The Physical Exam: What to Expect at the Veterinarian's Office

5 min read

By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

It is always nice to know what to expect when you visit the veterinarian. Why? Because nobody likes surprises. So what what is going through the doctor's mind when your dog (or cat) is presented.  

Let's just say you came in for your pet's routine yearly vaccination. Usually this is a good time for the doctor to take a really close look at your pet -- a good time to do an annual physical exam.

Written notes on the patient's medical chart are absolutely necessary in order to maintain a good medical history.  So when the doctor isn't probing and pulling, there will be some written data being recorded. Later this information is transferred to a computerized program that sorts and organizes yearly reminders, prescription data, important patient events or surgeries and billing data.  

Computers are an excellent way for the veterinarian to access current information on new techniques, medications and procedures. Plus, as a way to access continuing education references, the computer and Internet have opened up libraries of information on dog (and cat) care.

A good physical exam includes taking the patient's temperature.  Normal temperature for a dog or cat varies between 101 and 102.5 degrees; that's a bit higher than our normal temperature. So if you see the veterinarian lift the pet's tail up and come at it with the thermometer, don't be shocked! The temperature is taken rectally and causes no discomfort. Every so often a seemingly healthy pet tips off the veterinarian that something isn't quite right simply by having an elevated temperature.

Skin and coat are really excellent indicators of the pet's health status. Look at this dog's coat and you can see right away that  there is something wrong. The coat should be shiny, not brittle and coarse, and the skin should be clean and not greasy and flaky.

The vast majority of skin and coat problems are associated with grain-based diets of poor quality and during the physical exam your veterinarian should inquire about the pet's diet. Two weeks on a meat-based diet and this dog will often look, feel and act much better. (Visit our nutrition section for some good advice on the matter.)

Many types of dermatological problems are avoided if the dog or cat is consuming an optimum diet. In some cases, adding a supplement such as, a mega fatty acid supplement is the key factor in avoiding repeated episodes of hot spots and other skin afflictions.

Your veterinarian should examine both ears, too. Obvious infections and allergies are problems the owner can see, like the infected ear on this dog. But often, deep in the ear canal is where infections can start and if noticed early, can be eliminated before they get to the stage where the ears look like what you see in the photo (on the right).

Many dogs (and cats) suffer from allergies. Skin and ear infections are commonly the result of repeated allergic episodes. The doctor will show you how to clean the ears and prescribe the right medication if signs of an infection are present. Check your dog's (and cat's) ears and look for any signs of disease.

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