How to Identify a Healthy Pet: Intake and Daily Exams
By Genete M. Bowen
Animals can’t talk. They can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling well…I might need medical attention.’ So it is up to us to figure it out. That means that we, as animal owners, care givers, groomers, etc., must be able to ascertain a deviation from the norm.
The best way to be able to spot a potential problem is to know what constitutes a healthy animal. By establishing a baseline, it is then possible to tell if a pet’s health is off kilter. Though animals can’t talk, their bodies can divulge a wealth of information that can be revealed with a healthy pet check.
The best way to evaluate an animal is by performing a head–to–tail assessment, and by knowing what is normal for pets in your care.
Head–To–Tail Assessment on a Dog or Cat
I believe that thoroughly assessing an animal is as important to their wellbeing as proper nutrition, exercise and love. The head–to–tail assessment can be given like a massage, but with a little more attention to various parts of the body. Learn to identify the normal signs of the body, because animals are stoic and want to please, you may not realize what’s going on with them until it’s too late.
For pet professionals, this will only make you a better caretaker by adding an assessment into your daily routine. When you’re doing an assessment, look for areas that are hot, cold, swollen or painful, or for any distinct changes to the animal’s body which could be a sign of infection or illness.
I like to begin by giving the animal a little massage, then check the eyes and work my way down to the feet. A healthy eye should be bright, should have no tearing, no redness around the white of the eye, and the third eyelid should not be protruding outward. There should not be any glazing or discoloration over the eye, except in the case of a cataract on an aging pet. Check the mucus membrane of the eyes to see if the animal is getting enough oxygen to the organs, like the heart and brain, by gently pulling down the eyelid. The mucus membrane on a healthy animal’s eye should appear pink in color.
Lift the ears and check to see that there is no odor. A healthy pet’s ear should have a pinkish hue and should not have any discharge or yeast buildup, sensitivity or heat radiation. I recommend regularly checking and periodically cleaning an animal’s ears to prevent infection. Some pets are more prone to yeast buildup and ear infections than others.
A nose on a healthy pet should be slightly moist to the touch and be free of cracks or missing skin. We all know wrinkles come with age; so older animals may have some slight cracking.
• Gums and Teeth
The gums should be moist and have no swelling or bleeding. Healthy gums should have minimal plaque buildup around the teeth. The gums are windows directly to the body’s organs, so neglecting to take care of an animal’s teeth can result in a shorter lifespan.
The teeth should not be abscessed, loose or broken, like slab fractures where a piece of the tooth has been sheared off and can expose a nerve. There should also be no strong smell to the pet’s breath. A sweet acetone smell to the breath can signify there might be an issue with the kidneys.
Animals’ gums should look pink in color. Examine the mucus membrane of the mouth by checking the capillary refill time (CRT) to see if the pet is getting ample oxygen supply to the brain, heart and body’s vital organs. Press a finger on the gum line and then quickly release. A healthy pet’s gums will turn white with the direct pressure and should bounce right back to their pink color within one to two seconds. However, the CRT test is ineffective on animals that have purple or dark-colored gums, so look to the mucus membranes of the eyes in this case.
• Spine & Tail
The spine begins at the occipital ridge, which is the boney protuberance at the top of the head. Assessment of the spine starts at the occipital ridge and continues down the vertebrae to the tail. I recommend using your thumbs on opposite sides of the spine to get evenly distributed pressure from the top of the head toward the tail with small, circular massage movements, working down the spinal column.
A healthy animal’s spine should be straight with no lumps or divots. There should be no pain or variation in temperature to the touch, which might indicate a ruptured disc. As you lift the pet’s tail, there should be no pain to the area and no scaling or sloughing off of skin and hair. Pay special attention to dogs with long backs and short limbs, such as Dachshunds, Bassett Hounds and Corgis, which can be more prone to back injuries.
Spread your hands around the ribcage with your thumbs on the spine and feel that the ribs are smooth with no swelling in between each rib. This can also be performed on the head and along the connecting joints of the spine, checking the shoulder girdle and the hip region.
• Skin & Coat
The skin and coat are the identifiers of a healthy animal and will sometimes show signs of disease sooner than any other part of the body. Unhealthy skin and coat could be evidence of improper nutrition or illness. A pet’s coat should be clean and shiny, not produce a foul odor, and be free of hot spots, bald patches or abscesses. However, as animals age they can develop saggy skin or age spots and discoloration.
According to holistic medicine, if there are a lot of skin issues on the left side of the body, such as hot spots, it could mean that there is something amiss with that animal’s colon. For the right side of the pet, it might mean that there is a problem with the small intestines.
Do an overall view of the skin and coat and assess the hydration through the skin’s elasticity. By gently lifting and pulling on the skin, you can see if it bounces right back. The skin of a healthy animal shouldn’t stay tented up, because that can mean they are having internal problems. The main place to check is at the nape of the neck, but you can do this test all over the coat of the pet by performing a light massage.
• Lymph Glands
Cancer is the number one killer in pets, so it’s important to be able to identify the lymph glands so that you can be alerted to any changes and possibly catch an early onset of this deadly disease. In dogs and cats, there are six different lymph glands throughout the body. You should be able to softly palpate the glands, and on a healthy animal, they shouldn’t be enlarged or painful. Lightly check all the glands as you are doing your head-to-tail assessment, most of them are superficial and easy to feel.
Lightly palpate the stomach without applying strong pressure. If the animal is overweight though, you will have to apply a firmer touch. A healthy pet’s belly should feel soft and firm, but not swollen nor hard which could indicate a blockage.
The anal area should be free of debris or swelling, and shouldn’t produce a prominent odor. The anal glands are located at ten and two o’clock on the anus and have to be expressed periodically as they become filled. An impacted anal gland can cause infection or tumors. Some animal’s anal glands fill up faster than others. The anus should also never be open, which can signify an injury to the lower half of the spine.
• Legs & Feet
Massage all the joints on the legs and feet and make sure there are no areas of pain, heat, cold or that something feels out of place. The foot pads of a healthy animal should not be cracked or torn and free of scaling. Nails, which should be trimmed to a healthy length, should be checked for wear patterns. If the middle toes are wearing more than the outer toes, it can signify that there could be a problem with the spinal vertebrae.
• Temperature, Breathing & Pulse
Knowing what the normal range of vital signs for a healthy animal is and how to take them is important to include in your assessment. A healthy temperature for a dog or cat ranges from 100 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. But you should know what a pet’s normal temperature is so that if it fluctuates, you know that something is changing in their body.
You can take a pet’s temperature yourself either with a pet ear thermometer or by using a rectal thermometer coated with lubricant, and by restraining the animal with a hug. Use one hand to support the animal and the other to apply the thermometer. Always keep a hand on the thermometer because it could be lost inside the anus or break.
To check the breathing, lay your hand across the widest part of the ribcage and listen to the chest rise and fall and count the number of breaths. A healthy dog’s breathing rate should fall between 10 to 30 breaths per minute. For a cat, a normal rate would be 20 to 30 breaths per minute. Again, knowing what is normal for a pet will help to differentiate when things change.
Check the pulse of a pet at the femoral artery, which is the most prominent pulse on the body, and is located where the hind legs meet the body wall in the groin region. Use two or three fingers, but not the thumb, which can register your own pulse. Place them lightly against the femoral artery to take the animal’s pulse rate.
A healthy pulse for a cat is 160 to 220 beats per minute, whereas for dogs, it differs by the age and weight of the animal. A normal pulse for a puppy, less than a year of any breed, should be between 120 to 160 beats per minute. Dogs under 30 lbs. should have a pulse ranging between 100 to 140 peats per minute, while dogs over 30 lbs. should range at 60 to 100 beats per minute.
By performing a head–to–tail assessment as a part of your regular care routine, you will be alerted to changes in a pet’s health, and by catching things early before they become serious, you can help to lengthen the life of an animal—which will earn you major credit as a pet care professional and as a business.