Dear Readers: A few weeks ago, veterinarian Sheila Fitzpatrick contacted the Ellicottville Times to ask if we’d be interested in her writing a veterinary advice column again this year. Of course, we jumped at the chance! 

Not only is Dr. Fitzpatrick an expert in her field, but you might just know her, too, because she’s a 1983 graduate of Ellicottville Central School. She’s also a graduate of Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Mountain Mobile Veterinary Service in Eagle and Vail, Colorado, where she cares for small and large animals. She’s a frequent visitor to Ellicottville where her family still lives.

By Sheila Fitzpatrick, DVM

As a veterinarian for over 25 years, I have seen so many pets come to my hospital on an emergency for medical conditions that could have been prevented or even cured, had the pet just been brought to the hospital sooner.

As I made my weekly calls to clients last week who were due to bring their pets in for their “annual “ exams, I was very surprised at the number of people who would say “I just don’t want to give my pet vaccines doc, so I’m not coming in for awhile. This brought me to realize how much emphasis is being placed on “vaccinations” and not truly the most important part of a pet’s annual visit, that is, the EXAM.

The most important assessment of your pet’s current health condition is the complete physical exam performed by your veterinarian. That annual comprehensive physical examination is a vital part of keeping your pet healthy and happy, as you strive to give your pet the longest life possible. Since pets do age so much faster than people, and cannot tell you when they don’t feel well, having your veterinarian examine your pet is the best way to give you insight into the current health condition of your pet. Remember, because your pet ages an average of 6-7 years per calendar human year, this would equilibrate to an exam every 6  to 7 years for the average person!  Currently, we recommend you have your pet examined at least once a year, and with senior pets (over 8 in average breeds), an exam every six months is recommended. Remember, pets, especially cats, are very good at masking disease and many times, it becomes too difficult or too expensive to treat the problem when clinical signs have been going on awhile, so this exam will give you that valuable insight into the health of your pet before it could be too late.

During the annual exam by the veterinarian, many systems are checked.

The eyes are examined for evidence of inherited defects in young dogs, or as a pet ages, signs of cataracts or even glaucoma.

The ears are examined for signs of infection, chronic allergies, either inhalant or food allergies, possible foreign bodies like grass awns, which could be dangerous to the internal structures of the ear.

The teeth are examined for evidence of dental disease.  Dental disease can include fractured teeth, severe “neck lesions or resorbtive cavity type,”  lesions in cats, abscessed teeth, as well as oral cancers.  If dental disease is caught early, your veterinarian can prevent dangerous systemic infections from developing as a result of the infections, which can develop in the mouth, especially in cats. In the case of oral cancers, early detection is best for treatment options.

The lymph nodes of your pet are all palpated and checked for enlargement.  Often times, just one lymph node enlarged can signify early presentation for bigger problems such as lymphoma or moderate systemic infection. Again, early detection is key for treatment options.

The heart and lungs of your pet are examined for signs of irregular heart beats, heart murmurs, increased lung sounds as well as lung infections.  Heart disease can be a “silent killer” in pets if gone undetected. Should it be found early, EKG , XRays and Cardiac Ultrasounds can be performed to further diagnose the nature of the disease and to dictate a proper treatment that can improve your pet’s quality of life in addition to longevity.   Should lung issues arise, X-rays can be performed to rule out infection, cancer or even asthma/allergic bronchitis.  Useful bloodwork can also be performed to further diagnose and dictate treatment on your pet’s potential lung problem.

The abdomen of your pet is then examined to check for enlarged organs, tumors and size of. In just a few minutes, your veterinarian can give you a lot of information on just what he/she can feel in your pet, which is useful in determining the health status of your pet at this  time. Should an anomaly be found, then your veterinarian can proceed with useful bloodwork, Xrays and even abdominal ultrasound and assure your pet has the best treatment possible.

The joints of your pet will all be examined in the annual exam as well. Inherited abnormalities, joint thickening, instability, or pain can all be detected and an appropriate treatment plan determined, and early prevention tactics can be taken .

Finally, the skin of your pet is examined. Young pets can be prone to mite infections, which if not treated, can lead to moderate hair loss. As a pet ages, thinning hair coat, excessive scaling, excessive shedding, can indicate metabolic diseases  which, with proper diagnostic blood tests, can be treated easily.

So, the next time your veterinarian calls to remind you of your pet’s annual check up, don’t put it off! There is a lot of useful information that can be gained, and you can be assured, you are doing your best to give your pet the longest, happiest life possible!