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Can I do my own dog health checks?

checking a dog's paw

It’s important to know every inch of your dog’s body to enable you to pick up on any changes that might indicate the onset of a health problem. General body checks can be done at home; if you have a breed which requires regular grooming, this is the perfect time to give your pet a once-over. If not, put aside five minutes to run your hands over his body. If you spot or feel anything unusual, or are concerned about your dog’s health, contact your vet.

Bottom

It may not be a pleasant job but don’t forget to check this area of the body. Your dog’s bottom should be clean and free of soiling. Keep an eye out for any tiny white segments clinging around the rear end — this is a sign of a worm infestation. Also check for any foul-smelling discharge from the vagina of unspayed bitches.

Coat

Although coat textures vary between breeds, get to know what’s normal for your own dog. His coat should look and feel healthy, and not be matted or soiled. There should also be no hair loss.

Body

Run both your hands over the whole of your dog’s body. Stand behind him and start at your dog’s head, working your way along his neck, shoulders, back, along both his sides, down the quarters, and all four legs. You should be able to feel his ribs under a thin layer of fat. Be wary of any areas where your dog seems especially sensitive when touched.

Skin

Part your dog’s hair and look at the skin underneath; healthy skin should feel supple, be warm to touch, and move easily over the underlying tissue. If your dog’s skin is cold or clammy, red or inflamed, or has flaky patches, contact your vet. Be particularly vigilant if you’ve noticed your dog licking, chewing, biting, or persistently scratching at any areas.

Paws

Check your dog’s pads for signs of soreness or cracking. Depending on the pigmentation, pads should be pink or dark in colour, or a combination of both. Part each of the toes on all four paws to check for grass seeds — these can sometimes get wedged in-between toes. Your dog’s nails should not be split, torn, or overly long.

Nose

Signs to watch out for include crusty deposits, clear or pus-coloured discharge, and bleeding.

Eyes

They should be bright and clear, without any cloudiness of the cornea. The whites of the eyes should be completely white. Both eyelids should be fully open, not half closed or blinking rapidly. If you notice a tiny amount of sleep in the corners of the eyes this is perfectly normal. However, watery or pus-like discharge should be checked out.

Ears

Have a look inside your dog’s ear flaps and into the ear canal; both ears should be clean and pale pink in colour — not sore or inflamed. Be alert for nasty smelling wax or pus-like discharge. Scratching or pawing ears or shaking the head in irritation may indicate a problem.

Mouth

Hold the lower jaw with one hand and hold back the lower and upper lips with the other. Look along the gums and teeth on both sides. The gums should be salmon-pink but may change colour if your dog is unwell. There should be no soreness or bleeding. If the gums are pigmented, check the membranes of the eyes for a healthy colour. Check your dog’s capillary refill time.

Press the gum with the ball of your finger; it should go pale briefly before returning to its normal colour within a few seconds. If the colour returns faster it can indicate high blood pressure, slower indicates shock. Open the mouth wide and take a thorough look at the teeth. They should be whiteish-yellow and free of calculus build-up. Breath should smell doggy but not offensive. The tongue should be pink and moist.

Vital signs

  • A dog’s normal heart/pulse rate can vary depending on type. In large dogs, it may be as slow as 50 beats per minute, or as fast as 90 to 120 beats per minute in small dogs. A pup’s heart rate may be as rapid as 200 beats per minute. It should be strong with a regular rhythm. To check the heart rate of a large dog, press the fingers of one hand against the left side of his chest, just behind the elbow. With small dogs, place a hand on either side of the chest behind the elbows and squeeze gently until you can feel the heartbeat.
  • Large breeds usually have a respiratory rate of around 10 breaths per minute, while very small dogs may have a rate of 30 breaths per minute. After exercise, breathing should return to normal within minutes. You can count the respiratory rate by watching and counting the chest movements of your dog. Count either the movements in or the movements out, but not both. Listen for any abnormalities in breathing such as shallow, irregular, or laboured breath, or wheezing.
  • A dog’s normal temperature is higher than that of a human — usually between 38.1 and 39.2 degrees. Puppies will have a slightly higher temperature than an adult dog. A high temperature could be a sign of problems including an infection, fever, or heatstroke in hot weather. If below normal, it may be due to problems such as hypothermia, shock, or anaemia.

Top tips

  • Upon returning from a walk, check your dog’s coat and pick out any burrs.
  • Keep on eye on existing lumps and bumps for changes in texture, shape, or colour.
  • When looking at your dog from above you should see a waist between the end of his ribcage and his hips.

Did you know?

  • Floppy-eared dogs, such as spaniels, are more prone to ear infections.
  • Dogs can lick their upper lip but not the lower lip; this can lead to food becoming trapped in breeds with exaggeratedly deep lip folds.

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