How to physically examine your pet at home

dog-and-cat-with-family-exam-at-home Sarandy Westfall

You’ve probably seen your vet examine your pet nose-to-tail plenty of times. Read our article to learn what they are looking at, listening to or feeling for and how to do it at home!

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‘If only they could talk!’ sighs everyone in the consult room when a pet is unwell and it is unclear what exactly is going on. Yes, that would be very helpful if, like human patients, our pets could tell us where it hurts. As it is, veterinary diagnosis and treatment relies on what you notice at home and what the vet can pick up from physical exams and tests.

But there’s no reason why you should not learn how to examine your pet yourself and check them more frequently than each time they see the vet. In fact, there are several good reasons to learn how to do it at home:

  • your pet learns the routine and is calmer and more acceptable of it at the vet,

  • you can spot problems much quicker,

  • you can benefit more from telemedicine consults during which you are the vet’s ‘hands’.

It’s a good idea to start familiarising your pet with being examined as soon as you welcome them home. Cats and dogs learn ‘in context’, so there’s a good chance they will perceive the exam as part of the new environment.

Pick a moment when the kitten or the puppy is content, a bit tired and at ease, for example after dinner. Do short bits of examination and reward them with a treat after each. Adjust the weekly frequency of it to your pet’s temperament (daily, every other day, every 3rd day, etc), but do it consistently, so that they understand this is a routine.

It’s not too late to teach this to them even if your adopted pet is already grown up, the principle is the same - start slow, but be consistent and reward their patience.

Find a clear, comfortable space where you can sit and move freely and will not be distracted. Proceed only with a relaxed and cooperative pet.

Make sure you do it the same way every time, this decreases the risk of you forgetting to check something and the familiarity of the routine makes your pet more relaxed and accepting of it.

General condition

Before they start examining your pet, your vet usually asks some questions. This is a good start for you as well. Consider:

  • Is your pet bright and alert?

  • Are they eating, drinking and toileting as usual?

  • Are they keen and enthusiastic about play or walks, meal times, your arrival?

Then the vet will watch your pet for a short while for an overall impression:

  • Do they stand, sit and lie down normally?

  • Do they seem to move slower, or have pain anywhere?

  • Do they seem too thin or too heavy?

Physical exam

The best way to do an examination is to start with the head of the dog/cat and work your way towards the tail.

Have a look at their face. Examine:

  • The nose
    • Is the nose clean?

    • Is it free of any scabbing or wounds on its surface?

    • (Please note the ‘dry nose equals illness’ is a myth.)

  • The eyes
    • Are they equally open, without redness or discharge?

    • Are the black pupils at the centre of equal size?

Flip each ear flap backwards and gently spread it with both hands, pulling slightly upwards to open it as much as possible and have a look at them:

  • The ears
    • Is the skin calm and light pink or red and sore?

    • Are they clean, with minimum wax?

    • Is the ear canal open wide rather than narrowed by hair, wax or swelling?

    • Is the smell from them normal?

Gently lift your pet’s lips and have a look at the outsides of the teeth and gums. Then if they are ok with it, next open their mouth and look at the insides of the teeth and the tongue.

  • The teeth
    • Are they intact, without any fractures or bleeding?

    • Are they clean, with minimal yellow/brown plaque and tartar?

    • Are the gums pale pink, without redness at the base of the teeth?

    • Are there any wounds or lumps on the tongue or inside the mouth?

    • Is there any bad breath?

The next thing to focus on is the chest. Observe your pet’s chest, especially its movement. This can tell you a lot about the health of their lungs and heart.

  • The chest
    • Is the chest movement smooth and effortless?

    • Do both chest and abdomen move when they breathe?

    • Are the breaths similar in depth and length?

    • Is the breath quiet, without any snorting, wheezing or crackles?

Unlike the chest, the abdomen is not protected by any bones, so you can palpate it easily. Have your pet stand on all their four paws, place your hands on both its flanks and slowly press them downwards and inwards to feel the insides. If you do it gently, but firmly, your pet won’t tense their muscles and you’ll be able to feel the organs inside.

  • The abdomen
    • Does it feel soft and relaxed?

    • Is it non-painful on touch?

    • Is it the same size as usual?

    • Are the mammary glands normal?

    • (Yes, male dogs and cats have nipples too.)

Then lift the tail and have a look at the back end, inspect the anal opening itself, the vulva or the scrotum, check the prepuce as well.

  • The perianal/genital area
    • Is the skin around the anus clean and normal, without any redness or swelling?

    • Is the vulva/prepuce dry and clean, without any significant discharge?

Then place your hands on your pet’s shoulders and move downwards, both on the left and the right front legs at the same time, comparing them. This is the best way to detect any swellings or asymmetries. Repeat the same movement starting from the hips, down both hind legs.

  • The legs
    • Do they feel symmetrical and ‘dry’, with the skin tightly attached to the bones?

    • Is their warmth uniform or are some areas hotter than others?

    • Are they comfortable to touch or is your pet reluctant to let you feel them?

The next step is to pick each paw one per one and look at the spaces between the toes, the pads and the nails. Don’t forget the dew claws on the front legs of dogs (sometimes present on the back legs too).

  • The feet and nails
    • Is the skin between toes calm and clean, with no mats or debris trapped there?

    • Are the nails of a good length and intact, or are they cracked/chewed?

    • Are the pads intact or are there splits in them?

Last but not least, have an overall palpation of your pet’s entire body to feel for any lumps or unevenness in the skin or fur. Spread the fur here and there and take a look at the skin underneath. Don’t forget to check the armpits, the lower abdomen and the groin.

  • Skin and fur
    • Is the skin calm and light pink (where not pigmented)?

    • Is it smooth and free of scabs and rashes?

    • Is the hair shiny and the same length in the same area, free of dandruff?

There’s a few more things you can assess now and then to complete your exam, which are also very handy to have as a ‘healthy’ reference.

The respiratory rate (RR), the number of breaths taken per minute, can be counted while a pet is awake, but it is best to check it when they are asleep for at least 5-10 minutes. Most pets have a RR of 10-30 when asleep, lower for big dogs and higher for smaller animals, puppies and kittens. A RR of over 40 when asleep can have different causes, but it’s worth following up with your vet.

The heartbeat can only be seen in thin dogs with deep chests, like lurchers, for example, but it can be felt in all dogs and cats if you place your fingers at the bottom of their left chest, between 4th-5th and 5th-6th ribs. The heart rate (HR) also depends on the size of your pet, and typically is slower in larger breeds. Again, this has to be counted at rest. In dogs, a resting HR is 70-120 beats per minute, while cats’ HR can fluctuate between 140-220 beats per minute.

Another way to count your pet’s heartbeats is to check their pulse. The best place to do that is high up in the groin, in the triangular depression between the muscles on the inside of the thigh, where the femoral artery runs close to the surface and can be felt pulsating under the skin. It can be a little difficult to find at first and if you don’t manage, ask a vet or vet nurse to show you. A normal pulse frequency should be the same as the heart rate, skipped pulses are a good reason to speak to your vet.

To check for your pet’s body condition score (BCS), feel for the muscle and fat layer over the ribs. You should be able to feel each bone individually without too much effort and a minimal fat/muscle layer over the ribs. Also, have a look over your pet’s back from above, cats and dogs of appropriate weight should have an hourglass figure with wider shoulders and hips and a clearly marked waist. Check our dedicated articles on how to check your dog or cat’s BCS.

Congratulations! You’ve got on your hands a complete instruction on how to perform a physical exam at home! Practise it with your pet until it is a routine for them and this way your vet will get a thorough examination each time and your pet the most accurate diagnosis and treatment.

If you have other pet-related questions, we’d love to hear them! Use the button to the right of the page to book a call with one of our vets who will be happy to answer your questions.

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