What is a Wellness Examination?
A wellness examination is a routine medical examination of a patient that is apparently healthy, as opposed to an examination of a patient that is ill. A wellness examination may also be called a 'check-up' or a 'physical examination'. The focus of a wellness visit is the maintenance of optimal health.
How often should my dog have a wellness examination?
The answer to this question depends on your pet's age and current health status. During early puppyhood wellness exams are recommended on a monthly basis, while for the average adult dog annual wellness examinations are the norm, and for middle aged or geriatric dogs semi-annual examinations are recommended.
"It is a popular misconception that one calendar year equates to seven years in a dog's life."
Pets age at a faster rate than people. It is a popular misconception that one calendar year equates to seven years in a dog's life. In actual fact, in one calendar year a dog may age the equivalent of four to fifteen years in a human's life. The reason for this dramatic difference is that puppies reach maturity very quickly, and are essentially adolescents or young adults by a year of age - thus they are considered to be the equivalent of a 15 year old by their first birthday. During the second year, the rate of aging slows down a little so that the average dog is considered to be the equivalent of a 24-25 year old by their second birthday. After that, the rate of aging is estimated to be 4-5 dog years per calendar year, depending on the size and breed. Large breed dogs age relatively more quickly than small breed dogs. By the time your dog reaches its 6th birthday, it will be either middle-aged (if a small or medium breed dog) or geriatric (if a large breed dog).
Your veterinarian is in the best position to recommend how often your dog should have a wellness examination, based on its specific breed, health status and lifestyle.
What will my veterinarian check during a wellness examination?
During a routine wellness examination, your veterinarian will ask you questions about your dog's diet, exercise, thirst, breathing, behavior, habits, elimination patterns (i.e., bowel movements and urination), lifestyle, and general health. Your veterinarian will also perform a physical examination of your dog. Based on your pet's history and physical examination, your veterinarian will then make recommendations for specific preventive medicine treatments such as vaccination, parasite control (including preventive treatments for fleas, ticks, intestinal parasites and heartworms), nutrition, skin and coat care, weight management or dental care. In addition, your veterinarian will discuss your pet's individual circumstances and decide whether any other life-stage or lifestyle recommendations would be appropriate.
What does my veterinarian check during a physical examination?
A physical examination involves observing the general appearance of the dog, listening to the chest with a stethoscope ("auscultation"), and "palpation", or feeling specific areas of the body.
Your veterinarian will observe or inspect:
- How your dog walks and stands
- Whether your dog is bright and alert
- Your dog's general body condition - whether your pet has an appropriate body weight and body condition (neither too fat nor too thin)
- The haircoat - looking for excessive dryness, excessive oiliness, evidence of dandruff, excessive shedding, or abnormal hair loss
- The skin - looking for oiliness, dryness, dandruff, lumps or bumps, areas of abnormal thickening, etc.
- The eyes - looking for redness, discharge, evidence of excessive tearing, abnormal lumps or bumps on the eyelids, how well the eyelids close, cloudiness, or any other abnormalities.
- The ears - looking for discharges, thickening, hair loss, or any other signs of problems.
- The nose and face - looking for symmetry, discharges, how well the pet breathes, whether there are any problems related to skin folds or other apparent problems.
- Mouth and teeth - looking for tartar build-up, periodontal disease, retained baby teeth, broken teeth, excessive salivation, staining around the lips, ulcers in or around the mouth, etc.
Your veterinarian will auscultate:
- The heart - listening for abnormal heart rate, heart rhythm ("skipped beats" or "extra beats"), or heart murmurs
- The lungs - listening for evidence of increased or decreased breath sounds
Your veterinarian will palpate:
- The pulse - depending on the results of auscultation, your veterinarian may simultaneously listen to the chest and palpate the pulse in the hind legs
- The lymph nodes in the region of the head, neck and hind legs - looking for swelling or pain
- The legs - looking for evidence of lameness, muscle problems, nerve problems, problems with the paws or toenails, etc.
- The abdomen - feeling in the areas of the bladder, kidneys, liver, intestines, spleen and stomach in order to assess whether these organs appear to be normal or abnormal, and whether there is any subtle evidence of discomfort
In some cases, you may not even be aware that your veterinarian is conducting some parts of a routine physical examination, particularly if your veterinarian does not detect any abnormalities.
What else might be checked during a wellness examination?
Your veterinarian will recommend that a fresh sample of your pet's feces (bowel movement) is examined as part of every wellness examination. This sample will be processed and microscopically evaluated for the presence of parasite eggs. In puppies, monthly fecal examinations are extremely important since many pups will have intestinal parasites. Your veterinarian will also recommend heartworm testing on a schedule that is appropriate for your geographical part of the country.
"As part of a complete wellness examination, your veterinarian will usually recommend "wellness screening tests"."
As part of a complete wellness examination, your veterinarian will usually recommend "wellness screening tests". There are four main categories of wellness testing recommended for the dog: complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, urinalysis, and thyroid hormone testing. Within each category, your veterinarian will advise you about how extensive the testing should be. In younger dogs without noticeable health complaints, relatively simple testing may be adequate. In middle-aged or geriatric dogs, more comprehensive testing is advisable. For older dogs, additional wellness screening tests may include chest or abdominal x-rays to assess the size and appearance of the internal organs (heart, lungs, kidneys, liver) or x-rays of the skeletal system to look for degenerative changes in the bones or joints.
Why are these additional tests recommended?
Pets cannot tell you how they are feeling, and as a result, disease may be present before you are aware of it. To further complicate matters, as part of their survival instincts most dogs will hide signs of subclinical disease (i.e., a disease that is in its early stages and is only causing minimal symptoms). This means that a health condition may become highly advanced before your dog shows any obvious or recognizable problems. Some early warning signs may be detected by your veterinarian during the physical examination, or subtle changes that are suggestive of underlying issues may be found, prompting recommendation for further testing as outlined above.
If a disease or condition can be detected before a pet shows signs of illness, steps can often be taken to manage or correct the problem before irreversible damage occurs, thus improving the prognosis for a successful outcome. In addition, early detection and treatment is often less costly than waiting until a disease or problem becomes advanced enough to affect your pet's quality of life.
Wellness examinations and testing are particularly important in the geriatric pet, since there is a greater chance that underlying disease may be present. This is the reason why semi-annual examinations are recommended for senior pets.
Is there anything I need to do to prepare my dog for a wellness examination?
When you book the appointment with your veterinarian, you should ask whether you should fast your dog before the visit. You should also ask whether you should bring in fresh urine or fecal samples.
Prepare yourself with some basic information, such as the brand and type of food that your dog eats, whether the family feeds any table scraps, whether you give your dog any supplements, and whether anybody in the family has noticed any problems. This is also the time that you should take note of any concerns you might have and make inquiries into optimal health maintenance strategies for your furry friend.