There are times when it is obvious our pets need veterinary attention, when illness or injury requires they get medical treatment quickly. Alongside this it is worth keeping an eye on any subtle changes that are not immediately obvious – but that may cause problems over time. Vets will conduct a full clinical examination when they see your pet, looking for early signs of potential problems, but if your pet seems healthy their visits to the surgery may be quite infrequent. There is plenty you can do at home to keep an eye on things and this article discusses some general checks we can all try to incorporate as part of our normal routine.
For any species it is important to note any changes in the amount they are eating or drinking – either more or less may be significant, and remember some animals such as small furries may hide their food so you need to make sure that if the bowl is being emptied it is actually being eaten and not just hidden in their bed! For all species, it is also important to note their toilet habits. Changes in frequency or volume of urination or defecation should be monitored, alongside any more obvious signs such as diarrhoea or constipation. Of-course diarrhoea is a common symptom in dogs, particularly those that scavenge, and it will frequently clear up after a day of feeding a bland diet. However if there are any other symptoms, such as if your pet appears unwell in themselves – or if the diarrhoea is bloody – it is always worth consulting your vet. I would also advise regular monitoring of your pets weight. If you are close enough, most vet practices are happy for you to stop by and use their scales for weighing your dog on a regular basis. Where cats and other small pets are concerned it is often easier to weigh them on bathroom scales (perhaps by weighing yourself first with them, then without them, and subtracting the difference to calculate their body weight). For very small pets it may be worth investing in a set of kitchen scales as any changes will be too small to be picked up on most human scales. Weight loss or gain can be significant, and remember too that it should always be compared to your pet’s body shape. If their weight seems stable, or is even increasing – yet you notice you can feel their ribs more easily, or their backbone is more obvious, then this is definitely a reason to see your vet. Similarly, if they are loosing weight on the scales – but look tubby to you – then it is worth seeking further advice.
Another general rule is to monitor your pets exercise levels…. Did they used to be active but are now lagging behind on walks, jumping up less or sleeping a lot more? Similarly, are they suddenly more active – as if agitated or uncomfortable? Are they obviously lame or resentful of being picked up or fussed? All these things are worth noting, and are things your vet may ask you about if you do need to make a visit.
In terms of actual examination, what you can and can’t do will be dictated by your pet and wherever possible I would encourage you to make this part of your normal interaction with your pet. For dogs, use their grooming regime as time to check for any unusual lumps or bumps or changes in their skin or coat. Cats and small furries are less likely to enjoy being groomed, but you will be able to tell a lot by generally handling and stroking them. With rabbits in particular it is essential to check them morning and evening to make sure they have a clean bottom. Unfortunately, rabbits often get faecal material stuck either in their skin folds or in their fur. This can encourage flies to lay their eggs on the rabbit – these eggs will then hatch out into maggots that will effectively start to eat the rabbit alive. This horrible condition, known as fly strike, is often fatal yet is preventable with good hygiene, careful checking and preventative medication. Sadly, although we normally talk about it as a problem of rabbits, it is also seen in any other species where there is poor hygiene or open wounds, and I have seen it in far too many animals in the height of the fly season, including incontinent dogs and injured cats.
If it is possible I would also try to check your pets’ ears, looking for any unpleasant smell or abnormal discharge and their eyes, again looking for any abnormal discharge, squinting or discolouration. You can often do this while they focus on a biscuit or a treat. Well natured pets may let you look at their teeth (or you may catch a glimpse of them when they are eating!) but owners often struggle to examine their pet’s mouths. Things that may indicate a problem with your pets’ mouth are an interest in food followed by a reluctance to actually eat, trouble eating certain foods, weight loss, drooling, a bad smell from their mouth or a reduction in their own grooming such that their coat becomes matted or dull.
Finally, I would finish by regularly checking your pets feet. Claws can be a problem in all species – especially when pets get older and exercise less such that their claws get less natural wear. I have seen a number of animals presented for lameness, where the cause has turned out to be their claws growing round into their pads. It can be tricky to trim your pets’ nails at home, but most vet practices will have someone who is willing to help you with this for a fraction of the discomfort or cost involved with an ingrowing claw. At this time of year I would also check your dogs after every walk to make sure they haven’t got any grass seed stuck between their toes. If left, these can burrow under the skin causing an abscess which is intensely irritating. Just a few minutes when you get home may enable you to remove the seeds before they get that far.
So in essence that was a quick top to toe check list that all of us can do with our pets in the comfort of our own home. Remember if you do find something, don’t panic – it may not be serious and whatever it is you will have helped your pet by identifying it sooner rather than later. Equally, remember that you know your pet better than anyone else, and as such are often the best judge of when something is wrong – you should never be worried that a problem is too insignificant to mention.