Updated: Nov 16, 2021
At RDBK we want to empower pet parents to be their dog and cat's best advocate while feeling confident performing weekly wellness check-ups at home. Not only are these preventative tools quick and easy to perform regularly, they can help you to identify your pets’ ‘normal', which in turn, can help to get ahead of any future health issues before they have a chance to develop. Since your pet cannot communicate directly when they are not feeling well, changes in their external body condition or behavior could quickly let you know that something might not be right on the inside.
While at-home health checkups should not replace your routine vet appointments, understanding your individual pet's body will ultimately help your pet to live their best life, while possibly saving you some stress and panic. Ideally, weekly checks will help you be sure when your pet really does need to visit their veterinarian, and prevents you from missing those subtle signs, as well as prevents you from rushing off to the vet when it is not really necessary. We always recommend consulting with your veterinary clinic for a professional diagnosis if you are ever unsure.
Here’s How to Perform an At-Home Health Exam on Your Pet From Head to Tail:
Sarah Griffiths, Animal Nutritional Consultant and Inna Shekhtman, Founder and CEO of Red Dog Blue Kat discuss the importance of checking your pet at home and walk us through each of the 7 steps to assessing your pet at home.
Getting to Know Your Pets 'Normal'
Inna Shekhtman, founder and CEO of RDBK says ‘If you don't know what normal looks like for your pet, it's really hard to figure out when something is an emergency or just a case of something minor like... indigestion’. Knowing your pet's health baseline is particularly helpful during vet visits since it allows you to communicate more effectively with your vet, who is generally not familiar with your pets ‘normal’, and can only assess the information at hand during a very short consultation session. No one knows your pet as well as you do, so being more familiar with their body can help steer you and your vet into choosing the most appropriate options together. Without knowing your pet’s normal, there's often a risk of vets misdiagnosing your pet’s illness or going in a completely wrong direction.
The best time to assess your pet at home is when your dog or cat is relaxed and sleepy, so you can easily sneak these 7 simple steps into regular play or cuddle time without detection. Take a few moments to intentionally inspect their bodies in a quiet part of your house that is free from distractions (and with lots of their favourite treats on hand, they won’t suspect a thing!)
While your pet is happy and healthy, we recommend checking each of the below to determine your pet’s normal:
1. Weight and Body Condition
Weight is an important indicator of pet health and can be checked at home through a visual and touch inspection - no scale required - to determine if they are an ideal weight, underweight or overweight. Vets follow a body scoring system that rates a pet’s weight out of 5, with 1 being very skinny, 3 being an ideal weight and 5 being obese. Another indicator of weight is your pet's waistline - you want to see a nice tuck by their waist as opposed to a waistline that is closer to lining up with their chest, which indicates weight-gain. In order to assess where your pet's weight falls on the body scoring scale you need to visually and physically inspect your pet, run your hands gently over their ribs, spine, and hip bones. Once you determine their stage on the body scoring system, you can assess their diet and exercise plan from there.
Stage 1 - Malnourished: If you can see and feel these bones
Stage 2 - Underweight: If you can see and feel these bones
Stage 3 - Healthy Weight: If you can’t see these bones but can still feel them with gentle pressure
Stage 4 - Slightly Overweight: If you can’t see these bones but can still feel them when you really stick your fingers in
Stage 5 - Obese: If you can’t see or feel these bones at all.
Weighing your pet on a scale in order to get an exact weight is still important to do, and can be particularly useful for calculating dosage for medications, supplements and meal serving sizes. We recommend weighing your pet on a scale every 3 - 6 months. If you have a smaller dog you can stand on your home scale while holding your pet, and then minus your weight from the total weight. For larger dogs, it’s best to take note of your pets exact weight while they are being weighed during their vet appointments.
2. Coat and Skin
The skin is considered to be the biggest organ on the body so the condition of your pet's skin and coat is a manifestation of what's happening on the inside. Often when there's any sort of illness, irritation or imbalance, the first place where that will start presenting itself is on the skin and coat. You want to check how it looks, feels, and smells, as a healthy coat is generally soft and fluffy in most areas with no odour or oily feeling on your hands. If your pet's coat and skin starts feeling greasy to touch, this may indicate a pore secretion onto the fur indicating a lack of health on the inside.
Soft - unless course coat type is normal for your breed
Coarse -unless normal for breed
Fluffy - unless this it not normal for your breed
Dry, Flaky Skin, Scabs
Little To No Odour
Greasy or Oily
Feeling over your pet's body from head to tail checking for lumps, bumps, swellings, skin abnormalities, fleas and ticks is important to check every month, or more frequently depending on lifestyle. Healthy skin should be soft and clear, not oily, flakey, scabby or bumpy. Checking skin elasticity can also help to recognize if your pet is getting enough water daily. Gently pinch a small amount of skin on your the back of your pet’s neck and release it - If your pet's skin does not snap immediately back in place, this may be an indication that your pet is dehydrated. The best way to maintain healthy skin and coat is to feed your pet a variety of fresh, whole foods.
What goes in, must come out, and what comes out has gone through the entire intestinal tract giving you a picture of what your pet’s digestive process looks like. Check your pet’s poop often during walks, or at the cat litter tray, using it as a daily barometer of how your pet is doing. Sometimes there will be poops that are stinkier and less formed than others which may correlate with your pet not feeling well, this may indicate that their gut may need extra support or they are experiencing some stress.
Poop Health Checklist:
Pets fed a diet of dry processed foods can experience large, stinky, and overly smooth poops, which are not natural for healthy animals. Since poop is composed of food their bodies are not able to digest, the poops produced by kibble-fed pets show just how much indigestible filler has been added. On the other hand, pets fed a fresh whole food diet produce smaller poops that are less stinky and more natural in colour and texture. This is because more nutrients are being absorbed, and without the presence of indigestible filler, what remains is primarily fiber which is required for a healthy gut.
Consistent Brown Colour
Variety of Shapes
Anal Glands: Poop has another function that a lot of people don’t realize, and that is to stimulate the anal glands. In nature dogs and cats will eat bones and other things for fiber, not just because they need it for digestion, but also because it makes the texture of poop bumpy which stimulates the anal glands helping them to naturally release. Poops should not be smooth, and uniform in shape - they should be chunky, with different shapes, which helps to massage the intestinal tract and stimulate the anal glands.
Bones: When dogs and cats eat raw bones, their poops can temporarily become pale/ yellow, crumbly, and dry - this is normal as excess amounts of calcium are naturally released from the body through poop, unlike synthetic calcium. You don't want these kinds of firmer poops every day as it may eventually put some strain on the digestive system but every once in a while it's completely normal.
4. Mouth and Teeth
It's important to approach checking your pet's mouth and teeth as gently as possible so you can get a good look without stressing them out or triggering a negative reaction. If your pet is not okay with having their mouth handled, the first step is to slowly get them used to having their muzzle touched and held, and then moving on to having their lips peeled back on the top, and the bottom of their mouths.
Once your pet allows you to look inside their mouth, it's good to examine their mouth and teeth on a regular basis. If there's a buildup of plaque, which is a pale yellow film of bacteria, it can be cleaned by regularly brushing their teeth and giving them raw bones to chew on. If plaque is left too long on the teeth it can develop into tartar which is darker in colour with a harder texture. Once tartar is visible on the teeth, your pet will need to have their teeth cleaned by a professional. It is also important to smell your pets breath as a stinky breath is a sign there's something going on with their oral health or GI health.
Mouth Health Checklist:
Gums should be pink and moist
No red or swollen gum Inflammation
No teeth discoloration
No broken or fractured teeth
No bad smells
No cuts, lesions or sores inside the mouth
No lumps and bumps along the jawline
Teeth Cleaning: Bones are a great way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy as it naturally scrapes the plaque off their teeth while exercising their jaws, and massaging their gums. Raw bones significantly contribute to improved dental health, and can help your pet to maintain better dental hygiene on a weekly basis in addition to manually brushing their teeth daily.
5. Eye Health
Eyes are very indicative of things going on in the rest of the body and something you should stay on top of on a daily basis. Even a small scratch can become infected if not caught in time and lead to more serious issues like blindness. Checking your pet’s eyes every day while they are relaxed will quickly tell you what your pet's ‘normal’ eye looks like, so you can quickly identify when any changes occur. If you notice any of the below changes to your pet’s eyes, consult your vet for the next steps immediately. Eye concerns should never have the “wait and see” approach applied to them.
Eye Health Checklist:
Clear and shiny eyes
No eye discoloration, cloudiness or redness
Pupils should be the same size in each eye (be sure to check this in even lighting for cats as they can sometimes naturally have uneven pupils depending on what they are focusing on)
Pupils naturally dilate and constrict dependent on ambient light
Whites of the eyes should be white and not bloodshot, although a few visible vessels is normal
No discharge or tearing
No swelling around the outside of the eye or the eyelids
No spots or cloudy areas
Not blinking a lot or squinting
6. Ear Health
The ears are an indication of internal gut health, just like the mouth, skin and eyes. If your pet suffers from chronic ear infections they may have an underlying allergy, or atopic dermatitis - both indicating that their micro gut flora is imbalanced, which is allowing that yeast overgrowth, and that they require more support. You need to be careful in treating ear infections because an overuse of antibiotics will destroy your pet’s healthy gut flora, further creating this cycle of ear infections without addressing the underlying problem. This will only make matters worse for their gut as it destroys the little gut flora that they have left. Untreated ear infections can lead to unnecessary pain for your pet as well as deafness and other painful conditions such as aural hematomas or “cauliflower ear”. One of the first signs that an ear infection is present in the ear is a bad, yeasty smell or discharge coming from their ears. Look out for your pet flattening their ears, shaking or scratching their heads a lot, or just holding their ears at a weird angle When you see these symptoms ensure that your vet doesn't just treat blindly - you want to understand what's actually causing it, have them do a swab and check for bacteria and/or yeast so that it can be treated appropriately. Use the flashlight on your phone to take a look into the ear canal, and if they need a deeper look take them to the vet.
Ear Health Checklist:
No bad smell
No scratches or sores
No excessive wax build up
No redness or inflammation
No excessive head shaking or holding ears abnormally
7. Monitoring Walks and Mobility
When going on walks with your dog, watch how they move, how they’re walking and how their muscles are working to gauge their normal walk. Also consider what speed they are walking at, what their gate looks like, whether they look relaxed or uncomfortable, whether they’re limping, can they run etc. - getting a general sense of their rhythm of motion. These are all good indicators of how healthy their skeleton systems are. You can also monitor actions like what they’re smelling, are they eating grass, eating dirt - for some pets these are normal habits; however, if they don't normally eat grass for instance and start doing so, then you need to look into it further. Always question changes in behaviour. So if they start limping or start to slow down, that tells you that something has changed, and you can start looking at what could be causing the changes and how you can help mitigate ailments, like researching supplements for gut health support or joint health and seeing what works for your individual dog.
Mobility Health Check:
Walking speed, slowing down, reluctance to keep walking
Head and tail position
Walking rhythm - short or long steps, change in gait
It's all about trial and error, getting to know our pets as individuals, and knowing their normal so you know when to rush to the vet, and when you can wait it out. Healing the insides with fresh foods will manifest to healthier external health as well. Routinely checking their health at home in a fun, positive manner creates a bonding experience, establishes trust and creates a sense of connection for them and for us. It also helps your pet become comfortable with the handling that comes along with the physical examination that the veterinarian carries out on their annual or biannual wellness exam, which reduces stress for everyone involved.