Judy is a beautiful grey tabby cat, owned by a retired couple who are veteran “cat people”. They’ve had 10 cats over the years, and always take good care of them. June had a physical exam and vaccines updated 3 years ago. When the rabies vaccine came due again, her owners brought her in for a checkup. During her exam, her thyroid gland felt a little bit larger than normal, and we heard a new heart murmur. Her owners decided to run annual bloodwork to screen for organ function, and when the results returned, they confirmed two new health problems: hyperthyroidism (excessive thyroid hormone caused by a tumor in the thyroid gland) and heart disease.
The big question for Judy is this: How long has she had hyperthyroid disease? Many cats with thyroid disease develop heart disease as a result, especially if the condition is left untreated. We have pretty darn good options for treating—and even curing!—hyperthyroidism, but when it comes to heart disease, our options are more limited. We are hopeful that June will do well, but we sure wish we could have caught the thyroid condition earlier, potentially preventing heart disease from developing in the first place.
Judy, and so many cats like her, are the reason we are big fans of annual physical exams for young and middle-aged pets, and semi-annual exams for senior pets. Cats, especially, are masters of disguise, and very good at hiding even dramatic internal changes. Consider that cats generally live 15-18 years, making every “cat year” roughly the same as 5-6 years in our own lives; that’s a long time for new problems to take hold. A thorough physical exam is every pet owner’s secret weapon against this stealth mode, and our veterinarians are more than happy to oblige!
So what exactly are we checking during an annual wellness visit? First, we ask questions about what you see at home, then we collect A TON of information from the exam itself, checking each organ system for a variety of concerns:
- Eyes: cataracts, decreased vision, tumors, retina damage from high blood pressure
- Ears: infections, ear drum inflammation, ear mites, polyps
- Mouth: periodontal disease, growths/tumors, membrane color changes
- Lymph nodes: local infection vs. body-wide changes (cancer, infection)
- Skin: inflammation consistent with allergies vs. pain vs. parasites and tumors
- Lungs: sounds in lower airways indicating asthma, pneumonia, or heart disease
- Heart: murmurs, abnormal rhythm, weak pulses
- Thyroid gland: tumors
- Abdomen: size and shape of the liver, spleen, small and large intestines, kidneys, and bladder to look for signs of inflammatory bowel (like IBS in people), tumors, chronic kidney disease, bladder stones, constipation
- Joints and muscles: assess muscle mass and symmetry, range of motion of joints, and tendon strength to check for signs of arthritis or injury
- Nerves: reflexes in the eyes, face, tongue, limbs, skin, tail, as well as general posture; changes can be seen in diabetes, degenerative neurological conditions, and spinal conditions
- Weight: changes seen in a large range of conditions!
In our dream world, all cats would come in once or twice a year (twice for cats 8 years old and up) for a thorough physical exam. During those visits we show you anything that is changing in subtle ways and let you know what to watch for at home. We can suggest supplements and diet changes that may slow down or prevent problems in the first place. We collect blood samples when to screen for early signs of organ function changes, before they cause damage. We can also update any vaccines that are coming due and still needed for your cat.
Ultimately, these “check ups” are our chance to reassess your cat’s health and help you come up with a plan to keep him healthy for as long as possible.
If you have questions about your cat’s last annual exam, are concerned something is changing, or want to get her checked out to make sure she is still in great shape, let us know. There’s nothing that makes our day like seeing a healthy pet and being able to plan proactively to keep her that way!