How to Examine Your Dog at Home (and When to See a Vet)

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 1, 2017

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Regular veterinary exams are essential to your dog’s health and wellbeing. Veterinarians are trained to look for subtle signs and symptoms most of us can easily miss. "They listen to the heart for heart rate, rhythm, and the presence of a murmur, and to lungs for crackles or wheezes. They feel the abdomen for masses, enlarged organs, and evidence of pain, and they check range of motion of the joints,” among other things, explains Dr. Susan Jeffrey, an associate veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.

At the minimum, you should be taking your dog to the vet once a year, even if your dog is in top shape. Dogs age faster than humans, says Jeffrey, “So a dog seeing a vet once a year is like a human seeing a doctor every few years.”

There is no substitute for expert care, but that doesn’t mean you can’t supplement it with at-home exams. As someone who spends the most time with your dog, you’re in a unique position to make observations and know when something’s off. And the sooner you can identify potential problems, the sooner your dog can begin to heal.

At-home exams aren’t as tough to do as they may seem—you don’t need a stethoscope, microscope, or veterinary degree. The following vet-approved tips and tricks are safe and simple to do.

Whenever in doubt about your dog’s health, call your vet. “Dr. Google can only help so much,” says Jeffrey. “If you are concerned about something, no matter how mundane you may think it is, see a veterinarian.”

Look for Lumps, Bumps, and Redness

 “Lumps and bumps should always be tracked and paid attention to,” says Dr. Sonja Olson, a senior clinician in emergency medicine for BluePearl Veterinary Partners. Since dogs are susceptible to many tick-borne diseases that cause enlarged lymph nodes, tick bites could be one cause of lumps under the skin that are noticed by owners. Or a lump in the skin may be a mast cell tumor says Jeffrey. “This is something only a veterinarian can diagnose using additional testing such as a fine needle biopsy.” In most cases, it’s impossible to tell exactly what your dog’s lump might be just by looking at it or feeling it.

You’ll want to get in the habit of checking for lumps on a regular basis, noting those that are new, painful, change rapidly, itch, bleed or change color, says Dr. Kate Creevy, Associate Professor of Small Animal Internal Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, at Texas A&M University in College Station. And when you do find something out of the ordinary, she says you should promptly notify your vet. Don’t assume a lump on your dog’s body is harmless.

This type of exam doesn’t have to be something awful for your dog - in fact, you can approach it as a way to bond, says Dr. Zenithson Ng, a board-certified vet and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “The dog is essentially getting a full-body massage.” He recommends paying special attention to the underside of the pet. “The belly, groin, armpits, and underneath the tail are common areas for skin issues that often go unnoticed.”

Jeffrey adds that you’ll want to check the paws for inflamed skin. Pododermatitis, as the condition is called, may result from poor grooming or environmental irritants, or it could potentially be a sign of infection, allergies, thyroid disease, or even cancer. 

Look Inside Your Dog’s Mouth

If you’re able to get your dog to open wide, examining the interior of the mouth can alert you to dental problems and other potentially serious conditions. Dogs get some of the same dental diseases we do, including periodontal disease, which can lead to pain, infections, tooth loss, and even organ damage, if not treated. Good chompers are also vital to eating. If your dog is in pain, he’ll have a hard time chewing his food.

Check for the presence of tartar, which is the gateway for dental disease. “While a little tartar or staining on teeth is common, there should not be large, rock-like, grayish or greenish accumulations of tartar,” Creevy says.

You’ll also want to look for missing or broken teeth, according to Jeffrey.  “And look for changes in chewing behavior, like chewing on one side of the mouth or not wanting to eat dry food, as well as for blood and growths on the gums, tongue or cheeks.”

Ng suggests performing the dental exam at the same time you brush your dog’s teeth, and adds, “healthy gums should be pink and moist, which indicates good circulation and hydration. If a sick pet has pale or dry gums, the pet should be brought to a veterinarian.”

Monitor Body Weight

Checking your dog’s body weight can alert you to potential problems, especially if there is a significant change, says Ng. Significant weight loss could be a sign of a serious health issue, like diabetes, poor nutrition, organ failure, cancer, or infection. Significant weight gain may indicate hypothyroidism, intestinal parasites, overfeeding, or heart failure.

If you have a smaller dog and a home scale, Ng says you can weigh yourself first, then hop back on the scale holding your dog. The difference in numbers will be the dog’s weight. “Alternatively, most veterinary clinics will welcome you to use their scales at any time.”

To estimate your dog’s fat level, feel your dog’s ribs, says Jeffrey. “There should only be a small amount of tissue between your fingers and the bones of the ribs. If there's too much "squish," then the dog is overweight. Most dogs should also have an hourglass shape when viewed from above.”

Conversely, “If the ribs become prominent, especially if there has not been a deliberate attempt to get the dog to lose weight, that suggests infectious disease, organ system disease, or some type of cancer. This is certainly a cause for a visit to your veterinarian,” says Creevy.

Take Vital Signs

If you suspect your dog is ill, having vital signs handy—heart and respiratory rates, and temperature—can expedite communication with the vet or technician, says Ng. “Vital signs are very helpful to provide to whomever you are speaking with, to judge the urgency of the concern.”

To get a respiratory rate, he says you should look at the number of breaths your dog takes in a minute. “You can count the number of breaths in 15 seconds and multiply by four to get the number of breaths per minute.”

For heart rate, use the above formula, except count the number of heartbeats instead of breaths. “You can place your hand right between the elbow and chest to feel for each heartbeat.”

If you’re your dog will allow it, take his temperature using a thermometer designed specifically for dogs, says Jeffrey. A normal temperature, she says, is generally between 100.0 and 102.5 Fahrenheit.

Don’t Substitute At Home Exams for Vet Visits

You don’t need to be a vet to give your dog an at-home exam. Honing your observation skills and knowing what to look for and what is normal for your dog can better prepare you to identify problems and communicate more effectively with the vet.

There is no substitute, of course, for expert care, but supplementing trips to the vet with at-home exams can help you become an even better caregiver to your dog.

There are definitely times when you should NEVER wait to call your vet. Here are 9 pet conditions that cannot wait for medical treatment.

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