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

5 min read


Every good exam includes getting that stethoscope against the chest and listening to the lungs and paying close attention to the heart sounds. Dogs seldom get pneumonia. Much more common are heart rhythm and heart valve problems. The first way to gain information about a dog's (or cat's) heart is to listen. (If your veterinarian seems not to be listening to you while the stethoscope is plugged into his/her ears, don't be insulted!) If any deviation from normal is detected, further workup is a good idea. A cardiac workup usually entails an EKG to assess the electrical activity of the heart and X-rays or an echocardiogram to evaluate the heart's size and shape.


A careful evaluation of the abdomen must be a part of the physical exam. Every veterinarian has made surprising discoveries while examining "normal" dogs (and cats). Many owners were shocked to find out that their pet had only one normal kidney, or was harboring an undiscovered tumor or was pregnant!  Bladder stones, for instance, can be discovered during a routine physical exam. So in addition to feeling what's on the outside of the pet, what's inside is just as important.


Every good physical exam must include a look into the pet's mouth -- that is if the pet is willing!  Oral hygiene (see our article on dentistry) is one of the most overlooked aspects of pet health care. The mouth can harbor infected gums, loose teeth, objects stuck between teeth, tumors and all sorts of other surprises. And often the pet shows no signs of discomfort from even serious oral abnormalities. Older dogs (and cats) especially may have oral hygiene difficulties that would vastly improve if dental and oral treatment was instituted. Be sure the veterinarian takes a look!


Although the eyes may not need a thorough exam where the veterinarian inspects the interior of the eye with special instruments, at least a close inspection of the visible eye structures and lids is a part of a complete physical exam. Early cataract formation may be detected, any haziness on the surface of the cornea can be detected and inflammation of the surrounding eye structures can be assessed. The most common difficulties are simple irritations that result from pollen, dust and contact with grasses.


Finally, the paws and toenails should be examined, and any really long nails should be clipped shorter (see How to Trim Toenails). Pad injuries are usually quick to heal and it is a wonder that dogs (and cats) don't cut and puncture their pads more often than they do. 


Now that your pet has had a head-to-toe examination, you and the veterinarian will feel more confident that the pet is healthy. Now the challenge is to keep the pet well!


Image: Courtesy of AVMA