Written by Dianne Cook, LVT
With everything going on in the world, many pet parents have been spending considerably more time at home over the past few months. While humans are rather divided on the topic, most of our furry companions couldn’t be happier to have us around more often. After all, less time at the office means more time to play, more treats, and more mid-afternoon snuggle-sessions. The additional quality time with your pet is not only a great way to strengthen the human-animal bond – it’s a perfect excuse to start performing routine, basic wellness exams in the safety and comfort of your own home. By routinely completing the wellness checklist below, you can familiarize yourself with your pet’s “normal,” making it easier to spot subtle changes that may warrant medical attention.
Why Do a Wellness Exam at Home?
While nothing can compare to the experience of a trained veterinarian, doing a quick check-up at home between routine veterinary visits can serve as a form of preventative medicine. As prey species, small mammals are experts at hiding signs of illness or discomfort. Unfortunately, this inherently stoic disposition means even the most well-meaning pet parent can miss the subtle signs of a brewing health issue. Performing a thorough “once over” on your pet, along with regular behavior observations, can help you detect abnormalities as they first appear. Addressing concerns before they have a chance to balloon into a bigger problem will help limit potential complications and aid in a quick, smooth recovery.
While some small pets love being up close and personal with their humans, others are less enthusiastic about being handled. It is important to be thoughtful of your pet’s personal preferences. To keep your kiddo’s stress at a minimum, perform your examination in a safe, familiar environment. If you and your little one already enjoy regularly scheduled cuddle time, your small friend may simply mistake their wellness exam for an especially thorough massage. If your kiddo prefers to remain “socially distant,” however, treats, patience, and a lot of praise can help create a positive association with the increased physical contact. Always respect your little one’s boundaries and never force an interaction when your pet is stressed or acting aggressively. The goal of at-home check-ups is to keep your kiddo as healthy as possible, not induce unnecessary stress. Even if your pet never warms up to the idea of a full-body exam, you can still complete several steps of the following checklist simply by observing your friend from a safe, mutually-appreciated distance.
Nose to Tail
Though there is no set rule, when looking over your pet, it is often easiest to work from the front of the body to the back of the body. If your pet becomes overly stressed, stop the examination and pick-up where you left off after your kiddo has had time to calm down. If you make any abnormal discoveries during the exam, make a note and call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
You can often assess eye health by simply gazing into your pet’s soulful peepers, making it an easy exam for pets who are not fans of being handled or having their faces touched.
- Normal: Healthy eyes are bright, clear, and free of discharge. Both eyes should be wide and alert.
- Abnormal: Squinting, repetitive winking/blinking or red, inflamed eyes (possibly with discharge or excess tear production), could be a sign of infection or injury. Swollen or bulging eyes, or eyes that have taken on a cloudy hue, can be a sign of underlying illness.
If your furry companion has smaller, rounded ears, you may have a little trouble visualizing the inner folds and opening to the ear canal. Pets with long or floppy ears or those with hair that covers the ears may take a bit more effort to get a good look. If your friend is comfortable with it, you may be able to use a small light to get a better look at the dark recesses within the ear. It is incredibly important to never stick anything down inside your pet’s ear canal.
- Normal: Healthy ears should be clean and free of any odors. The opening to the ear canal should be easily visible with no signs of inflammation or swelling. A small amount of wax build-up is to be expected but excess wax should be gently wiped clean with warm water and a soft cloth or cotton ball. The hair around the ears should be clean and mat-free.
- Abnormal: Red, irritated, inflamed ears are unhappy ears. Thick, purulent (pus-like) discharge, or sticky, dark debris can indicate a seething infection or a parasitic infestation. Take note of any swelling of the pinna (the outer ear “flap”, made up of ridged cartilage covered by skin) or ear canal, or any new lumps, bumps, or growths. Pungent, fruity, or otherwise unpleasant aromas do not belong.
A stuffy nose may not seem like a big deal, but as obligate nasal breathers (they should breathe through their nose rather than their mouth), congestion can be a very worrisome sign in our small companions. Luckily, it should be quite easy to get a good look at your pet’s sniffer without having to invade their personal bubble.
- Normal: Noses should be clean and free from any discharge and your pet should be able to breathe easily through both nostrils.
- Abnormal: Watery, thick, or crusty discharge should be taken very seriously. Listen to your pet closely as they breathe. Note any wheezing or stuffy sounds upon inhale or exhale. Though every animal sneezes from time to time, excessive sneezing should be noted. Your pet’s nostrils should never appear swollen or clogged. Open mouth breathing should be reported to your vet immediately.
An awful lot is going on inside those teeny-tiny mouths. Though it’s nearly impossible to get a good look in the back of your little friend’s mouth at home, you should be able to get a decent idea of your pet’s oral health through general observations and minimal physical manipulation.
- Normal: Your pet’s mouth should be clean and dry. If the upper and lower lips are gently pulled back, the incisors (front teeth) should be aligned.
- Abnormal: Watch for any sores, lumps, or wounds in or around your pet’s mouth. Excessive drooling can indicate dental or other oral health concerns. Observe your pet closely as they eat and watch for dropped food or difficulty chewing/swallowing. Reluctance to take food, reduction in food consumed, or a sudden inability or aversion to opening their mouth is worrisome.
Not only are your pet’s feet adorable, they are incredibly important for maintaining overall health. While you may be able to observe general foot health from afar, you will likely have to handle your pet to some degree to get a true idea of their foot fitness.
- Normal: Your pet should be placing equal weight on all four feet and should be able to walk, run, jump, and climb without favoring any of their limbs. The space between the toes should be clean and dry. Toenails should be strong and appropriately trimmed.
- Abnormal: Though some species of small mammals are more prone to podiatry concern than others, pet parents of all species need to watch for any sores, abrasions, calluses, or discolorations noted on your little one’s feet. Pay attention to the space in between the toes, looking for redness, irritation/inflammation, dampness, or an unpleasant smell. If toenails are overgrown, they can start to curl and impede your little one’s ability to properly ambulate, which can increase the risk of obesity and joint concerns. If you are uncomfortable trimming your pet’s nails at home, seek the assistance of an exotics friendly veterinary practice.
Fur, Skin, and Body Condition
Monitoring your pet’s coat and overall body condition requires a more hands-on approach. Running your hands over your pet’s body will allow you to feel for any abnormalities and assess your pet’s body condition (level of body fat). Some of our more physically affectionate friends will revel in the additional attention, but if yours is less socially inclined, you may have to perform a modified examination tailored to meet their comfort level.
- Normal: Your pet’s fur should be healthy and conform to breed standards. When the fur is parted, the skin should be clean, dry, and well-hydrated. You should be able to feel your pet’s ribs with gentle pressure, indicating a healthy weight.
- Abnormal: Dull, brittle, stringy, or thin/patchy hair could be the first indication of an underlying health concern. As you run your hands through your pet’s fur, check their skin for any signs of irritation, flakiness, or unusual bruising or discoloration. Small, black flecks where fur meets skin could be an indication of external parasites. During the exam, feel for any lumps or bumps either on the skin’s surface or just below. Your pet’s ribs or other bony structures should not feel sharp or be visible through their hair coat, nor should your pet be so rotund, ribs cannot be felt at all. Though geared toward rabbit and guinea pig parents, learn more about the specific guidelines to help assess if your pet is over- or underweight.
Though not the most glamorous portion of a complete wellness exam, it is important to keep a close eye on your little one’s hind end as well as their fecal and urinary output. Depending on species and hair coat, you may be able to assess this in your pet with minimal handling.
- Normal: Your buddy’s bottom should be clean and free from matted hair. Fecal output should be consistent, with fecal pellets of similar size being the norm. Your little one should be able to urinate freely, and the urine itself should be a healthy pale yellow to yellow color, though brightly colored foods (such as red bell pepper and carrots) can change urine pigment to some degree. It is important to note that rabbits and guinea pigs, specifically, have naturally occurring calcium sediment in their urine which can cause the urine to have a milky appearance. To learn more about the unique urinary challenges faced by rabbits and guinea pigs, read the following article: Bladder Sludge in Rabbits and Guinea Pigs.
- Abnormal: No one likes a sloppy bottom! Any signs of swelling, fur discoloration, redness, or matted fur around your pet’s rectum and/or genitals are cause for concern. Decreased fecal output, fecal pellets of varying size, soft stools, and/or diarrhea should be addressed as quickly as possible. If you notice your pet is straining to urinate, or if they are grunting, crying out, or otherwise appear to be uncomfortable while urinating, they should be seen immediately. Though brightly colored foods can change the color of your pet’s waste, it is important to make note of any abnormally colored urine and feces, especially if you are concerned there may be blood.
Mentation, Mobility, and Appetite
The final aspect of a complete wellness exam is simply careful observation. While it is important to keep track of all the physical changes you note during an at-home check-up, it is equally important to observe for more subtle changes.
- Normal: Small mammals should be bright, alert, and responsive and tend to keep relatively consistent wake/sleep schedules. They should be sound on all four limbs and able to run, jump, climb, and dig without hesitation. Perpetually curious by nature, they should be eager to explore their surroundings and investigate anything new in their environment. Appetite should be consistent.
- Abnormal: Increased lethargy, inactivity, or a lack of desire to interact with their humans and/or environment should be red flags. Limping, limb dragging, or a sudden hesitation to jump or climb may indicate pain. If your friend starts to eat less, or becomes completely uninterested in food, they should be seen as soon as possible.
The best way to keep track of the results from your wellness check is to keep accurate records. Keeping a simple, though detailed chart (like the one below) allows you to visually compare results from one check to the next and will allow you to easily recall findings when speaking to your vet. Keeping a record next to your fur baby’s cage ensures ready access for easy recording.
As dedicated pet parents, we all want our fur babies to live long, comfortable lives. Though a thorough at-home wellness exam is no substitute for routine veterinary care, keeping a close eye on your little one between visits is the best way to ensure abnormalities are caught and addressed by your veterinarian as quickly as possible. The above checklist is a great starting point for monitoring your pet’s health, but if you should ever observe anything outside of your pet’s “normal”, it is always best to call your vet.