Veterinarians train for years to gain the knowledge and skills to care for pets. One of the first and most important concepts they learn is the art of a good physical examination, which provides foundational knowledge about a pet’s health. Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers team members perform comprehensive physical examinations on every pet every time, so we never miss an important change or clue. Here, we answer the most fundamental questions about physical examinations—the who, what, when, why, and how—to help pet owners understand their value.

Who performs physical examinations on pets?

Veterinarians are trained to perform complete physical examinations, which they do on pets many times per day. Over time, most veterinarians develop a process that ensures they don’t miss any details, and they gain more experience in detecting subtle ailments. Veterinary support staff, especially credentialed veterinary technicians, are also trained to assess a pet’s overall condition. Like physicians and nurses, veterinarians and technicians work together to detect changes in a pet’s behavior, attitude, and overall condition, but only a veterinarian can diagnose disease or assign prognoses.

What can a physical examination reveal about my pet’s health?

A physical examination, alone or combined with diagnostic tests, helps veterinarians diagnose many common medical conditions. Because you see your pet every day, you may not notice gradual changes, but your veterinarian will. Common conditions diagnosed on physical examination include the following:

The exam also provides clues about internal health and helps your veterinarian choose the diagnostic tests that will most benefit your pet, including tests for wellness screenings or sick pets.

When are physical examinations performed on pets?

Your veterinary team will perform a physical examination on your pet each time they come in for care, except technician-only visits or certain progress checks. Examples of situations where a physical examination is necessary include the following:

  • Puppy and kitten visits
  • Adult wellness visits
  • Sick visits
  • Urgent or emergency care visits
  • Daily hospitalized pet assessments
  • Pre-surgery evaluations

Why do pets need physical examinations?

The physical examination is the foundation of a veterinary visit and consultation. Without the exam, your pet’s medical team cannot make any meaningful conclusions about health. The pet owner’s report of their pet’s history and problems provides clues about the pet’s issues, but the veterinary team must first confirm the problem before they can prescribe treatments. 

Pet owners sometimes become frustrated when they are asked to come in for a seemingly minor issue rather than the veterinarian simply refilling a previous prescription, but this can be harmful. For example, a pet with a suspected ear infection could have a ruptured eardrum and skipping the exam and refilling the previous medication for the infection, when the eardrum was intact, could cause the pet permanent hearing loss. For many similar reasons, a physical examination is always the first step.

How do veterinarians perform a physical examination?

Most veterinarians learn in school to perform a total body system review and to always perform each step in the same order. Nose-to-tail is the most popular method, but each veterinarian develops their own process. The key is to perform each exam the same way, so nothing gets missed. Here are the main components of a routine examination:

  • Body temperature
  • Observation of attitude, gait, mental status, and behavior
  • Basic vital signs, including pain status
  • Weight and body condition assessment
  • Eye and ear examination
  • Teeth and oral cavity examination
  • Gum color and capillary refill time assessment
  • Lymph node size and shape assessment
  • Skin and coat condition assessment
  • Lump check
  • Heart and lung auscultation
  • Abdominal organ palpation
  • Orthopedic evaluation

During a complete examination, the veterinary team uses simple but effective tools, including an ophthalmoscope for the eyes, an otoscope for the ears, a stethoscope for the heart and lungs, and a rectal thermometer to take a temperature. But, the veterinarian’s hands, which are skilled at detecting abnormalities, are the most important tool. 

Physical examinations are most valuable when our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers veterinarians see your pet regularly, which allows us to track and notice subtle changes over time and intervene earlier. Find a location near you to schedule your pet’s next routine wellness exam, or for an appointment any time you have any concerns about your furry pal’s health.