The vet’s office: The physical exam process
What your vet checks during an office visit
By Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Much of what small animal veterinarians see in day-to-day practices involve common medical concerns and the care of well pets. Veterinarians rely on owners to provide the thorough history for the pet’s problems and a description of a pet’s daily activities.
The next segment of the visit is the physical exam. Since many veterinarians might combine history taking with the general physical exam, some owners may not be aware of all of its components. A good physical exam requires a number of skills and only a limited number of tools.
The first part involves observation of the pet. This might be watching the pet walk around the exam room as the history is being taken. Many pets are anxious at the office and may not interact normally with their owners or move much, but sometimes pets will exhibit subtle lameness or gait abnormalities at this time. Vision loss can sometimes show up only in the office since at home the pet knows where everything is. Pets often allow more close inspection of areas such as the teeth and back of the mouth at the vet than they will to their owners at home.
Another important technique of physical exam is palpation. Midway through the exam the pet may relax and will allow a more complete examination. The veterinarian uses light finger pressure to assess surface features of the pet’s skin and muscles close to the surface.
A deeper pressure is used to feel structures in the belly, and sometimes pets are placed in a side-lying position to enhance the effectiveness of this exam. Lymph nodes are palpated often in a light circular finger motion, and to the owner this may look like a relaxation massage instead. Joints are felt for abnormalities and for signs of discomfort in the pet. Obesity is often detected at this stage as pets with a lot of hair often hide this condition from their owners.
A stethoscope is needed for the next part of listening to the heart and lungs. Often dogs will be panting from nervousness, so a technician will gently close the dog’s mouth to quiet the breathing. Cats sometimes purr, and a gentle tapping on the nose can quiet this. Other tools used besides the thermometer are a special light for checking the ears and eyes and a rubber hammer to check nerve reflexes.
There are many other important details in a physical exam. The next time you visit, ask your vet to narrate what he or she is doing as the exam is performed.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.