You probably see your pet every day. And he may look perfectly fine to you, but how can you tell if he isn't? The short answer is sometimes you can't. That's why it's so important to schedule regular wellness visits with your veterinarian — even if your pet seems totally fine. Some medical conditions aren't easy to detect without the benefit of a full physical exam and perhaps even diagnostic testing like bloodwork and urine testing.
It's always a good idea to let your vet know if you notice any changes in your pet's activity level, appetite, behavior or personality. But other than that, what does a normal, healthy pet look like? Here are a few of the basics.
Eyes: Your pet's eyes should be bright and clear, not red, cloudy or watery. Some pets have eyes that are normally more "teary" than others'. When in doubt, ask your vet if your pet's tearing is normal.
Mouth and Nose: Aside from your pet's eyes, his mouth and nose are the first things you see when he approaches you. If your pet's bad breath reaches you before he does, it could mean a problem. Dental disease is extremely common among pets — even seemingly healthy ones — and having "doggie breath" can be a sign of this problem. So can having red or swollen gums or discolored teeth. Pawing or rubbing the face and drooling excessively can also be signs of mouth pain. Some dogs naturally drool more than others, but if you notice your dog drooling more than he normally does, schedule a checkup. Your pet's nose shouldn't be excessively runny, either, and despite the old myth, a wet nose does not necessarily mean your dog is fine.
Ears: Your pet's ears should be clean and shouldn't have a bad odor. A little bit of wax can be normal, but excessive wax, a brown buildup or redness may mean something's wrong. It's a good idea to check your pet's ears weekly and clean them with a cotton ball (never a cotton swab) and a pet-safe, nonirritating ear-cleaning solution if needed. Checking your pet's ears regularly makes it easier to notice changes. If you see your pet shaking his head, scratching his ears or rubbing them, call your vet.
Skin and Coat: Your pet's skin shouldn't be red, flaky or excessively dry or greasy. Any lumps or scabs warrant at least a phone call to your vet. Not all pets have "shiny" coats, but the fur should look healthy for your pet's breed, not dull, and there shouldn't be any bald patches or matted areas. When you check your pet's skin and fur for these changes, you can also take that opportunity to look for ticks or use a flea comb (available at most pet supply outlets) to check for fleas.
Bones and Joints: Does your pet seem to move comfortably? Is he as active as he normally is? Or does he struggle to stand up, or hesitate to jump or use the stairs? Does your pet limp or struggle to complete his regular walks? Bone or joint problems can definitely cause mobility issues, but sometimes the signs are more subtle, like simply not being interested in playing.
Joint disease is not just a problem for elderly pets. Some joint and bone problems can even affect puppies and kittens. Signs of joint disease can be particularly difficult to notice in cats, because most people don't leash-walk their cats, and cats are masters at hiding signs of pain or illness. Joint and bone problems can also be easily misinterpreted in older pets. Don't assume that if your aging pet is slowing down, it's just old age. Several medical issues can cause similar signs, and even if your aging pet is suffering with joint pain, your veterinarian may be able to recommend medications, joint supplements and environmental modifications that can help.
Heart and Lungs: Some dog and cat breeds, especially short-nosed breeds (like Persian cats and Pugs) naturally have "noisier" breathing compared with some other breeds. If you're not sure what's considered normal for your pet, ask your vet. Dogs and cats can develop heart disease, respiratory infections and other conditions that might change the way they breathe. Changes to pay attention to include obvious things like coughing, sneezing, labored breathing or wheezing. Sometimes signs of heart or respiratory illness can be more subtle, such as being reluctant to exercise or play, or getting tired or winded more easily than normal. Contact your vet if your pet seems to be having breathing problems.
Digestive System: For most pets who regularly receive a quality, balanced diet, their appetite, toilet habits and stool quality tend to be relatively consistent. Diarrhea or vomiting can clearly indicate a problem, but other signs of digestive issues might be less obvious. Watch for changes in appetite, an abdomen that seems swollen or larger than normal, burping more than usual, passing gas, passing stool that's a different color or consistency than normal, or having trouble passing stool.
Urinary System: Let your vet know about any changes in your pet's urination. Having accidents in the house (if the pet is house-trained), urinating larger amounts or with greater frequency, passing urine that smells or looks different, or having trouble urinating all mean your pet needs to see his vet. And if your pet is trying to urinate but nothing is happening, seek immediate medical attention — this could indicate a life-threatening blockage!
Overall Body Condition: Don't be lulled into thinking that a chubby pet is healthy. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of our pet dogs and cats are overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight can lead to other problems, such as joint and respiratory issues. And don't forget about the other extreme. If your pet seems thinner than normal or is losing weight, that can also indicate a medical problem.
What's considered a normal, healthy body condition can vary, depending in part on how muscular your pet is. But in general, you should be able to feel your pet's ribs but not see them, and your pet should have a "waist" or a slight tuck-in behind the ribs if you're looking down on him from above. If you notice that your pet seems to be losing or gaining weight, contact your veterinarian for advice.
Your Healthy Pet Begins With You
Scheduling regular wellness visits with your veterinarian, keeping your pet's vaccines up to date, staying on top of parasite prevention, feeding a 100 percent nutritionally complete diet that is formulated for your pet, and making sure your pet gets adequate exercise can work wonders for your pet's health. Between vet visits, though, it's important for you to have an idea of what's normal and what may not be. When you look your pet over regularly, you'll get used to noticing what's normal. That way, you'll know when something isn't right and you need to call your vet.