How to Give Your Pet a Health Check

What constitutes an emergency for animal owners and guardians is always relative; for example one night I had a phone call from a little old lady very concerned because she had found a knot in her dog Daisy’s coat and urgently wanted to have her seen to remove it! The other extreme is the scenario where we get a phone call late at night “My dog’s been vomiting for two weeks and has collapsed this morning, can I bring him in?”!

An astute animal owner knows when their animal is compromised and will often be able to associate an earlier experience with this insight eg. The dog who has eaten a rotting carcass and is off their food and vomiting or the dog that jumped off a great height the day before and is now limping.

Having a good working knowledge of what signs to look for to determine if your pet’s health is at risk is a very helpful investment. Observing your pet’s behaviour from a distance is the first step.

Things to look out for include free flowing movement with no lameness or sign of discomfort, a bright and alert demeanour, they’re not acting out of character (e.g: A dog that loves to chase his ball and is just lying in the corner not keen is an indication that something is wrong), eating and drinking as well as peeing and pooping normally – consistency and frequency – bloody pee may indicate a trauma, a growth or bladder stones, peeing frequently could indicate infection, hormonal imbalances or organ damage and different coloured poop can be indicative of a variety of things. Us vets are fascinated with these details as they provide many clues to various problems. Yes, we’re a strange bunch, did you know that vets are the only doctors who eat their patients!?!?

The next step is a hands on health check. Getting your pet used to having this done from an early age, by practicing at home at least twice a week, can help you to pick up problems early on and prepare your pet for a veterinary examination, which can be stressful if they sick or sore and are not used to being examined. When performing a health check it’s wise to work in a systematic manner to ensure a thorough check. It’s useful to begin at the head and work your way backwards.


Ensure that they are open (as opposed to half closed which may indicate pain), bright and clear of discharge (watery, green, yellow or mucous white), that there is no redness or inflammation around them and that there’s nothing inside them for example a seed or hair. This is important in toy breeds that often have hairs hanging into their eyes and cause irritation. A little bit of “sleep” (caked debris) found in the corners of a dog or cat’s eyes, especially first thing in the morning, may be considered normal but I usually find that by feeding a diet with a wholesome diet including natural goodness and optimal amounts of important nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and anti-oxidants reduces the occurrence substantially.


Look inside the ear canal for any sign of wax, debris or discharge. A browny wax is sometimes present indicating a yeast infection (a bug called Mallasezia). If there’s a green or yellow discharge, get your pet to the vet as there’s most likely a severe infection underway. It usually pays to give the ears a good sniff as a putrid smell will often be present before some infections become visible, one of the reasons being that a cat and dogs’ ear canal is very long (much longer than a humans)… It has both a vertical ear canal and narrower internal horizontal ear canal. Usually a dog or cat will scratch at their ears or rub them frequently on the ground if they are bothering them.

For pets that are prone to ear problems, having their ears regularly cleaned with a good ear cleaner (available for your vet or use a simple solution such as a 1% dilution of Hydrogen peroxide, but ensure that your animal’s ear drum is intact with a visit to your vet) can be an excellent preventative aid. By instilling a generous amount into the ear and massaging the ear canal to ideally hear the “squish” noise that the liquid makes, debris will be loosened and most animals really enjoy the rub as it relieves their irritation immensely. Because of the great length of the ear canals, just wiping the visible outer ear simply doesn’t do enough to keep ears clean.


Ensure that there is no discharge from the nostrils and there’s no redness or inflammation, crustiness or changes in pigment of the nose. It is perfectly normal for the nose to change from wet to dry and cold to warm all in the course of a few hours. A warm nose can reflect a fever, especially if your pet is a lethargic or acting out of character.


A very valuable tool to indicate health is the gum colour, which should be a salmon pink and not pale or purple.  Another invaluable aid that reflects good circulation and hydration status is called the capillary refill time (CRT). Identify a part of the gum which is pink, ideally above the canine teeth. Use a thumb to press it briefly with some light pressure. It will momentarily turn white and should turn pink again within two seconds. If this time is delayed beyond this then there is likely to be a serious problem.

Get your pet used to having their mouth opened and inspected. Examine their gums for redness, receding gums, rotten or broken teeth and objects that may be stuck like fur and even bones. Feeding raw bones is a fabulous aid to preserving dental health but cooked bones are to be avoided as they easily splinter, get stuck and are difficult to digest. Use raw bones that are too big to swallow whole and can be chewed or bones like chicken necks that are generally too small to get stuck.

One of my favourite “quick fixes” for an animal is to dislodge a stick or a bone splinter stuck in their mouth as it provides such instant relief! I once had a call asking if a client could please bring their dog in as it had a bone stuck in its mouth. I was looking forward to seeing the dog and experiencing the rewarding process but was incredibly surprised to see what walked through the door… this dog (a middle sized cross breed named “Munchie”!) had been chewing on a big pelvic bone and had managed to get the hole in the pelvis wedged firmly around his lower jaw making him look ridiculous with this huge bone firmly attached to his head.

We anaesthetised him but couldn’t pry the bone off his jaw, and I ended up having to saw it off! Once complete, I reversed his anaesthetic and Munchie trotted out the door somewhat lighter and of course tail wagging!


Running your hands gently but firmly over the rest of your pet’s body will help you to detect any lumps or sore areas. They will love the contact and it is a wonderful idea to integrate some massage to help make the health check a pleasant experience for your pooch.

Observe the texture and appearance of their coat. A healthy coat should shine and feel smooth and silky as opposed to dry and brittle. Ensure that there are no skin issues like scabs, pustules, rashes, whelts or areas of bleeding.

Limbs and Paws

Gently flexing and extending each joint (the carpus or wrist, elbow, shoulder, tarsus or hock, knee and hip) is useful to help pick up injuries or arthritis. Pain or the feeling of clicking or crunching in a joint may indicate arthritis.

A thorough paw examination is of wonderful assistance to us vets who sometimes struggle to explore a paw that is infected or inflamed. Look for thorns, seeds, pieces of glass, lumps, redness and discharge between the pads as well as check the nails to ensure that they are not overgrown. The correct length is easily visible in cats and dogs with white claws as you may easily see the quick (the sensitive nail bed which is the tender pink area) and about 1 mm of nail growth beyond it so that the nails line up approximately level with the foot pads on the floor. If they extend beyond this then a nail trim may be needed.

Don’t forget to check your pet’s dew claws (if they have them as some dogs are born without them and some breeders prefer to have them removed when they’re pups). These are the 5th toe (like a humans’ thumb) on the inside of the foot about half way up to the carpus or wrist. Because these claws don’t make contact with the ground and aren’t regularly worn down they may easily overgrow, sometimes curling backwards and into the skin which is painful!