The short answer? Yes. In my humble opinion the physical exam is one of the most important parts of the vet visit. Why, you ask? All the doctor is doing is petting my pet, maybe lifting their lip? What can the physical exam really do? We cannot communicate directly with our patients, we needs their owner’s interpretation of what is going on and then we need to physically see and feel what is happening.
The best example in my career is a 10 year old dog that came in for a Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine booster. I remember the owner asking when making the appointment if they really needed an exam, “It’s just a vaccine visit” he said. I let him know that we always want to make sure a pet is healthy enough to receive the vaccination. Fast forward to the exam, the doctor I was working with was feeling the dog’s belly and suddenly got the “Oh No” look on his face. He felt an abdominal mass. We ended up not doing the Bordetella vaccination, scheduled an ultrasound and discovered a cancerous tumor on the bladder. The tumor was removed and the dog lived for about 10 months until another mass was found. The dog had just had a full exam just 6 months prior to finding the first tumor, if we had not done an exam he may not have made it those 10 months.
In a case that I was discussing with a fellow technician a dog presented for itchy skin. While doing the exam the doctor felt a lump on the back of the neck. X-rays were done and it turned out to be a very large Mast Cell Tumor (cancer). It was removed and the dog did well after surgery, but the mass was under tissue that made it more difficult to really feel unless you knew what you were looking for, most owners would assume that it was just a normal fat pad.
In the physical exam, Doctors get an idea of general health of your pet. They can assess dental disease, hydration status, they can feel for lumps and bumps both on the skin and in the abdomen. They listen to the heart, and determine whether it is a normal rhythm, they can also hear heart murmurs. Without an exam of the leg it is nearly impossible to really tell where pain is and where we need to focus our x-ray beam on to get a proper “picture” to assess the bones and joints.
At home, I am constantly doing my own exams on all 3 critters, on a daily basis. That way I know when a new lump or bump crops up, or notice when their ears are dirty, or they have a problem with a tooth. Physical exams are extremely important, and I encourage you to do your own checks at home, but then schedule yearly (twice yearly with pets over the age of 8 years) physical exams with your Veterinarian.
Remember that YOU and you alone are your pet’s number one advocate! Do everything you can to make sure they live a happy, healthy life!!