How to Conduct a Home Health Exam for Your Dog
You can detect and monitor disease with a monthly hands-on exam.
Everybody knows that early detection and treatment of disease is vital for a quick and successful recovery. That’s why humans and their canine companions are supposed to see their doctors at least annually for a complete physical examination.
Of course, if a human happens to notice a strange lump or other abnormality on his own body, he can (and should) get on the phone and make an appointment to see his doctor right away. The doc could check out the abnormality, and either put the person’s mind to rest that it is nothing to worry about, or order tests and/or treatment.
In contrast, if a dog happens to develop a lump or other abnormality, it might take quite a bit of time before anyone notices it – least of all, the dog! And, unfortunately, there are numerous health conditions that can develop and present a real danger to your dog in between annual veterinary examinations.
The good news is that you can detect many early signs of disease if you know how. By performing a quick but methodical monthly physical on your dog, you can monitor ongoing problems (or things that may become problems) and be alerted to any new issues. This examination can take as little as 10 minutes, helps you and your dog bond, prepares him for veterinary attention – and, if he is developing a dangerous health condition, it just may help save his life.
Do the same thing
It’s best to follow a consistent routine, so your dog becomes comfortable and relaxed with the procedure, and to increase your familiarity with his body, lumps, bumps, and all. Write out and follow a short outline, to remind yourself about each part of the dog’s body you want to check.
It would be ideal to devote a small notebook to chronicling the results of your examinations, as well as your veterinarian’s findings. Dated notes about any abnormalities can help your vet diagnose or monitor ongoing problems.
While the monthly examination should take only about 10 minutes, allow for half an hour or so for the first exam, so you can write a brief descriptive note about the location and appearance of each abnormality you find. This will serve as a baseline from which you can compare any new developments. Try to describe each finding in terms you will immediately understand the next time you undertake the exam. For example, if your dog has a growth on her eyelid, try to think of something that is the same size, and note the comparison: “Growth on left side of right eyelid, about the size of the head of a pin but oval-shaped. Same color as her skin.”
Sit in a well-lighted area for optimum viewing. Make sure both you and your dog are comfortable and relaxed. Gather all the materials you need so you don’t have to get up several times. A good supply of treats for rewarding cooperation and a notebook and pen are the bare minimum. You can add some ear cleaner, cotton balls, a thermometer, and a watch with a second hand and a stethoscope, if you want your exam to be as complete as possible.
We recommend starting your examination at the front of the dog and working your way back.
To check your dog’s mouth, start by rolling her upper lip back. You want to see clean, white, whole teeth and nice pink gums, and the dog’s breath should be tolerable. If you see a dark or brown tooth, rub it with your finger to determine whether it is simply discolored or whether it is caked with calculus. A buildup of tartar will result in inflammation of the gums, called gingivitis, which will make the gumline appear a darker red color along the teeth.
A buildup of tartar, especially if the dog is already showing signs of gingivitis, should prompt you to make an appointment with your veterinarian for a teeth-cleaning, because the periodontal disease that can result from tartar buildup and gingivitis can profoundly affect a dog’s health.
According to Frank Verstraete, DVM, and a Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, periodontal disease can cause bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream with potentially destructive effects on the dog’s internal organs. Conversely, overall poor health may exacerbate periodontal disease.
In addition to tartar accumulation and gingivitis, you should also look for any broken or cracked teeth. Like humans, dogs have highly sensitive tissue (pulp) inside their teeth, and if a tooth cracks or breaks, exposing the pulp, the dog can suffer excruciating pain and distress. If you find any broken or cracked teeth, you should have your dog seen by his veterinarian as soon as possible for treatment.
Any unusual tissue growth in the mouth should also trigger a call to your veterinarian. Oral cancer is fairly common in dogs, but can be treated successfully if caught in its early stages. Oral tumors may appear as a prominent mass, or as an ulcerated sore that just won’t heal.
Old dogs may have teeth that are worn right down to the gumline. Generally, this condition does not cause a dog any pain or sensitivity or result in infection. Unless the dog’s breath is very bad, the gums around the worn teeth are very red, or he exhibits sensitivity when you press on the teeth, this is not cause for alarm. Ask your veterinarian what he thinks about the teeth at your dog’s next annual examination.
The saying that a dog’s nose should always be wet and cold is just an old wives’ tale. In the course of a normal day, a dog’s nose will vary quite a bit, from warm and dry, to wet and cold, and other possible combination. Seasonal temperature and humidity changes may affect your dog’s nose as they do yours; you just want to check your dog’s nose for discharge that’s more than transient, again noting any changes from the usual.
That said, if your dog’s nose is always dry and cracked, scabbed, crusty, or raw, he should be seen by your veterinarian. There are numerous dermatological conditions that can cause the nose to appear this way, and most of them will worsen without treatment. A thick or greenish discharge could indicate your dog has a respiratory infection or a foreign body in his nose or sinus.
Bright, clear eyes are a sign of good health in any species. There are several conditions that can cause dogs to develop cloudy eyes as they age; ask your veterinarian what condition is causing your dog’s eyes to cloud at your dog’s next annual exam. Then, just monitor the progress of the clouding.
Check for growths on your dog’s eyelids. Briefly lift the dog’s upper eyelid to look at the sclera, the white part of the eye. While some blood vessels may be visible, the sclera should be nice and white. Scleral injection, or colored sclera, could indicate metabolic changes. Yellow sclera may indicate jaundice, an indicator of liver dysfunction. These signs, or blood vessels that suddenly appear larger than normal, are things you should ask your vet about at your dog’s annual exam.
Many dogs – especially breeds with bulgy eyes – have more or less constant “tearing” or eye secretions. This is not a cause for concern, but any sudden change in the amount or quality of the tears should be investigated. If your dog suddenly begins to rub at her eyes, if the lids become red and inflamed, or if the discharge becomes thick or green, your vet will need to examine her. These signs may indicate something as trivial as seasonal allergies or blocked tear ducts, something that requires a quick surgical procedure (such as inward-growing eyelashes or turned-in eyelids), or something that may require ongoing treatment, such as glaucoma or keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS, or “dry eye”).
Dogs with upright or sparsely furred ears seldom seem to have “hidden” problems with their ears, but breeds with ears that hang down or have lots of hair on, in, and/or around them seem to suffer lots of ear infections. You want to lift the ear and find pink, clean, non-smelly ears. In contrast, discharge, lots of waxy dirt, and strong smells could indicate foreign bodies or infection, changes that need further veterinary attention.
If your dog frequently has goopy ears, you should clean the outer parts of the ear with some soft cotton balls and a commercial ear cleaner to prevent a buildup that can cause infection. For routine ear care, we especially like gentle cleaners such as Halo’s “Natural Herbal Ear Wash” (www.halopets.com) and Ark Naturals’ “Ears All Right Gentle Ear Cleaning Lotion” (www.arknaturals.com). Both of these products may be found in or ordered from better pet supply stores or health food stores. They contain herbs that soothe irritated, inflamed skin and seem to promote a healthy ear environment.
Dogs with long or thick hair can sometimes develop mats behind their ears, which can interfere with the normal movement of their ears or cause a sore on the skin. Check the hair around the back of the ears carefully, and clip away any mats you find.
Checking the body of a dog with a short coat is a lot easier than a thick- or long-haired one. Thin-coated dogs such as Weimaraners or German Shorthaired Pointers are easy to stroke, feeling with the fingers for any bumps, changes in the normal musculature, and sensitive spots.
On dogs with long or thick coats, you will have to proceed more slowly, deliberately feeling every inch of the dog’s neck, shoulders, back, ribs, abdomen, and back legs. Pay special attention to places that are difficult to see, such as the armpits, under the tail, and under the dog’s collar. As you progress, look and feel for bumps, swellings, lumps, or hardenings.
Lumps and bumps can be any number of things, including benign, slow-growing fatty tumors or fast-growing malignant tumors. By making a note of the location, size, and growth rate of the lump, you’ll be able to give your veterinarian good information so he can decide whether or not urgent removal of the lump might be necessary.
As you palpate your dog’s body, remove any plant materials, such as burrs, sandspurs, foxtails, or other stickers that may be lodged in your pet’s coat. All of these stickers can cause matting or migrate through the dog’s coat, irritating ears, noses, toes, and “armpits.” If not removed, these plant materials may cause local, then systemic infection.
Little bumps may be revealed to be ticks, biting parasites that can transmit Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Fortunately for us, the insects take their time finding attachment sites, and even then, take a while to inject the disease vector. Comb through your dog’s hair to spot and remove loose ticks as soon as possible after a hike or walk.
Attached ticks can be removed with a pair of tweezers or a special tick-removing tool, by grasping it firmly as close as possible to the dog’s skin. Look carefully at the tick after you’ve removed it; if it appears to be missing its head, keep an eye on the site of attachment on the dog for a week or two, using dilute Betadine solution or other antiseptic scrub to ward off infection.
Examine each one of your dog’s paws individually. Hold each paw in both of your hands, spreading the toes to look and feel in between them. This is a common location for sores caused by stickers or aggravated by excessive licking. Turn her foot to see the pads, feeling for invasive stickers or unusual roughness.
If your dog has long hair on her feet, make sure you pull it back and take a good look at her nails. Many long-haired dogs develop excessively long nails, because no one looks closely enough to realize they need to be clipped. If your dog has dewclaws – the little vestigial “toes” high on the inside of his ankles – be sure to check the nails on them to ensure they are not too long. Because these nails don’t come in contact with the ground, they will sometimes grow inward and irritate the dog’s skin.
If you don’t regularly trim your dog’s nails, you should at least take him to a groomer every month or so to have someone else trim them. But it’s not that difficult to do yourself. See our review of various nail clipping tools in “You Nailed It!” WDJ February 1999, and directions on how to train your dog to tolerate nail trimming on page 22 of this issue.
Under the tail
Last, but not least, run your hands over and around the rump area, and down the tail. This is a private area, and some dogs don’t relish having their anal area examined. Lift the tail and look for redness, irritation, swelling, or other signs that your dog is paying unusual attention or licking a reddened area on or near the genitals or anus.
If you see little white things that resemble grains of cooked white rice, remove them with a paper towel (or wearing rubber gloves) and dispose of them. Then, go ask your veterinarian for a dewormer. The little white things are tapeworm eggs. Dogs acquire tapeworms by ingesting fleas, usually in the act of biting themselves in an effort relieve itching fleabites. To thoroughly control tapeworms, you must control fleas. (See “Eliminate Fleas Without Poisons: Integrated Pest Management,” WDJ March 2002.)
Methodical approach is best
Many of us are shocked when we take our dogs to the veterinarian and she points out troubling signs of disease or illness. “My gosh,” we are embarrassed to admit, “I never noticed that!” We feel even worse to learn that the dog’s condition could have been prevented or treated much more easily had it been discovered earlier.
By looking closely at your whole animal on a regular basis, singular physical, attitudinal, or behavioral changes should be more noticeable to you, which can help you and your vet narrow down potential sources of problems. By consistently and routinely examining their pet, establishing a health baseline of normal for that individual, guardians may be able to further narrow down the timing and physical origin of problems.
-by Susan Eskew
Susan Eskew is a freelance writer (and wife of a veterinarian) currently living in North Carolina. She wishes to thank Kristen Chaney, a senior veterinary student at Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a community practice help-line volunteer, and Kim Hombs, DVM, a holistic veterinarian from Charlotte, NC, for their help in preparing this article.