What Happens at Your Dog's Annual Checkup?
You probably get a reminder from your veterinarian's office every year saying that it's time for your dog's annual wellness exam. But what exactly is this vet visit all about? Just as humans should visit their doctors for routine health checkups, it's recommended that dogs see the vet on a regular basis for physical examinations.
An annual wellness exam is a veterinary checkup for a healthy dog. There are a number of things the vet looks at, and it's all about keeping your dog healthy. Here's what to expect from this yearly appointment.
Why Do Dogs Need Regular Checkups?
Most of us know that we should see our doctors for a yearly physical, but we may procrastinate because we feel well. However, dogs don't always show signs of illness, even if they're feeling out of sorts. A physical exam can reveal things to your vet that you might not notice at home, allowing the vet to intervene before your dog becomes really sick. It also gives you and your vet a chance to chat about your dog's preventive care on a regular basis.
According to the AAHA-AVMA Canine Preventive Healthcare Guidelines, every dog should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year. Your vet may recommend more frequent visits depending on your dog's age and overall health. Most vets suggest senior dogs see their vet every six months. Dogs with chronic health conditions may need to go even more often.
What To Bring to Your Dog's Annual Exam
With a little preparation, your dog's annual vet visit can be fairly simple. Many dogs enjoy the vet's office because they get treats and attention. If your dog is anxious at the vet or tends to get car sick, ask your vet about medications or supplements that you can give in advance.
Your dog should be on a leash or in a travel crate until you enter the exam room. Vet offices typically require pets to be restrained for everyone's safety. Keep your dog close to you in the lobby—you don't know what other animals will be there and how they might react to your dog.
Other things to bring to your dog's appointment include:
- Your dog's favorite treats (unless the vet instructed your dog to fast)
- A list of questions for the vet
- Details about your dog's diet
- Any medications or supplements your dog gets
- Veterinary records if your dog has been seen by another vet within the past year
- A fresh stool sample, if possible
What Happens During a Dog Wellness Exam?
An exam may look like a brief once-over, but your veterinarian is actually inspecting your dog from nose to tail. A vet can discover a lot about a dog's health during an exam, including subtle signs of illness that you may not notice at home.
Your dog will be weighed, and you'll both be escorted to an exam room. A veterinary technician or assistant may ask some questions about your dog at home, including appetite, diet, medications, potty habits, and overall behavior. They may check your dog's body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Because body temperature is measured with a rectal thermometer, this may be skipped if your dog is especially nervous.
A physical examination involves observation and inspection, palpation (feeling parts of the body), and auscultation (listening with a stethoscope). Each veterinarian tends to have their own routine for exams, but many will begin at the head and work their way back, carefully checking each area of the body.
The vet will begin by observing your dog's overall appearance. They'll be looking for anything abnormal and assessing a few key aspects of your dog's appearance:
- Body condition: To determine if your dog is at a healthy weight
- Level of consciousness (mentation): To ensure your dog is alert and responsive
- Gait and posture: The vet may watch your dog walk briefly to look for limping, weakness, or instability
- Hydration: The vet will check the skin's elasticity to ensure your dog is not dehydrated
Head and Neck
The vet will examine your dog's face and 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. Using a tool with a special light called an ophthalmoscope, the vet will check the structures inside the eye. A similar tool called an otoscope (light with a small cone) will be used to look into the ear canals.
The vet will look at your dog's mouth and teeth for signs of dental problems and make sure the tissues in the mouth appear normal. They'll also feel the lymph nodes, salivary glands, and trachea.
The vet will also manipulate the head and neck to evaluate range of motion and to make sure your pup is not experiencing pain.
Body and Limbs
The vet will now move to your dog's body, checking for masses, asymmetry, and pain or tenderness. They'll palpate the spine, pelvis, and lymph nodes. They'll flex and extend the limbs to feel for stiffness, clicking, popping, or crackling. They'll also inspect the paws, nails, and skin. Arthritis, skin conditions, and external parasites (such as fleas) may be found during this part of the exam.
Heart and Lungs
Using a stethoscope, the vet will listen to both sides of the heart and lungs for issues like a heart murmur, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), or abnormal lung sounds such as crackles or wheezing. They'll also record your dog's heart rate and respiratory rate.
The vet will visually check this area for enlargement, bruising, or other abnormalities. Then, they'll palpate the abdomen to feel the liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and bladder. The vet may also use a stethoscope to listen to the abdomen and evaluate motility.
This part might not be your dog's favorite, but the vet needs to take a quick look at the area around the anus and the penis or vulva. They'll check for discharge, swelling, masses, anal sac problems, and other issues.
Your veterinarian will discuss the results and inform you if they've found anything that needs to be addressed. If your dog is in good health, they'll give any vaccinations that are due.
Certain routine wellness tests are recommended at least once a year for most dogs. These include:
- Fecal analysis to check for intestinal parasites
- Heartworm test (this is needed even if prevention is current)
- Tick-borne disease screening
The vet might recommend additional lab work, especially if your dog is a senior or if there are any issues found on the exam. Lab tests may include:
- Complete blood count to evaluate blood cells
- Blood chemistry to look for metabolic issues and organ diseases
- 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 notices an issue during the exam.
Finally, your vet will 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 professional insight into canine nutrition, behavior, home care, and more.
How Much Does a Wellness Exam Cost for a Dog
The average cost for a veterinary wellness exam is about $50, but this varies by region. It's important to understand that the exam fee only covers the physical exam and veterinary consultation. It does not include vaccines, lab work, products, or additional services.
When all is said and done, a dog's annual visit typically costs about $200-500 (or even more if you need products or additional tests). If you're on a tight budget, ask the veterinary staff for an estimate in advance—your vet will try to work with you as long as you make them aware of your needs.