AJ Debiasse, a technician in Stroudsburg, PA, contributed to this article.
It is sometimes difficult for dog guardians to appreciate the value of yearly or twice-yearly “routine” visits and lab work. After all, if your dog seems to be acting normal at home, and given the rising cost of pet care, why bother?
Why are routine, senior, veterinary exams important?
Despite your pet's healthy appearance, there may be a life-threatening condition lurking inside, waiting to cause trouble. The following story is a classic example of the importance of regular exams. Why classic? Because I hear similar stories all of the time.
Tucker is a 10-year-old, exuberant golden retriever. His guardians are still waiting for him to slow down with age. Tucker presented to his family vet for an annual exam and vaccines.
Tucker’s senior veterinary exam
A thorough, physical exam is “from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.” This includes examination of:
This is recommended every 6 to 12 months, along with lab work. Tucker’s senior blood work and complete urinalysis were within normal limits, except for a slightly decreased red blood cell count.
The senior dog’s exam was pristine, besides some tartar on the teeth and palpation of his belly. Then, his veterinarian felt a mass in the front of the abdomen. She was concerned that there could be a mass in the spleen, a common finding in golden retrievers.
Examining Tucker’s abdominal mass
Tucker's veterinarian recommended X-rays of the belly. Those confirmed a mass that seemed to be in the spleen. The next step was an abdominal ultrasound. Tucker’s guardians wanted to do whatever they could to help Tucker. Since they had pet insurance, the decision was easy. The test was scheduled with a traveling ultrasound specialist the next day.
The ultrasound confirmed a fist-sized mass originating from the spleen. This was concerning in a senior. The vet explained that statistically, there was about a 50-50 chance that the mass could be benign or malignant (i.e. cancerous). Sadly, there is no highly reliable test to prove what the mass was before surgery. The ultrasound was important to make sure there was no grossly apparent spreading of cancer to the liver. Tucker’s liver looked fine on ultrasound. Lastly, all other organs looked normal throughout the belly.
Tucker’s abdominal mass surgery
The very next day, a traveling surgeon (yours truly) came to the clinic and performed abdominal surgery on Tucker. The spleen was removed and the liver was biopsied. Sections of the spleen and the liver biopsy were sent to a pathologist.
Tucker recovered smoothly and went home. He had to wear a plastic cone (Elizabethan collar) for 2 weeks until the skin staples had to be removed. His activity had to be restricted for 4 weeks to allow internal organs to heal properly. He received pain medications and antibiotics that his guardians hid in treats.
One week after surgery, the vet called Tucker’s guardians with fantastic news: the mass was a benign hematoma, i.e. a pocket of blood. This meant that it should not affect Tucker’s lifespan at all.
Months after surgery, Tucker is still going strong, with no apparent signs of slowing down! His veterinarian may very well have saved his life by doing a simple, physical exam. Even though the mass was not cancerous, benign masses can grow larger and can rupture. Severe internal bleeding can be fatal if not caught in time.
So the next time you are wondering if a physical exam is really necessary, since your dog looks perfectly healthy from the outside, please remember Tucker's story.
Questions to ask your veterinarian during a physical exam:
- What do you think about my dog’s weight?
- Is there a medical reason to change the food?
- What can I do to ensure a long life for my senior dog?
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.