The aim of this section is to give you some simple ways to check the health of your pet. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examination.

Weight (all pets)

Keeping a close eye on your pet's weight or body condition can help you to pick up problems at an early stage.

  • Gaining too much weight can be bad for your pet's health. Most commonly, weight gain is caused by too much food or not enough exercise. Certain health problems can cause weight gain.
  • Losing weight or failing to grow normally can be a sign of health problems or incorrect diet.
  • Weighing your pet frequently is a good way to spot any problems early. Most vets have specially developed scales, which they will be happy for you to use.
  • Condition scoring is a good way to check your pet is the correct weight. Ask your vet or nurse to do this for you to get an accurate score. You can look for the main points yourself:
    • Ribs: You should be able to feel them with light pressure. There should not be a fat layer over the ribs.
    • Hip bones, shoulder blades: You should only be able to feel these if you apply moderate pressure.
    • Waist: You should be able to feel an obvious waist between the chest and abdomen.
    • Belly: In overweight cats this can hang down and become 'pendulous'.
    • Dewlap: This is the fold of skin under the chin; it is usually only present in female rabbits. In overweight rabbits it can become enlarged. Dewlaps can persist when an overweight rabbit looses weight - ask your vet for advice.
Coat condition (all pets)

Different breed of pets have very different coats but in general they should look clean, and the skin should look healthy underneath. Here are some general points you can look out for:

  • Black particles (Dogs and cats): You may be able to see black particles of 'flea dirt', droppings formed by the adult fleas. To differentiate these from sand or dirt perform the wet paper test (below).
Wet paper test:
  1. Comb your pet's coat vigorously.
  2. Collect any debris from the comb onto a piece of white, wet paper.
  3. Leave aside for a few minutes.
  4. If flea dirt is present you will see black particles surrounded by a rusty red pigment.
  5. The red pigment is your pet's blood which has been swallowed by the flea. If you see this it means that your pet has fleas.
  • Greasy coat: This can be a sign of a skin infection, you should visit your vet.
  • Matts of fur: Longhaired pets are prone to their fur tangling which can develop into matts. Matts can cause the underlying skin to get sore. Groom longhaired pets daily to prevent matts. If matts form they can be carefully trimmed or clipped off. Contact your vet for help if the matts are close to the skin or if your pet will not tolerate you removing them.
  • Areas of baldness: This can arise in different ways.
    • If the skin is itchy for example, due to fleas, mites or allergy, pets can scratch and bite at themselves pulling fur out.
    • In certain conditions eg. ringworm the fur falls out by itself.
    • Some hormone problems prevent the hair growing normally. Old hairs that fall out naturally are not replaced.
  • Backend (Rabbits): A dirty backend can be a sign of health problems in rabbits. It is also dangerous as it can cause maggot infestation. Seek veterinary advice.
Skin tenting (all pets)

This is used to assess hydration levels.

In a normal animal if you gently pull up the skin around the neck it will instantly fall back to normal. If the skin stays in the 'tented' position it is a sign of dehydration. If your animal is ill and the skin is tenting you need to visit the vets as soon as possible.

Lymph nodes (all pets)

These are the 'glands' that as humans we may notice become raised or swollen when we are ill. In animals there are glands behind the angle of the lower jaw, in front of the shoulder joint and in the back of the knee.

Familiarise yourself with the normal size of these glands for your pet. If your pet is well, they may be hard to identify or very small. If they are bigger than usual it can be a sign that your pet is fighting infection or of other health problems. Ask your vet.

Teeth (all pets)

The teeth should be clean, smooth and white in colour. There should not be any swelling or redness of the gums.

  • Calculus (dogs and cats) is a hard, yellow-brown deposit that can cover the teeth. Calculus is formed by bacteria and quickly builds up on pets' teeth if there is no dental care. Calculus can cause other tooth problems, if you see it you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Gingivitis (dogs and cats) is inflammation of the gums in cats and dogs. It is usually caused by bacteria on the teeth. It gives a red and swollen appearance to the gums. It is usually worse on the margin of the gums near the tooth. Gingivitis is uncomfortable for your pet and you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Root lesions (usually cats) They are holes in the teeth usually around the base of the tooth. They look like red patches on the tooth; in some areas it may look like the gum has grown over the tooth in one area. The lesions can expose the sensitive nerves inside the tooth and are very painful for your cat. If you see them it is essential you take your cat to the vets.
  • Caries (usually dogs) This is a lot less common in pets than in humans. It is erosion of the enamel usually on the chewing surface of the back teeth. You will see a black or brown hole. This is very difficult to spot and is usually only seen under general anaesthetic.
  • Overgrowth (rabbits) Rabbit's teeth continue growing throughout their lives. In a normal rabbit fed a healthy diet the teeth grind down as the rabbit chews. If the teeth are not lined up correctly or if the rabbit does not eat a diet that requires a lot of chewing they can overgrow or wear incorrectly causing sharp spurs to form.

If you notice any of the above problems with your pet's teeth you need to see your vet for advice. Dental work, usually under general anaesthetic, may be required.

Ears (all pets)
  • The ears should look clean. There should not be any pain when you gently feel around the base of the ear.
  • Ear cleaner can be used to remove wax from the surface of the ear. It is advisable to get your pet's ears checked by a vet before putting any drops down the ear.
  • If you suspect that your pet has problems with its ears do not put off visiting the vet. Long term ear infections can cause narrowing of the ear canals, damage to the eardrum and middle ear disease.
Eyes (all pets)

The eyes should be

  • Clear
  • Wide open
  • There should be no swelling
  • No discharge
  • The pupils should be the same size
Mucous membranes (dogs and cats)

When humans go 'pale' you can tell just by looking at their skin, pets only show this on their mucous membranes for example the gums:

Normally the gums should be salmon pink and moist.

  • When pets are shocked the gums go paler and drier or brick red.
  • If the pet isn't getting enough oxygen they develop a blue tinge
  • If the liver is not working properly, or red blood cells are damaged, the membranes can turn yellow.
  • In the rare case of carbon monoxide poisoning gums can turn cherry red.

If you notice any of these changes in your pets gums you need to take your pet the vets URGENTLY.

*Important point* Some pets have black markings on their gums these are normal. Familiarise yourself with the normal appearance of your pets gums, that way you'll be able to notice if there is any abnormal change.

Capillary Refill Time (dogs and cats)

Capillary refill time is the time taken for the capillaries, small blood vessels, to refill with blood after pressure is applied.

Capillary refill time is increased if the pet's circulation is not very good. Poor circulation can be caused in several ways including shock, dehydration and heart failure.

Capillary Refill Time:
  1. Gently push your fingertip on to the gum (take care to avoid nails).
  2. The gum should turn white in that area.
  3. Count how long it takes for the colour to go back to normal.
  4. It should take less than two seconds.
  5. If your pet is ill and it takes longer than two seconds you need to take your pet to the vets URGENTLY.
Reflexes (dogs and cats)

These are tests to see if the nerves are working properly

  • Knuckling Carefully lift up your pet's foot and flex it gently, then try to replace it on the floor in this position. Your pet should quickly correct this and move its foot back into the normal position.
  • Paper slide test Carefully lift up your pet's foot and replace it on a sheet of paper. Slide the paper sideways, with the foot, away from your pet. Your pet should notice this straight away and quickly reposition its foot in the normal position.
  • Cotton wool test Drop a piece of cotton wool in front of your pet, usually they will follow it with their eyes. If they don't it may mean they can't see properly.

**Sometimes pets just aren't very interested in watching cotton wool particularly if you repeat the test a few times! Don't be too worried if your pet doesn't follow the cotton wool if you haven't noticed any other signs of blindness.***

  • Response to noise: Make sure your pet can't see you then clap your hands; your pet's ears should prick up. If they don't it may mean that your pet can't hear properly, try quieter and louder noises.

**If you do this too many times your pet might get bored and not respond (or get very excited!)**

Breathing (all pets)
  • Rate: This is the number of breaths that your pet takes per minute when resting. It is usually between 20 - 40 breaths per minute in dogs and cats and 30-60 in rabbits.
  • Effort: Watch the abdominal area, if there is exaggerated movement as your pet breaths in or out it could be a sign of breathing difficulties.
    • If a cat breathes with its mouth open it is usually a sign of serious breathing problems or stress.
  • Difficulty: If you notice your pet having any difficulty breathing you need to contact your vet immediately.
Heart (all pets)

The heart can be felt by touching the left side of the chest at the level just behind your pets elbow.

  • Rhythm: The rhythm of the heart should be regular, or regularly irregular, that is going faster as your pet breaths in and slower when it breathes out.
  • Rate: Abnormal resting heart rates can be a sign of problem however the heart rate increases when animals are excited or scared. Just feeling for your pet's heart is sometimes enough to make its heart beat faster. Don't worry too much if the heart rate is fast if your pet is otherwise healthy. Ask your vet for advice if you are concerned.
Normal heart rates:
  • Medium to large dog between 60-100 beats per minute
  • Small dog 100-160 beats per minute
  • Cat 150-200 per minute
  • Rabbit 180-300 per minute
Pulse (all pets)

You can feel the pulse most easily on the inner thigh approximately half way across its width. It can also be felt just above the paw on both sides of the 'wrist' or 'ankle'. It can be very difficult to find.

Familiarise yourself with the normal strength of the pulse, if it is weaker than usual and your pet is poorly it could be a sign of a problem. If you are unsure ask your vet as it can be very difficult to judge.

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