What Is a Wellness Examination, and How Often Should Your Veterinarian Perform One?
It’s not unreasonable to ask why you should take your dog or cat to the vet when they're not showing any signs of illness—but regular wellness examinations are important for two reasons. First, as part of their survival instinct, dogs and cats will often hide pain associated with a developing disease. Second, many illnesses don’t present symptoms until they are quite advanced.
What Is a Wellness Examination?
While it’s important to take your pet to your veterinarian when he’s sick, you also need to have him periodically checked out when he appears to be healthy. This is called a “wellness examination” or a check-up. Its purpose is not to treat existing symptoms, but to ensure no illnesses are in their early stages to maintain your pet’s good health.
How Often Should My Dog Have a Wellness Examination?
The CDC recommends that humans have regular screenings for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50 for a reason: humans are more prone to the development of this disease at that age. In the same way, dogs are more prone to certain diseases when they are very young, adult or older, and for that reason, how often you should take your dog in for a wellness exam depends on his age:
- Puppies: ask your vet how often you need to bring your puppy in for an exam. In general, you should take a puppy to your veterinarian every 3 to 4 weeks for necessary vaccinations and to check for any developing illnesses. These include shots for rabies and distemper-parvo. Your puppy might also need shots if he’s displaying symptoms of kennel cough, influenza or Lyme Disease.
- Adult dogs: between the ages of 1 and 7-10 years (depending on your dog’s breed), dogs should have an annual wellness exam including a heartworm test and other tests your vet recommends based on the results of his examination. He’ll also need booster shots for rabies and distemper-parvo, typically every 3 years (note that there are state laws which mandate the frequency of rabies shots—your vet will tell you when you need to bring your dog in for his rabies shots).
- Older dogs: dogs 7 to 10 years of age and older should have a wellness exam every 6 months. Just like people, older dogs are more likely to develop certain diseases as they get older, including arthritis, gum disease, diabetes, vision problems and blindness, kidney disease, cancer, and dementia.
What Happens During the Wellness Exam?
Your dog’s wellness exam consists of 4 principal parts:
When you schedule your dog’s wellness examination, your vet might have special instructions, such as bringing in a urine or stool sample, or having your dog fast prior to the visit. She might also discuss with you your dog’s general health, eating habits and other behaviors or signs of disease to help her prepare for the examination.
2. Your Conversation with the Veterinarian
When you take your dog in for his wellness exam, your vet will have important questions for you. For example, she will want to know about your dog’s diet, how much exercise he gets, any unusual behaviors (such as excessive thirst or problems breathing), and whether his bowel movements and urination are normal.
3. The Physical Examination
Your vet will observe your dog’s general appearance, listen to his heart and lungs (called “auscultation”) and “palpate” (or feel) specific areas of his body, including:
- the pulse in his hind legs;
- the lymph nodes in his head, neck and hind legs; and
- his abdomen (checking whether internal organs like his kidneys, spleen, bladder, liver, intestines and stomach are normal or if they cause pain).
She will also want to see how he walks, whether he is alert, and whether he is overweight or underweight. She will check the condition of his coat and skin to see if either is unusually dry or oily, and whether there is the presence of dandruff or signs of excessive hair loss.
Your vet will also check your dog’s eyes, ears and mouth. She will want assurance that his eyes show no signs of redness or discharge, as well as whether there are abnormal lumps and any signs of cloudiness. She will also look for signs of discharge, thickening or hair loss around his ears, and check to see if his mouth and teeth are healthy, paying special attention to any signs of periodontal disease or ulcers around the mouth.
Finally, your vet might perform routine wellness screening tests, including:
- A CBC, or complete blood count;
- A biochemistry profile;
- Urinalysis; and
- Thyroid hormone testing
Cats Need Wellness Checks, Too
It’s just as important that your cat have regular wellness checks. As Brian Collins, DVM and lecturer at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine points out:
"I think people sometimes don't go [to the vet] because they think their cat's shots aren't due. But cats should be seen at least once a year. I like to check them every 6 months if possible."
During your cat’s appointment, your vet will check his entire body, looking for any signs of illness or disease. She will check his ears, looking for signs of mites, his eyes for retinal health, and his mouth, to see if there’s a problem with gum disease or tartar. She’ll also check his heart and lungs, and check the condition of his skin and coat, to see if there are any lesions or bumps. Because obesity is a common problem among cats, your vet will also weigh him to ensure he’s not overweight.
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Depending on your cat’s age, he might also need vaccinations. Kittens, for example, require a series of shots to prevent distemper, upper respiratory disease and rabies. In some cases (for example, if your cat goes outside and might be in contact with other cats), your vet might recommend a vaccination to prevent feline leukemia.
Your Vet’s Recommendations
Based on her conversation with you, your dog’s or cat's medical history and the results of the physical examination, your vet will recommend any necessary preventive actions or medical treatments to ensure his or her continuing health. She might, for example, recommend changes to their diet, treatment for fleas, ticks or internal parasites and heartworms, and any special treatments needed to improve their skin, coat, eyes or teeth.
Ensuring your pet's current health and taking the necessary preventive steps to avoid health problems in the future requires a strong partnership between you and your veterinarian. Just as you rely on her to regularly monitor your pet's health and recommend appropriate treatments, she relies on you to follow her instructions and provide accurate information to help her accurately diagnose illness and provide the best possible treatment.
At South Boston Animal Hospital, we value this kind of collaborative approach to ensuring your pet's continued health and well-being. If you need advice or would like to schedule an appointment, contact us today.
About Dr. Natalie Waggener
Dr. Natalie Waggener has 17 years of experience in emergency work and general practice in Rhode Island, Florida and Massachusetts. She has a special interest in dentistry, wellness care and rehabilitation therapy. She is currently licensed in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.