The Importance of a Physical Exam

by Dr. Seth Oberschlake

The physical exam your veterinarian performs is a critical part of your beloved animal’s wellness. This is true for human medicine, and often even more true for our pets because they are so good at hiding illness and cannot always communicate with us when something is off.  

Relative to humans, our pets have an accelerated aging process, so yearly exams are recommended to help catch issues sooner. Many of these things if recognized early, can make for a lifetime of better management, health, comfort, and understanding for the owner.  

The physical exam tries to cover the whole animal, nose to tail, and everything in-between! Each clinician typically has their own perfected regimen, but it often starts with the eyes, ears, nose, and throat. The oral cavity is important as dental disease is one of the most common issues we see in pets.  They often hide dental pain very well, so we do not ignore that area! We feel the palpable lymph nodes, examine the skin/coat and musculoskeletal system. It is always best to catch lumps, bumps, joint and muscle issues sooner!  

The heart, lungs, and abdomen are other areas we feel and listen too, often catching things that we may not have expected; whether it’s a heart murmur, arrhythmia, larger liver/spleen, abnormal kidneys, thickened intestines, etc. Many of those issues can remain silent for long durations without symptoms, then suddenly cause potentially severe problems. Catching those early can be lifesaving at times. The urogenital system, nervous system, and body condition score are inspected as well to top off the exam.  

In summary, the physical exam is the initial doorway to patient screening, allowing us to better assess health and make recommendations going forward for your pet’s wellness. So next time you are in for your companion’s exam, you’ll know a little bit more about why your veterinarian is looking, listening, and feeling your pet! And don’t worry, we try and get a few belly rubs or ear scratches in for good measure!