note when changes do occur.

Just as I start my exams in the office, step back for a moment and just watch your pet. Do they seem to breathing comfortably? Do they appear too thin or overweight? Do they have trouble laying down and getting up? This is a good time to go over and answer the important questions your veterinarian will ask (see previous blog post “10 important questions your veterinarian will ask that you should be prepared to answer”).

I then recommend starting at the face and working your way to the tail. Observe for any discharge or redness of the nose, eyes or ears. If discharge is seen, note which side is affected and the amount and color of the discharge.

Next, if your pet allows, gently lift the lip on each side and note any tartar on the teeth, broken or discolored teeth or changes to the gum color. Healthy gums should be a nice pink color. Bright red gums along the border of tartar covered teeth may signify gingivitis. Some pets have pigmented gums and these changes may be difficult to assess. If you notice pale, blue/purple or yellow gums it is best to call your veterinarian and have your pet assessed further as they may have a serious medical condition.

Next, move your hands along the neck to the shoulders, down each front leg and back up and down the rest of the chest and abdomen finally reaching the back legs. As you do this you should be feeling for any lumps, bumps or painful areas. Three areas to check as you move from head to tail are at the end of the jaw just below the ears, in front of the shoulders, and behind the knees. Major lymph nodes are located in these areas and any changes to their size may indicate inflammation, infection or cancer. You can ask your veterinarian to demonstrate where you should be feeling during your next visit.

If lumps are encountered they are most likely lipomas or "fatty growths" that don’t cause a problem unless they get too large and infiltrate adjacent areas BUT lumps that look and feel like "fatty growths" can also be dangerous cancerous lumps. The only way to tell the difference is to have your veterinarian sample them. This is easily done as we poke the lumps with a needle and apply the cells on a slide (fine needle aspirate). Your veterinarian may look at it under the microscope in their office or send it to the lab so a pathologist can analyze the cells. Obtaining this aspirate is not 100% as only very few cells are sampled, but is a good start in helping decide if this lump should be removed immediately or if it is ok to monitor it for changes in size and appearance. Your veterinarian will note the size and location of the lump in the record to keep track of it during future visits. Sometimes depending on the location, feel and look of the lump it may be recommended to remove a piece of the lump and send it to the pathologist instead of performing an aspirate or after an aspirate.

Once you reach the tail, again if your pet allows it, lift the tail and examine for any discharge, nodules or uneven, bumpy areas around the anus. Tumors involving the anal glands can occur and go unnoticed until it is so large that your pet has trouble defecating and by that time it has most likely spread. In female dogs you can monitor for any discharge from the vulva.

Finally, if your pet is good about laying on its side or back, examine the hairless areas of the belly for any rashes, redness, fleas or mammary growths. Run your hands along their bellies and note any lumps and bumps. In male dogs this is a good time to notice any discharge from the penis.

This simple and quick exam will help you identify any possible changes to your pet’s health earlier, instead of waiting months for the next scheduled exam. Recognizing these changes early may save your pets life, allow for a possible cure or at least be able to start important medications before the disease becomes too advanced. It also helps your pets get used to a part of the more thorough examination that your veterinarian will perform. As always, if you have any concerns about your pet, please call your veterinarian first for further advice before ignoring a problem, misdiagnosing a problem or self-medicating your pet as you may be causing more harm than good!