Head-to-Tail, Snout-to-Tail, Wag-to-Woof, or by any other name, performing an at-home exam of your dog or cat weekly to catch problems early on is a MUST!
Getting to know my dogs' bodies over the years and their habits led me to discover a sarcoma that needed immediate excision and other squishy lumps our vet just wanted to keep an eye on. Noticing if your senior dog is walking differently, holding his head at an odd angle, or drinking more than usual is important to share with his 2nd best friend, your veterinarian. Our dogs don't always tell us when something is wrong, so detecting a problem at onset and getting medical intervention may ensure your best friend gets to spend more days by your side! Doing home exams also gets your senior pooch comfortable with the human touch, making for a much better patient at the vet and grooming shop when you get him used to being touched all over.
One of my Pet First Aid students, Sid Shapiro of Long Beach, California, explains, "When doing our weekly head-to-tail check, my boyfriend and I discovered a lump on our 10-year-old Dachshund. At the vet's office, Dreyfuss was a champ when the doctor started poking around since he was so used to us checking him regularly. Two surgeries and three hospital stays later, our doxie is healthy and cancer-free, but it may not have been possible if we hadn't discovered that lump months before he was due for his annual exam."
Teach your dog to "give his paws" as soon as he becomes part of your life, early on or in his senior years. Start slowly and gently, but work diligently so that toes, paws, and all body parts can be examined, and nails easily clipped. Get your pets accustomed to your fingers in their mouth so that you can brush teeth, remove unwanted items, and check gums, which are an important indicator of health. It's never too soon to start checking your dog from head-to-tail.
Where to Start
Begin at the head, removing dirt and waxy debris from ears with a soft cloth moistened with either a species-specific solution or room temperature chamomile or green tea (hold the milk and sugar) – which calms inflammation and has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Of course, store-bought cleaners can be used, but alcohol can be drying to the ear canal and can sting if your pet has scratched himself with his nails. Redness, a foul odor, or what looks like coffee grounds? Get to the vet, as these could be signs of a yeast or fungal infection or the presence of ear mites that requires treatment.
If eyes tear excessively, have a thick discharge, or if the pet is rubbing them, clean with purified water, flushing from the outer corner (upper lid gently held) so that fluid and debris run toward the snout. If that doesn't alleviate discomfort, take your leashed dog or securely towel-wrapped kitty safely into the sunlight. "A corneal lesion can cause severe squinting," explains Martin Small, DVM. "Keep your pet in a dark room until you can get him to the vet. Darkness will lessen pain as the eye dilates." Also, realize that as your dog ages, he may develop a cloudiness to the eye as the cornea hardens. However, have it checked out to ensure it is not a cataract that may affect his vision.
Observe your dog's eyes for differences in pupil size (dark round centers on dogs/ellipses on cats). If one pupil is larger (anisocoric), your pet needs prompt medical attention. Nervous system abnormalities, infection, inflammation, cancer, or trauma can be the cause. Barbara Davis of Tucson, Arizona, discovered her Rottweiler's pupils were unequally dilated and rushed him to the vet. The dog had ingested poisonous seed pods, but Davis' quick attention saved the day.
Continuing your examination, feel the muzzle. Tenderness to the touch or an unusual discharge from the nostrils should be examined by your vet.
What about the teeth? Most 2-year-old dogs that don't get brushed regularly have periodontal disease, so you can imagine what might be going on in a senior dog's mouth! In addition to brushing at least every other day, try veterinarian-approved treats to freshen breath and loosen tartar.
Think of the Rest as a Doggie Massage
The rest of your head-to-tail exam is like a gentle massage, looking and feeling for things that don't belong on your dog — bumps, tenderness, wounds, parasites, burrs, and foxtails — that may have found their way onto or into a furry coat. When you reach the chest, you should be able to feel the ribs (you may see a hint of rib on super lean breeds like Greyhounds, Whippets, or Rhodesian Ridgebacks). Breathing should be steady, 20-40 breaths per minute or a little slower, 10-30 bpm for older dogs and large breeds.
Kate Ahrens of Grand County, Colorado, was giving her dog, Bubba, a head-to-tail exam when the little guy screamed as she stretched his thigh, something she normally did without issue. After a trip to her ER vet, Bubba was diagnosed with a ruptured disc. "My veterinarian said that if I hadn't discovered his pain, it could have been several more days before he exhibited signs, delaying the help he needed," says Ahrens.
Using your fingertips, stroke your dog's abdomen, checking for hard spots and tenderness. Look at mammary glands, genitals, and "under the tail" — all should be clean with no colored discharge. If the animal is older or arthritic and can't perform his own hygiene in this area, clean with a warm wet cloth.
Keep records on your dog noting baseline vitals. Pulse is best palpated by feeling the Femoral Artery inside the thigh. Medium to large dogs should have a pulse of 60-90, while smaller dogs have a range between 90-160 beats per minute.
Long or stubby, fluffy, or hairless, your senior dog's tail should also be examined for lumps and sore spots, remembering that the base of the tail often harbors parasites. Quick Tip: If you don't notice fleas but find dirt, clean your flea comb onto a damp paper towel. If the towel turns pink, that's dried blood from the pet, so fleas are present.
Throughout your assessment, notice whether your dog's skin and coat exhibits dryness or excess shedding. The right brush can feel like a massage, stimulating oil glands in golden oldies as you stroke. Just take care not to tear skin tags (aka warts) as you comb through the coat. Should you notice anything not quite right, contact your veterinarian.
Conclude your head-to-tail check-up with a game of ball, belly rubs, or a healthy treat. Take note of habits as well: How often must the water bowl be re-filled, and how frequently does your senior guy or gal need to answer nature's call? Does your doggie lean to one side as he walks or sits, moan, or labor getting up or down? Anything unusual could be a sign that your golden oldie is suffering in silence.
Know the shortest route to your Animal Emergency Hospital. Regularly get down on all fours to keep dangers out of the reach of paws and claws. It's always a smart idea to stay prepared to handle what life throws your way by keeping your pet first aid kit up-to-date and frequently refreshing pet first aid skills.
There are no guarantees as to how long your senior dog can remain healthy and by your side. There aren't even guarantees with puppies who could have a genetic defect or get into danger. However, by being proactive in your best friend's health, you assure yourself and your dog the best chances possible for a longer, happier life together.