Pets are experts at hiding illness, so paying close attention to the hidden or subtle physical changes that precede some diseases can be highly beneficial.

There are several basic physical parameters that you can assess at home on a weekly (we even recommend daily when feasible) basis to alert you to a medical problem before it becomes entrenched and difficult to treat.

When you bring your pet in for an exam one of our doctors or nurses will show you how to do this simple exam. The limiting factor in most cases is your confidence.

There are four basic areas to observe on your pet that we will discuss on this page. We picked these four because they are easy to observe, and give us a lot of bang for our buck:

Face- nose, eyes, and ears

Mouth

Haircoat

Lymph nodes

The picture below is of Dr. Palazzolo examining a cat. He has over 40 years of experience doing this, and we are not going to bring you to his level of expertise or detail. We just don’t you to miss something that can be treated early with a good outcome.

Vet examining cat

Cats are notoriously finicky when it comes to an exam. This is where his confidence, along with the confidence of all of our doctors and staff, pays off. 

Before you think of examining your please pet do not endanger your pet or yourself. We do not recommend putting your hands in its mouth unless you have been doing it from a young age. Keep in mind, even a docile pet that always lets you look in its mouth, can bite severely when it is in pain for whatever reason.

This also holds true for a pet that is limping or holding up a paw. These can be painful, and pets can easily bite or scratch severely in this situation.

For sensitive organs like the eyes do not shine a light into it or put anything into it.

For those people that cannot examine a potential problem closer we will give suggestions on what to watch for indirectly that might indicate a problem worth checking by an exam by one of our doctors.

If you find a problem with any of the following physical exam findings bring your pet in for one of our doctors to confirm there is a problem and make a specific diagnosis. It is much better to be safe than sorry, especially because some of these problems are serious and even life-threatening.




Weigh your pet

If you can’t do a basic exam on your pet for whatever reason, at least weigh it. Use a baby scale for small pets. For birds and pocket pets get a gram scale. We will show you how to use it safely on small animals.

For larger dogs you are welcome to bring them to our hospital for a “treat and weigh-in”, and we will record the weight in the medical record.

Weigh your pet once per week and mark the weight on a calendar. Look for trends of decreasing weight to indicate a potential illness that warrants an exam. Also, look for trends of increasing weight for obesity.

Weighing dog on a baby scale

A baby scale works fine for a large number of pets

Let’s start at the front and work our way back.

Nose

Watch for discharge and swelling and ulceration or inflammation at the nares (tip of the nose). Pawing at the nose or rubbing the face could also indicate a problem here.

Even a tiny red are that looks like a scratch can be a problem, especially in white haired cats.

Squamous cell carcinoma on the nares

This mild reddish area on the nose is a malignant cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Eyelids

If you look at this cat you will see what looks like squinting on its left eye. It is actually a neurologic problem in this case.

Partially closed left eye

Squinting at the left eye could be minor irritation, a foreign body, or sign of serious internal or neurological disease

Eyeballs

It is common for owners to miss eye problems because they can be subtle. Since vision is crucial to our pets here are a few things to look for.

prolapsed 3rd eyelids

Prolapsed 3rd eyelids

icterus (jaundice) at sclera

Redness or inflammation to the eye. This is conjunctivitis. Also note the yellow tinge to the white part of the eye. This is jaundice (called icterus), that could be an indication of anemia or liver disease

Cornea pigmentation

The pigmented cornea with thick discharge in this eye is abnormal. It could be one of  many things, one of the more common ones is dry eye (keratitis sicca).

A tumor in a dog's eye
This pigmented area in the white part of this dog’s eye (called the sclera) could be benign or a malignant cancer. Early diagnosis and detection makes the difference. 

Different diameter pupils on a dog

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

Dilated pupils

The dilated pupils are not because Ollie has seen something to scare or startle him. It is because he is blind due to high blood pressure (hypertension).

Ears

Smell them for odor and look for redness or discharge.

Inflamed ear flaps (pinna) from chronic atopy

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

Swollen ear of a dog with a hematoma

 An ear that is fine when you leave in the morning can become filled with blood and painful when you come home. This is an aural hematoma, and it needs immediate treatment. 

Ear lesion on white cat

The scab on top, and the pink spot below it, are a sign of a malignant cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma, just like the cat with the nose problem. 

Mucous membranes (gums)

You might be wise to look for indirect evidence of any problem with the mouth and not put your hand inside. This includes the following:

Swelling at the face or muzzle

Draining skin wound under the eye

Muzzle swelling

Rubbing the face or muzzle on the ground

Pawing at the muzzle

Drooling

Odor from the mouth area

Difficulty eating

Tongue hanging out abnormally

Assuming it is safe to look in your pet’s mouth, lift up its jowls and look at its gums if they aren’t pigmented . They should be pink. They should not be blue, grey, yellow white or red. If you see any of these abnormal colors your pet should be brought to us immediately.

While you are there also look for tartar on the teeth or inflamed gums, and see if you can take a peek at the top surface of the tongue while looking at the teeth and gums.

Normal pink gums in a dog

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

Yellow jaundiced gums

Just like the yellow sclera in the eye above, yellow is a sign of a problem in the gums

The gums are so important to us during illness or anesthesia that we monitor them closely, and do what is called a CRT (Capillary Refill Time). When pressed on by a finger they need to go from pink to white and back to pink again in less than 2 seconds, to be normal.

Mouth tumor

This tumor on the inside of the jowls would have been missed if you didn’t check your pet’s gums under the jowls

Canine gingivitis

While you are there look at the teeth for tartar and gingivitis, especially the molars in back

We do not recommend you examine your pet’s sensitive tongue like this one below. Only look at the top of it when you examine the teeth, or use one of  the indirect methods above to determine if your pet potentially has a tongue problem.

Lesion on the tongue

  This dog is under anesthesia, and the tongue is being thoroughly examined by one of our doctors before the growth in the doctor’s hand in the right is removed surgically with our laser

Haircoat

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.

Tumor on skin under haircoat

If your dog has a long or thick hair coat it might be hard to see a growth like this

Skin tumor called a mast cell tumor (MCT)

This almost imperceptible red area at the arrow is a malignant tumor called a mast cell (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 some can be palpated by you.  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 cannot find the lymph node that is OK, because it probably means it is not enlarged.

Submandibular

Dog submandibular lymph node palpation

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

Pre-scapularDog prescapular lymph node palpation

Use your hand in a sweeping motion and feel right in front of the shoulder

Axillary

Dog axillary lymph node palpation
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.

Popliteal

Dog popliteal lymph node palpation

They are located on the back of the leg opposite side of the knee

Respirations

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 45 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.