Taking your dog for their annual veterinary exam is an important part of ensuring their immediate and long term health. We understand that going to the vet's office can be confusing and stressful for you and your pet. A little bit of advance planning can help you minimize the stress and maximize the benefit of the limited time you get to talk with your vet care team about how your dog is doing.
Pre-visit Information to think about
Before your appointment make a list of updates and questions you want to discuss with your vet. This article by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker is an excellent writeup of everything you want to know about an annual exam. Below is her thorough list of questions you should be prepared to answer on a paper intake form or in a discussion with your vet during the exam. If your vet doesn't ask you these questions, you should still share your answers and offer any observations of changes or concerns you have about your dog.
What has your pet been eating the last 6 months (what brand and type of protein; if you’re feeding a homemade diet, what recipe are you following)?
How much food is your pet eating a day, and what’s the brand and number of treats?
Have you noticed a change in your pet’s appetite or food intake? A weight gain or loss?
What type/brand of chew toys, recreational toys or bones do you provide and how often?
What’s your pet’s daily exercise routine?
Have you noticed a change in your pet’s activity or energy level?
Any limping or stiffness noticed?
Have you noticed any changes in your pet’s urination or defecation habits? Any potty accidents in the house? Any change in stool consistency or vomiting?
Have you noticed a change in your pet’s breathing or are they coughing?
Is your pet drinking any more than usual?
How often are you brushing your pet’s teeth? Have you noticed mouth odor?
Do you think your pet’s vision has changed in the last 6 months?
How well do you think your pet can hear?
Have you removed any ticks or other parasites from your pet since your last visit?
Is your pet shedding, licking or scratching more than normal?
What household and yard chemicals are your pet exposed to on a regular basis?
Is your pet sleeping through the night? Any restlessness, vocalizing or personality changes?
Any behavior changes, or changes in interaction with you/your family?
Any major household changes since your last visit (new house, new job/schedule, new baby, etc.)?
Has your pet been to the ER for an unexpected problem since your last visit?
Any unexpected slips, trips or falls? Knuckling or stumbling?
What medications and supplements are you giving your pet?
Have you noticed anything new or different that is concerning to you in the last 6 months?
You may also want to make a list of questions you want to directly ask the vet. The following are some general suggestions:
Is my dog a healthy weight? If not, what do you recommend?
Does my dog need their teeth cleaned?
I have noticed X (observations from answers to questions above) about my pet. Is that normal and if not what are the next steps?
Did you notice anything out of the normal/were there any concerns?
Are there any tests that are needed to establish/check on the baseline of my dog?
Where can I learn more about any findings/conditions/diseases that might be an issue?
Can you give me a monetary estimate for any care needed beyond the annual exam?
Does your dog truly get so stressed at the vet's office that they become difficult to handle or examine? If so, then you may want to ask your vet whether they recommend a prescription medicine like Trazodone that you can give your dog a few hours before their annual exam to help them be calm and more manageable so your veterinarian can effectively examine and palpate them.
What to Expect at the Office
There are a few things that are typically covered during your dog's annual exam, like an overall hands on physical exam and sometimes diagnostic or lab tests.
Head to Toe Exam
A head to toe exam will look at:
The article mentioned above by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker also offers a very thorough list of all the things your vet will be looking for in each of these areas. Look through this list in advance and see if you notice anything you want to be sure your vet is aware of.
As your vet goes through this exam on your dog don't be shy about asking them to talk you through what they are examining and any findings they may have. It is important for you to know this information so you can monitor for changes during the coming year until your next vet visit. Drastic changes in any of these areas may warrant a vet visit sooner than their next annual wellness exam.
Common Diagnostic Tests:
Heartworm - Dogs are required to be retested every year before a vet can prescribe their next year's worth of heartworm prevention medication. This is because giving the medication to a dog that is actively infected with heartworm can kill them. (Learn more in our previous blog about vaccines and preventatives)
Bloodwork - Many vets like to run annual blood tests on dogs, especially as they get older, with dogs 7 years and older are typically considered seniors. It is recommended to establish a baseline while your dog is healthy and in it's prime, somewhere in their middle age (this age can vary depending on the typical lifespan for your breed). This baseline is important, because although there are averages for dogs in general, but it is often changes from "normal" (either your dog's or clinically established parameters) that suggest there might be a problem. Blood work is one of the best ways for vets to catch emerging diseases and conditions early.
Often a Complete Blood Count (CBC) or a blood chemistry panel is recommend to establish a baseline or if there are potential concerns. In short, the CBC measures the types of cells, red and white blood cells, platelets, etc. and a blood chemistry panel measures compounds that circulate in the blood. This website does a good job breaking down what is often included in these tests, what they might be looking at, and what abnormal results might suggest is an issue. Typically when you receive the tests back, the normal parameters will be listed for each item that was tested for. Once these test results are sent back to you, be sure to ask your vet to help you understand the meaning of the results, if they have any concerns, and/or if they have seen any negative trends in results compared to previous tests for your dog. Many vets will also run specific bloodwork tests for senior dogs designed to catch signs of common senior health concerns.
Urinalysis - If your dog's normal patterns of peeing have changed at all (i.e they are urinating in the house, they are struggling to urinate or seem to be in pain, they are dribbling urine in the house or while they sleep, etc.), this is something that might help the vet determine the cause of the issue(s) and best plan of treatment.
Fecal exam - if your dog struggles with consistent GI issues (runny or loose stools, diarrhea, constipation) your vet may want to run a fecal exam to try to determine the cause of abnormal bowel movements and, again, most effective treatment for it.
You are your dogs's best advocate and closest observer day in, day out. You can provide your veterinarian with important insights and helpful information to be able to give your dog the care they deserve. Take the time to make a list of your answers to the questions first mentioned in this article as well as any other observations you have made. Write out the questions you have for your vet to make sure you cover everything you want to during a visit. Build a good relationship with your vet to make sure you can ask thoughtful questions and understand what they are telling you about your dog, so ultimately they get what they need to be healthy and happy. Remember that you and your veterinarian are a team working together to come up with the best care plan for your dog, so continue to stay engaged with the what, how, and why of health care for your dog.