The Feline Wellness Exam
Written by Eric E. Brooks, DVM
In commemoration of national “take your cat to the vet” day, this article is dedicated to your feline family member’s health and well-being.
A common misconception is that cats do not need to see the vet unless they are sick. The unfortunate fact is that cats are excellent at masking signs of illness. While cats are predators for small birds and rodents, they are considered prey for larger animals in the wild (i.e. dogs, wolves, etc). The law of the wild states that if you show signs of illness and weakness, you become somebodies dinner! Hence this evolutionary strategy prevents cats from showing signs of illness until they are extremely sick.
Another misconception is that the only purpose for the yearly exam is to get their vaccinations. While vaccinations are a crucial part of infectious disease prevention, the true value in the yearly exam is the physical exam, as this allows the veterinarian to detect subtle signs of disease before your cat may exhibit symptoms.
While it may look like your veterinarian is simply petting and playing with your cat during the exam, here’s what they are truly assessing:
• Weight - monitoring weight loss or gain from previous visits and assessing degrees of obesity
• Skin & hair coat - looking for signs of parasites (i.e. fleas), hormone imbalance, as well as a poorly groomed hair coat which serves as a subtle sign of illness
• Neck - feeling for an enlarged thyroid gland which may be the earliest sign of hyperthyroidism (an over-production of thyroid hormone), a disease that is very common in older cats
• Eyes & ears - looking for cataracts, infection, parasites (i.e. ear mites), signs of high blood pressure or subtle neurologic problems
• Mouth - evaluating the degree of dental disease or mouth sores that may be signs of an infectious disease or other systemic illness (i.e. chronic kidney failure)
• Heart & Lungs - detecting early heart disease, asthma or other disease
• Abdomen - feeling the liver, kidneys, spleen, intestines, bladder and lymph nodes; feeling for enlargement or asymmetry as this may reveal underlying kidney or liver disease or even certain cancers
• Legs - evaluating the muscles and joints, looking for subtle signs of arthritis, hormone imbalances (i.e. diabetes) or neurologic problems
• Lymph nodes - feeling for enlargement which could result from infections or certain cancers
In addition to the physical examination, meeting yearly allows the veterinarian to assess changes in: appetite, drinking, urinating, defecating as well as vomiting and hairball issues; all of which may be abnormal findings. Many pet owners feel that vomiting, diarrhea or sleeping more is a normal aging change, when in fact these are subtle clues that your cat may have an underlying illness.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends that all cats under 7 years old be examined yearly with a fecal parasite examination (even 100% indoor kitties). They recommend the following for all cats over 7 years of age: physical examination every 6 months, fecal parasite examination, blood pressure monitoring and geriatric screening bloodwork to catch thyroid, liver and kidney disease in the earliest stages when treatment can be initiated before they start to show symptoms of advanced disease.
Every veterinary hospital has their own feline wellness protocol. Talk to your veterinarian to decide the best preventive health strategy to keep your pet healthy well into old age.