Have you ever wanted to perform your own physical exam on your dog? Examining your pup at home can help you discover what is physically normal, in turn making it easier to detect when something may be abnormal. Since dogs don’t communicate with words, we humans need to look for physical signs and changes that give us hints that something may not be quite right.
To prepare for a physical examination, find a quiet part of the day and grab a few treats for positive reinforcement. Many dogs like the attention and treats, but if at any point during the exam they become jittery or irritated, stop the exam before anyone gets upset or injured. Some dogs love their exams and others use their body language to tell you that they do not appreciate it! Your veterinarian can always pick up where you left off, as they are seasoned in the swift and pointed physical exam, especially with tense and stressed dogs.
The Body Condition Score
Since they are so cute, it is easy to over-feed dogs causing weight gain! Keeping dogs thin for the length of their lives results in better long-term mobility and overall health, so always keep an eye out for weight gain. This handy Body Condition Score (BCS) Chart can show where to look to assess how your pup measures up.
Did you know it is possible to weigh your dog at home? Periodically placing your pooch on your home scale is a great way to keep track of their weight. Keeping your dog in an Ideal Weight Range for the length of their life is very healthy for them (your vet can help with designating an IWR for your pup).
AskVet Tip: To weigh dogs on a home scale, first weigh yourself alone and then again holding your dog; then subtract for their weight. Sometimes large dogs will cooperate and sit nicely directly on the scale too! No luck? Most veterinary hospitals will allow you to bring your big dog in for a weight check on their scale — just call ahead to see when it’s a good time!
How is your dog moving around the house? A healthy dog will be alert and respond when you call them. They will walk or jog freely around the house with long strides and not a care in the world! They will stand up and lay down easily and move around willingly as they please — including jumping on and off furniture (if they’re allowed!). Healthy dogs will generally eat and drink the same amount daily, and their bathroom habits usually follow the same patterns too.
Assessing Breathing and Heart Rate
Don’t have access to a stethoscope? No worries, you can still count respirations and feel for your dog’s pulse and heart rate!
The respiratory rate is best taken while the dog is relaxed and even better if asleep! Grab a timer, set it for 1 minute, and count the number of times you see your resting pup’s chest rise and fall (or count for 30 seconds and multiple by 2!). Typically, dogs will have a resting respiratory rate of less than 30 breaths per minute and their breathing will be passive, smooth, soundless, and easy.
Throughout the day, it is normal to see pups panting while engaging in activities and during warm weather. This is how they release body heat, keep up with the oxygen demand, and regulate their temperature. Typically, they should return to a nice slow breathing rate shortly after concluding an activity and the addition of rest, shade, and water.
There are a couple of ways to feel your dog’s heart rate. With your dog standing still and relaxed, place your fingers on either side of the lowest 1/3 of the chest, just behind the front legs. Apply gentle pressure with your fingers between the ribs and you likely will feel the heartbeat. Set your timer for 1 minute and count the rhythmic beats. The normal heart rate/pulse for a dog is between 70 and 140 beats per minute. Smaller dogs will have faster heart rates and larger dogs will be on the slower end!
AskVet Tip: Another way to take a heart rate is to feel for the femoral pulse. While your dog is quietly laying down or standing, place your fingers up in the highest point where the groin/inner thigh area meets the body. Gently press against the inner thigh so you feel the large femoral artery pulsing along with the heartbeat, set your timer, and count the beats.
Full Body Massage Time!
This is the part that dogs usually love because it is like a full-body massage! Always monitor their body language though, as they may have sensitive or painful areas. As you go through the massage, always remember that animal bodies are normally symmetrical. If you are not sure if a bulge or area of thinning hair is normal, check the opposite side and see if it looks or feels the same!
Starting at the head, run your fingers down the underside of the jaw and neck, feeling for any swelling or lumps. Next, use your hands to apply light pressure starting up by the ears and slowly running your hands down the back of the neck, over the shoulders, along the back and sides, ending at the tail. The body contours should feel symmetrical, and the coat should be healthy, full, and growing evenly. Gently place pressure on either side of the abdomen, and your dog should remain relaxed as you press on his soft belly (some dogs are sensitive and may tense up, but should not react with pain).
Moving our attention to the legs, large dogs have calluses on their elbows of all shapes and sizes, but they should be fairly symmetrical. Run your hands down each of the legs, feeling for swelling, symmetrical muscle development, lumps, and skin abnormalities. The toenails should be kept trimmed and the skin between the toes and pads should be a uniform healthy color. The presence of dewclaws (extra toes on the front and sometimes back legs) are normal and occasionally the loosy-goosy ones can get hung up and cause issues. Some dogs even have “double-dews,” typically on the hind legs.
Lastly, don’t forget to check that tail area! For breeds with a cute nubbin or curly tail, be sure to check that those tail skin folds are free of any odor and debris. Also, while you are back there, check the skin and hair around your dog’s rear end. There are 2 little glands lurking just below the skin on either side of the anus, called “anal glands”, that sometimes cause painful issues.
The Private Parts!
For male dogs, the penis should be stored inside the pocket of skin called the prepuce, usually only coming out when they urinate or during some arousing activities (especially for dogs that are not neutered… the penis can swell and get very large!). A small amount of yellowish discharge from the prepuce is normal. The skin on the scrotum should be fairly smooth with a uniform color, and each testicle (if present) being a similar size. For females, the vulvar area should look like folds of regular healthy skin, absent any redness or discharge. The anus area should be a uniform color of pink or pigmented with grey or black.
AskVet Tip: All dogs, male and female, have 2 rows of nipples going down their abdomen (for a total of about 8 usually)! They should be fairly uniform in size and color. Sometimes the mammary glands are large and developed in females that have carried litters of puppies, other times very very small.
Checking Those Big Beautiful Eyes
In a well-lit area, gaze into your pup’s face and check for symmetry of the eyelids, corneas (the clear surface of the eyeball), and pupils (the black circles at the center of the eyes). Both eyes should look similar to each other, with the eyelids wide open, eyeballs facing the same direction, and pupils a symmetrical size. In a dark room, the pupils will be very large, and in bright light, the pupils should be smaller. On the eyeball itself, the cornea (clear part) should be nice and smooth, clear, and shiny like a clean window. Dogs also have an additional eyelid, called the “third eyelid”, or nictitating membrane, that is usually tucked and hidden away in the corner of the eye next to the nose. Wiping the occasional eye crusty can be normal too! Some small breed dogs will have tearing called epiphora. Eye problems can be very painful and endanger vision, so immediate examination is recommended if the eyes appear abnormal.
Staying in the head region, shift your focus down to the nose and mouth. Starting with the nose, it should look moist, smooth, and symmetrical, and the skin should be a uniform color (usually black or brown). An occasional small amount of clear discharge out of the nostrils is normal, but if you notice any milky yellow, green, or white discharge from the nostrils, schedule a vet visit.
Next, flip up the lips and check the color of the inside of the lips and the gums. All of the surfaces you see should be bubblegum pink and a bit slimy with saliva. Some dogs have black pigment on their gums, which is usually normal if it is flat and does not change in appearance.
To check the “capillary refill time”, find a pink area of the gums and gently press with your thumb to blanch the area to white. Lift your finger and the pink color should return in 1-2 seconds. This is an indication of your dog’s hydration level. If it takes longer than two seconds for the color to come back to your pup’s gums, then contacting your AskVet or family veterinarian is advisable.
And finally, how are those chompers looking? Take a nice sniff near the mouth and check for stinky breath! Teeth problems and gingivitis/periodontal disease (infection of the gums and structures around the tooth) are extremely common issues in dogs. Healthy adult teeth should have nice white crowns, be firmly seated in the jaw bone, and the gum line should be a healthy pink color at the base of each tooth. With a healthy bite, both layers of teeth should fit together like a puzzle.
CAUTION: Not all dogs are fond of the oral exam! If your dog does not appreciate you messing with their mouth, just leave that part to the pros. Do not put your fingers between the upper and lower rows of teeth as you will get bitten! Lifting the lips and looking at the outside of the teeth and gums will suffice for your at-home oral exam.
Can You Hear Me?
Next, shift your attention up towards your pups’ ears, and start by feeling the ear flap itself. Both erect and droopy ear flaps should be nice and thin consisting of skin, fur, and cartilage. Check the underside of the ear flaps and look for smooth skin that is cool to the touch, white or light tan in color, with varying amounts of hair. There should be no smell present in healthy ears. The ear canal itself dives deep into the skull forming an “L” shape and measures 1-2 inches long, so there is quite a lot of ear that you cannot see! The deep end of that ear canal contains a very delicate eardrum that is subject to issues too. Leave examining your pup’s ear canal to the pros — it’s impossible to assess deep into a dog’s ears at home.
Veterinarians will often save the most uncomfortable part of the physical examination for last since the rectal temperature tends to irritate some of our patients! If you wish to take a rectal temperature at home, we highly recommend having a helper to hold your pup still for this procedure as it is often a 2-person job! Using an instant digital thermometer, lubricate the end with some water-based lubricant or a small amount of petroleum jelly. Raise your dog’s tail and gently insert the thermometer about 1-2 inches inside the anus, and then wait for the beep. It is important that the helper watches how your pup feels about this process and discontinue immediately if they are showing signs of grouchiness or aggression! The normal rectal temperature of a dog is 101-102.5°F. Unfortunately, even though it is undesirable, the rectal thermometer is the most accurate way to take a dog’s temperature (skin and ear thermometers are not accurate).
AskVet Tip: Be sure to clean the thermometer after use, and label it “DOG” so that it is not confused with the human thermometers!!!
Practice Makes Easier!
Can you believe your veterinarian is able to size up your dog so quickly as they are chatting with you during an exam? Veterinarians are so well-practiced and efficient with the physical exam, most pet owners don’t even notice that they are busy making important observations while talking with you and gathering information.
With more practice, the physical exam will become easier for you, too! The best way to get good at recognizing normal from abnormal is to repeat this exam periodically so you become familiar with the process and observations. If your dog starts out jittery but tolerant, use lots of treats and positive reinforcement when they stand nicely for you. With practice, your dog will likely become more and more willing to participate in your exam. You know your dog best, and early detection of problems makes them much easier to remedy!
As always, if any questions arise after performing your at-home physical exams, our AskVet veterinarians are available to check your findings as well and provide further information and advice about what you may be seeing. If anything is alarming, following up with your family veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian is always appropriate, too!
Alexa Waltz, DVM
Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!