When I say “Physical Exam” what do you think about? For me, I think about sports physicals or I feel guilty because I have been postponing a physical from my personal doctor lately. Very rarely in human medicine do we encounter a total body exam. If we get a flu shot, a nurse gives it to us and examines the skin on our tricep. If we go to a specialist for a specific problem, they only examine the body part concerned. So the question is/are: Why do we recommend physical exams twice annually, and what is to be gained from a physical exam?
First, lets discuss what is gained/gathered from a physical exam. Animals have added benefit from a physical exam, since they can’t tell us if they feel sick or hurt anywhere. We check every system to make sure there are no diseases that we can detect.
- Heart – murmurs or different rhythms indicate problems with blood flow or heart rate
- Lungs – crackles, wheezes, increased/decreased lung sounds indicate poor air exchange with blood
- Lymph Nodes – enlarged lymph nodes can indicate cancer or inflammation
- Eyes – cataracts, eye discharge, redness around the eyes, or changes inside the eye are cause for concern
- Ears – redness, discharge, or pain can indicate ear infections, and we check the ear drum for rupture
- Teeth – fractured teeth, red gums, or a painful mouth are all evidence of dental disease
- Nose/Throat – blood or discharge from the nose or any abnormal noises are concerning
- Skin – red bumps, scales, crusts, hair loss, itch, or redness can indicate allergies or infection
- Urogenital System – discharge, swelling, or redness can indicate infection, cancer, or stones in the urogenital tract
- Musculoskeletal System – arthritis in joints, lameness or swellings can indicate hidden pain
- Nervous Ststem – dragging the feet, a droopy eyelid, or different sized pupils my indicate nervous system dysfunction
- Abdomen – we can feel thickening of intestines, abdominal masses, and enlarged organs, as well as any pain in the belly
If the animal will allow, we will check all of these areas out for any indication of something brewing before they show signs of pain, which leads me to my next answer…
We recommend twice yearly exams in order to diagnose diseases before they become a problem. Animals are great at hiding pain or changes in their body. For whatever reason, they don’t want you to know something isn’t right until it is too late (another reason for wellness labwork as well, but I digress). Exams twice a year allow for this fact, as well as the concern that since animals live shorter lives, more can happen in a very short period of time.
So if your veterinarian is not performing a full physical exam, or if you only get shots done assembly-line style, then your animal is missing out on one of the most valuable diagnostic tools available – the physical exam.