Pets are experts at hiding illness, so paying close attention to the hidden physical changes that preceed some diseases can be highly beneficial. There are several basic physical parameters that you can assess at home on a weekly basis to alert you to a medical problem before it becomes entrenched and difficult to treat. If you find a problem with any of these physical exam findings bring your pet in for one of our doctors to confirm there is a problem and make a specific diagnosis.
Lets start at the front and work our way back.


Look for redness, discharge, squinting, or swelling.

The pigmentation on the white part of this dog’s eye has the potential to be a malignant cancer. Catching this change early can make a big difference in saving this eye.

A tumor in a dog's eye

Always compare both eyes during your exam. The natural symmetry will allow you to identify a problem like this dog with different diameter pupils.

Different diameter pupils from a neurologic problem called anisocoria


Smell them for odor and look for redness or discharge.

The pinkish color to this ear is not normal, and can be caused by several things. Our ear page has more information.

Inflamed ear flaps (pinna) from chronic atopy

Mucous membranes

Assuming it is safe to look in your pets mouth lift up its jowls and look at its gums. They should be pink. They should not be blue, grey, white or red. If you see any of these abnormal colors your pet should be brought to us immediately. While you are there look for tartar on the teeth or inflamed gums or bad breath.

These gums are nice and pink, the only color they should be

Normal pink gums

While you are there look at the teeth for tartar and gingivitis, the tongue for any problems, and the gums for any growths like this dog.

Mouth tumor


Rub your hands thoroughly over your pets whole body weekly to look for lumps or bumps or areas of inflammation or hair loss. Look and feel around the ears, abdomen, anus, and genitals.

Take your time and be observant. This almost imperceptible red area at the arrow is a malignant tumor called a mast cell (MCT).

Skin tumor called a mast cell tumor (MCT)

Lymph node exam

Your pet has many lymph nodes. Some are inside the body, some are outside. The lymph nodes on the outside of the body are called peripheral lymph nodes and can be palpated.  When you check these lymph nodes you are feeling and looking for:

Swelling or pain or heat

Enlargement- most should feel the size of a marble or less (depends on the size of your pet). If one of them is larger than this, painful, or the area around it is swollen or painful, it should be examined by one of our doctors.

Each of the lymph nodes we want you to check comes in pairs on each side of the body. This symmetry helps you in determining if one of them is large or not.
Enlargement of the peripheral lymph nodes can be for several reasons:

Inflammation- pets with chronic skin conditions, inflammatory reactions, or allergic reactions can have an enlarged peripheral lymph node.

Infection- pets fighting infections, or a lymph node draining a specific infected area of the body, might be enlarged. We diagnosed a case of Valley Fever in a dog once based on an enlarged popliteal lymph node.

Cancer (Neoplasia)- pets with lymph node cancer (lymphoma, lymphosarcoma) will have an enlarged lymph node usually somewhere in its body.

There are 4 peripheral lymph nodes you can palpate as part of a weekly health exam.  We can demonstrate how to find them next time you bring your pet to us. (Thanks Doyle for being a good guinea pig for the photos). In most cases if you do not feel any lymph nodes that is OK because it means they are not enlarged.

  1. Submandibular

    Submandibular are under the angle of the jaw. Use your thumb and index finger and palpate both at the same time.

    Dog submandibular lymph node palpation

  2. Pre-scapular

    Use your hand in a sweeping motion and feel right in front of the shoulder
    Dog prescapular lymph node palpation
  3. Axillary

    Stand alongside your pet and simultaneously rub along the ribs with both hands under the armpits. Make sure you are palpating behind the leg so move your hands way forward as you feel for the axillary lymph nodes.

    Dog axillary lymph node palpation
  4. Popliteal

    They are located on the back of the leg opposite side of the knee.
    Dog popliteal lymph node palpation


When your pet is at rest observe how many times per minute it breathes. A typical dog or cat breathes 20-40 times per minute at rest, although this is variable. What we want you to observe is a change in the respiratory rate. Write down the rate on a calendar on a weekly basis and look for trends of increasing rate. If for several months in a row the rate is 35, and now it is 60 every time you observe, that is a reason to bring in your pet for an exam.
This is particularly important in pets that have heart disease or asthma.