Here's What Happens at Your Cat's Annual Vet Visit
An annual wellness exam is a checkup for a healthy cat, and it's an important part of keeping your cat healthy. When your vet does a wellness exam, it might just look like a simple once-over, but there are actually some pretty important things being checked. Here's what you can expect from this once-a-year appointment.
Why Do Cats Need Annual Checkups?
It's kind of a universal rule that humans, dogs, and cats should all be seen by their doctors on a regular basis. But while we may put off our own annual physicals because we "feel just fine," cats can't report their own symptoms, so we humans need to be on the lookout for health concerns.
Felines typically hide signs of illness as long as possible—it's a survival instinct. Fortunately, a veterinary physical exam can reveal abnormalities you can't detect at home. In many cases, health issues can be found during the examination before they become serious.
The AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines state that adult cats should be examined at least once a year and senior cats (age 10 and up) should visit the vet every six months. Additional visits may be needed for cats with chronic health conditions, so talk to your veterinarian to develop the best plan for your individual cat.
What to Bring to Your Cat's Wellness Exam
Proper preparation can help make kitty's annual vet visit go smoothly. If your cat gets stressed in the car or at the vet (like many cats do), ask your vet about cat-safe calming aids that you can give before leaving home. You may also consider using a pheromone product like Feliway in your cat's carrier or bring your cat's favorite treats (that said, many cats will be too worried to eat during a vet visit).
Transport your cat in a secure carrier or on a harness if he's comfortable and trained to walk on a leash. Vet offices typically require pets to be in carriers or on leashes for everyone's safety. Carrying your cat through the lobby is risky—you don't know what other animals will be in there and how they might behave.
Other things to bring to your cat's appointment include:
- A list of questions you have for the vet
- Information on your cat's diet
- Any medications or supplements your cat gets
- Veterinary records if your cat has been seen by another vet within the year
- A fresh stool sample, if possible
What Does a Vet Check During Your Cat's Wellness Exam?
Although it usually takes less than 10 minutes, your veterinarian is looking at your cat from head to tail. Vets can learn a lot about a cat's health with an exam, including early signs of illness that are not noticeable to you at home.
A veterinary technician or assistant will likely start the appointment by asking questions about your cat's appetite, diet, medications, litter box activity, and overall behavior. They will weigh your cat and possibly check his body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Body temperature is measured with a rectal thermometer, so this step may be skipped if your cat is particularly stressed out.
A physical exam includes observation/inspection, palpation (feeling parts of the body), and auscultation (listening with a stethoscope). Each veterinarian has their own routine when it comes to the exam process, but many will start at the head and work their way back, carefully checking each body part.
After briefly discussing your cat's history, the vet will observe his overall appearance to look for anything abnormal. They will evaluate a few key aspects of your cat's appearance:
- Body condition: To determine if your cat is at an appropriate weight.
- Level of consciousness (mentation): To ensure kitty is alert and responsive.
- Gait and posture: Your vet may watch your kitty walk for a moment to make sure there's no limping or unsteadiness.
- Hydration status: The vet will check the skin's elasticity to ensure your cat is not dehydrated.
Head and Neck
The vet will examine kitty's head to look for asymmetry, lumps, bumps, and other abnormalities. She'll also check the eyes, ears, and nose for discharge or anything else unusual. A tool with a special light called an ophthalmoscope is used to look at the structures inside the eye. The vet will then use an otoscope, which is a light with a small cone, to look into the ear canals.
The vet will examine your cat's mouth and teeth to check for dental disease and make sure the tissues in the mouth appear normal. She'll also palpate the salivary glands, lymph nodes, and trachea, and she'll feel for an enlarged thyroid gland.
The vet will also move the head and neck to assess the range of motion and to make sure the movement isn't painful for kitty.
Body and Limbs
Moving right along, the vet will look over your cat's body for abnormal growths, asymmetry, and pain or tenderness. This includes palpating the spine, pelvis, and lymph nodes, as well as manipulating the limbs. She'll also inspect the paws, nails, and skin. This part of the exam may reveal issues like arthritis, skin conditions, and external parasites such as fleas.
Heart and Lungs
The vet will then use a stethoscope to examine both sides of the heart and lungs in multiple places to obtain your cat's heart rate and respiratory rate. The vet is listening for a heart murmur, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), or abnormal lung sounds like crackles or wheezing.
After visually inspecting the area for enlargement, bruising, and other abnormalities, the vet will palpate the abdomen. This includes feeling the liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and bladder. Your vet may also listen to the abdomen with a stethoscope to evaluate motility.
Sorry kitty—now it gets personal! The vet needs to have a quick look at the area around the rectum and the penis or vulva to check for swelling, discharge, masses, anal sac issues, and other issues.
After (or sometimes during) the exam, your veterinarian will discuss findings and inform you of anything out of the ordinary. If your cat is healthy enough, vaccinations may be given, if due.
Lab work may be recommended, especially if your cat is a senior or if there are any issues found on the exam. Lab tests may include:
- Fecal analysis to check for intestinal parasites
- Heartworm test
- Feline leukemia test
- Feline immunodeficiency virus test
- Complete blood count to evaluate blood cells
- Blood chemistry to look for organ diseases and metabolic issues
- Urinalysis to assess bladder health and look for signs of kidney and liver issues
Additional diagnostics, such as X-rays and ultrasounds, may be recommended if your vet detects a problem during the exam.
Your vet will also discuss parasite prevention and refill prescriptions if needed. This is the time to make sure you've asked all your questions. Your vet can offer advice about nutrition, behavior, and home care.
How Much Is a Wellness Exam for a Cat?
The average cost for a veterinary wellness exam is about $50, but this varies by region. The exam fee covers the physical exam and veterinary consultation but does not include vaccines, lab work, products, or additional services. Keep this in mind when it's time for your cat's annual vet visit. You can ask the veterinary staff for an estimate up front if you have cost concerns—your vet will try to work within your budget as long as you make them aware of your needs.