How often your dog should be seen by your veterinarian, and what sort of routine screening diagnostics should be conducted, are highly dependent on your dog’s life stage and general health. That said, well-informed owners are in the best position to ensure that their dogs receive the optimum care and attention from their veterinarians.
WHAT’S NORMAL FOR EACH LIFE STAGE VET CHECK UP
For puppies, monthly exams are recommended for vaccinations as well as monitoring the pups’ growth, nutritional status, tooth alignment/development, and general health as the puppy grows and develops. Training and behavioral issues will be addressed as you roll along, and any necessary vaccines given at the appropriate intervals.
Regarding vaccinations, you and your veterinarian should do a personalized risk assessment, based on the lifestyle and environment you share with your dog, before determining which vaccines are right for your dog. Then, follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding boosting frequency and intervals.
During young to middle adulthood (1 to 6 years) annual exams are sufficient for healthy dogs with no medical issues. If your dog suffers from things like allergies, ear infections, gastrointestinal problems, or behavioral/anxiety issues, you will see your veterinarian more frequently, as needed.
The recommendation for healthy senior dogs (7+ years) is to have wellness exams twice a year. Time starts moving a little faster for these guys, bringing with it a higher likelihood of medical problems that may not be outwardly apparent to you, but may be picked up by your veterinarian with physical exam and diagnostics. The earlier an issue is identified, the better the chance of either resolving or successfully managing it. Examples include dental disease, oral tumors, ocular disease, kidney issues, abdominal masses, and anal gland tumors. Having your senior dog examined every six months means catching these things conceivably six months earlier than you would with annual exams.
A THOROUGH PHYSICAL EXAM FOR YOUR DOG
If you’ve ever wondered what your vet is doing while examining your dog, here’s a summary of a typical wellness visit for dogs:
- Body Condition Score (BCS). Vet checks to determine if your dog is underweight, overweight, or at a healthy weight.
- Muscle Condition Score (MCS). This is especially important in senior pets, a measure of general health, strength, and vitality.
- Eye exam (with a light source). Vet checks vision and looks for any infection, inflammation, eyelid abnormalities, dry eye syndrome, or tumors.
- Ear exam (with an otoscope). Vet looks for signs of infection or tumors/polyps.
- Mouth. Vet checks tooth and gum health and hydration status, looks for signs of infection or tumors, and checks color of mucous membranes (pink = normal, pale = anemia, yellow = jaundice, blue/grey = hypoxia/low oxygen level).
- Throat. Vet checks for collapsing trachea.
- Peripheral lymph nodes. Vet palpates these, looking for signs of cancer or infection.
- Skin. The quality of the dog’s coat can indicate problems with nutrition or endocrine disorders; vet also checks for infections, parasites, lumps and bumps, and the dog’s hydration status.
- Abdomen. Vet palpates for signs of discomfort, fluid, organ enlargement, tumors, or bladder pain.
- Rectal exam. Vet looks for signs of tumors, polyps, anal gland impaction/tumor, and checks the prostate in males.
- Genitalia. Vet looks for any abnormal discharge or tumors.
- Heart/pulses. Vet listens to heart for sounds that indicate murmurs or arrhythmia, and checks heart rate, pulse strength, and rhythm.
- Lungs. Vet checks respiratory rate and listens to breath sounds throughout the lungs; do they sound normal or harsh or wheezy, are there quiet areas (indicating fluid or tumor).
- Temperature. Taking the dog’s temperature is not generally necessary to check during a well visit. If you would like it checked, just ask!
As you can see, there is a ton of information to be had about your dog’s health with the physical exam. And don’t worry if we chat with you and ask questions about your dog while we perform our exam. We’ve done it a million times, our systematic exam is deeply ingrained, and we’re multi-taskers by nature.
Be sure and bring a list of any general questions you may have. Time in the exam room goes by quickly, and you don’t want to miss an opportunity to discuss your concerns face to face with your veterinarian.
It’s a good idea to have a chemistry screen (chem) and complete blood count (CBC) done on your healthy young dog, to serve as a baseline for his future tests. For many dogs, this is accomplished with pre-anesthetic bloodwork at the time of spay/neuter surgery. If your dog is going to remain intact, consider chem and CBC tests at his first annual adult exam. This can be done at the same time as his recommended annual heartworm and tick blood test.
An annual fecal exam for parasites is recommended. This is important because of the zoonotic risk intestinal parasites pose for humans and because of recently emerging intestinal parasite resistance to monthly heartworm/parasite preventatives.
After this, until your dog becomes a senior, how often to repeat wellness chem/CBC screening is really up to you and your vet. It’s good practice to test annually, as information is power. Ask your veterinarian what seems most appropriate for you and your dog. If she tells you it’s not necessary, but you want to do it, just ask. Conversely, if your veterinarian recommends it and you don’t want to do it, ask what risks you may be taking by declining the recommended testing, then make an informed decision for your dog.
If there are medical issues common to your dog’s breed, bring a list of what you’ve found and ask your veterinarian about the clinical relevance and whether there are screening tests that might identify the problem early.
For example, Dobermans are prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, so if you own a Doberman or Doberman-mix, you might ask about an annual NT-proBNP (a blood test that suggests heart enlargement) and an echocardiogram (cardiac ultrasound).
In addition to twice-annual wellness checks for senior dogs, it’s a good idea to employ an increased number of screening diagnostics for them, too. A chem/CBC, urinalysis, and fecal should be considered at least annually. If your senior dog is on a chronic medication, whether it be for pain or anxiety or allergies, checking his blood chemistry twice a year is worth consideration. These are generally the screening diagnostics recommended along with the annual heartworm/tick-borne disease test.
Other diagnostic tests, like thyroid hormone, urine culture, blood pressure check, x-rays, and ultrasound are entertained on a case-by-case basis. Again, if there is a screening test you are interested in, just ask.