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Diagnostic Exam Basics

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dog smiling during veterinary exam

Taking your cat or dog to the veterinarian is a major responsibility of being a pet parent. Although they should go at least once a year for their annual check-up, there are many reasons why you may need to visit the veterinarian more often.

Whether your pet is sick or had an accident, there’s a good chance that your veterinarian will want to run some tests to understand their current condition better. These diagnostic tests can include anything from urinalysis to bloodwork.

What To Expect at a Veterinary Visit

Before arriving at the office for your pet’s appointment, there are a few ways you can prepare. It’s quite helpful to the veterinarian if you have handy information such as any medication they are taking, what type of food they eat, and their medical records. If you continue to visit the same veterinarian, then some of this information may already be on file.

It's also possible that you’ll be asked about any changes in your dog or cat’s activity level, eating habits, sleeping schedule, and potty breaks, so taking a mental (or physical) note about these can be helpful. In addition to asking you some questions about your pet’s well-being, they will most likely also do a veterinary physical exam (opens new window) during the visit.

During these exams, your veterinarian will check your best pal’s teeth, eyes, ears, nose, weight, coat, and posture. With a stethoscope, they will also listen to your pet’s heart and lungs. Your pet’s veterinarian may also check your pet’s lymph nodes around their head and neck, their pulse, and feel around your pal’s abdomen, making sure everything feels normal and that your pet is not experiencing any discomfort. It’s also common practice to take your pet’s temperature.

If all appears well, you may not need to return for another appointment until next year. However, it’s not unusual for veterinarians to order a test so that they can double-check your pet’s condition.

In the case that you have a puppy or kitten, you can expect frequent visits for the first year, as this is when they receive their necessary shots, get spayed/neutered, and are monitored to make sure they are growing at a healthy rate. With senior pets, who can be prone to more health issues, you may also need to visit the veterinarian more often. This can be a precautionary step to keep a closer eye on their well-being and monitor any condition they may have.

In veterinary medicine, there are many acronyms and abbreviations that are often used. Learn some of the more common ones used.

dog receiving leg bandage after routine tests

Veterinary Diagnostic Tests

In a perfect world, pets would verbally be able to say how they feel or what is hurting, but of course, it isn’t quite that easy. In fact, some animals are notorious for being able to hide the fact that they are under the weather, and you’d never know something is wrong just by looking at them.

Because of this, diagnostic tests are invaluable in helping better diagnose and treat your pet. These tests give you an insight into what is happening with your pet’s internal health. The good news is that there is no reason for your pets or you to be apprehensive about these, as the most common veterinary diagnostic tests are not intrusive.

Common veterinary laboratory tests include:

  • Veterinary urine tests

    Some veterinarians may ask you to bring your pet’s sample into the appointment with you, or you can collect a sample right when you get to the office, before your appointment. A urine test can be helpful in many ways, including looking at kidney and bladder functions.

    When evaluating the sample, the color will be taken into consideration, as darker than normal could mean your pet is dehydrated, while lighter than usual could indicate an underlying health condition. In addition, a urine-specific gravity test may be used to determine the concentration. The pH level will also be tested, which will show how acidic or alkaline it is. When the levels become extreme on either end, this could mean that your pet has an infection or a metabolic disease. It’s possible that a chemical analysis will also be tested on the sample. This will look for the presence of various chemicals, such as glucose or ketones, and indicate how much of each is in the sample. Other tests can be performed to look at the sediment in the urine as well

  • Veterinary fecal tests

    This type of routine testing can be helpful in detecting parasites in your pet. Common parasites could include different types of worms (hookworm, ringworm, and whipworms) and microscopic parasites such as Giardia or Coccidia.

    These tests need to be performed on fresh samples, so you may need to have your pet use the potty right before you head out to their veterinary appointment.

  • Veterinary heartworm tests

    This relatively common test is simple to perform, generally through a regular blood test. Being diagnosed with heartworm disease can be a serious condition, as it could lead to congestive heart failure.

    There are two types of antigen tests for heartworm—one for adult heartworms and another for microfilariae.

  • Veterinarian neurological exam

    During a neurological exam, your veterinarian will check multiple points on the body, including your pet’s head, neck, back, front and back legs, tail, and gait. When evaluating the head, your veterinarian will consider any unusual head tilting or bobbing and whether your pet has experienced any seizures or uncharacteristic pacing. The position of the eyes will also be taken into consideration, along with any pupil constriction or nystagmus (involuntary, rapid eye movement).

    With their legs, your veterinarian may perform a series of mini tests where they move one leg and see how quickly your pet moves it back, they might have your pet sit or lay on one side, or they may partially pick up your pet to see how the other limbs bearing the weight react.

    All the while, your veterinarian will look to see if there’s visible muscle loss or if your pet is sensitive to touch in one area in particular, such as their neck, back or tail. By evaluating each of these, your veterinarian can, hopefully, better narrow down where the issue lies.

  • Veterinary PCR tests

    PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction. Veterinarians use these types of tests to detect the possible presence of bacteria, parasites, or a virus. Your veterinarian will need to draw blood or get a sample of your pet’s saliva or tissue for this test—something with their DNA.

  • Veterinary serology tests

    Serology tests are used to study and identify antibodies in bodily fluid or serum. When antibodies are present, this could be an indication that your pet has an infection. This type of test also requires a blood draw.

Some veterinarians may recommend that your pet get their bloodwork done at each check-up. This can be a more thorough way for them to keep track of your pet’s health. However, some pet parents may be hesitant since they worry it could hurt their pet, or they may view this as an unnecessary expense. By understanding the long list of information that can be acquired through one blood panel, you might change your mind about how important this quick test can be.

When visiting the veterinarian, many cats may become stressed, or your dog might show signs of anxiety. Thankfully, there are many ways in which you can help

Types of Veterinary Blood Tests

In addition to PCR and serology tests, it’s relatively common for your pet to have basic blood work (opens new window) done. This may also be referred to as a blood panel or complete blood count. Similar to people getting their blood drawn, with your pet, the process only takes a few seconds and feels like nothing more than a tiny pinch. If your pet seems nervous about getting their blood drawn, you can assist by holding them or petting them, but for many, just a little distraction from a favorite treat can be enough for them not to notice.

Through a small amount of blood taken, veterinarians are able to look at your pet’s red and white blood cells and platelets. With red blood cells, if the count is too low, this could indicate that your pet is anemic, while if they’re too high, it may mean that your pet is dehydrated.

With white blood cells, your veterinarian may look at the type and number of cells present and better determine a diagnosis. Your pet’s bloodwork can also be helpful in knowing their platelet count. This is incredibly important since a low platelet number could mean your pet may have blood clotting issues. In addition to this information, a blood panel can also give your veterinarian insight into the function of other organs, the electrolyte count, and blood sugar.

After your cat or dog has had their blood drawn, they often get a small bandage wrapped on their leg. Although you should leave the bandage on for a short time, keep an eye out that your pet doesn’t try to rip it off or chew on it. Within a short time of arriving home after your appointment, you should be good to remove the bandage.

Even if you have your pet’s blood drawn and all results come back normal, this should be taken as good news. Instead of thinking of it as a wasted test, you can view it as reassuring that your pet is healthy and good to go.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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