Pet emergency preparedness: Part 3

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Knowing how to do a basic physical exam on your pet can be extremely valuable in an emergency situation. Practice the exam while your pet is healthy! That way, if an emergency occurs, you can quickly and easily recognize abnormalities.

First, look at your pet from a distance. Take note of posture, gait, breathing, and activity level.  Evaluate muscle development and symmetry. Can you see the outline of the ribs, spine, or cheekbones?   Changes in any of these findings from your pet’s “normal” can indicate a problem.

Then, do a thorough nose-to-tail evaluation. The nose should be moist and clean. Dryness or cracking may indicate an underlying problem.  Discharge or blood from the nose may indicate severe disease.

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Lift your pet’s lip and look at the gums. The gums should be pink (unless darkly pigmented) and moist. Apply pressure with the tip of your finger, then release. The time it takes for the pink color to return is called the “capillary refill time,” and should be less than two seconds. If the capillary refill time is prolonged, or if the gums are dry, pale, or purple, your pet should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

The eyes should be bright, moist, clear, and symmetrical. The pupils should be the same size, and should constrict (get smaller) equally in response to bright light. Unequal pupils, or pupils that do not constrict in response to light, may indicate neurologic disease. The whites of the eyes should be free of red or yellow discoloration, and should only have a few visible blood vessels. 

The ears should be clean, dry, and odor-free. Notice your pet’s ear carriage, since changes in ear position may indicate injury or infection.

Evaluate your pet’s breathing. It should be difficult to hear individual breaths unless your pet is panting.  The chest wall should move up and down easily. Unusual noise or increased respiratory effort indicate a problem.

Starting behind the ribs, gently feel your pet’s belly. Any lumps or masses may be abnormal.  Groaning or difficulty breathing when pressure is placed on the abdomen may indicate a serious problem.

Test your pet’s skin turgor by pulling the skin over the back or neck into a tent shape, then quickly releasing it. The skin should quickly return to its normal position. If the skin stays tented, or if it takes a long time to return to its normal position, your pet may be suffering from dehydration.

Look at your pet’s legs and tail for any signs of injury or loss of function. Dragging of the legs or inability to lift the tail may indicate a serious injury. Look under the tail and make sure it is clean and dry.  The presence of blood or feces is abnormal.

Write down your findings and keep them with your emergency pet supplies. Knowing your pet’s normal physical exam findings will help you decide if and when to seek veterinary care, and may save your pet’s life in case of an emergency.

Dr. Kellly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at