Annual or semi-annual veterinary checkups are essential to keeping your assistance dog healthy and happy, but you’re her first line of defense against the effects of illness and injury. Nobody knows the details of how your dog normally looks, feels, and acts as well as you. Often, changes to these norms are the first warning signs of disease. And in most cases, the earlier a health problem is discovered, the more effectively (and cost-effectively) it can be treated.
Grooming, bathing, and playing offer good opportunities to check over your service dog, and you should take advantage of them. But dedicated weekly home health exams are the single best way to proactively protect your dog’s long-term well being.
Below are basic steps for performing a thorough examination of your dog. Once you get it down, it should only take about 10 minutes. Contact your vet about any causes for concern or changes to what’s normal.
Follow a Routine and Make Notes
Establish a home health exam routine to help your assistance dog become accepting of the practice and to help you remember everything you should do. As you carefully look over and feel your dog (more on this below), learn about her appearance and feel. When you notice lumps, bumps, and other characteristics, record them in a log with the date, location, size, and any other relevant characteristics. This can be an essential diagnostic tool if there’s ever a problem.
Ears are a common site of trouble in dogs. They’re susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections, ear mites, allergic irritation, and even just excessive dirtiness that can cause discomfort and impaired hearing. The interior of your dog’s ears should be clean, smooth, pink, and free of wounds. Check them closely for cuts or scabs, swelling, blood, discharge, crust, an unpleasant odor, and other abnormalities.
Clear, bright, moist eyes are positive signs of good health. Look for sunken eyes, cloudiness, reddish or yellowed whites of the eyes, off-centered eyeballs, pupils unevenly sized or that don’t respond to light and dark stimuli, dryness, discharge, crust, or additional irregularities. Check the eyelids for growths, redness, and inflammation, too.
No facial feature varies from dog to dog quite as much as the nose. In general, your service dog’s nose should be clean and slightly moist, but some are naturally dryer and warmer than others. While a little snot is bound to appear from time to time, watch for chronic running or stuffiness, discharge, blood, crusting, and cracked skin. Feel the nose for any variation in its normal temperature.
Gently roll back your dog’s lips and make sure all her teeth are clean, white, and whole, and that her gums are pink. Rub any discolored spots on the teeth or gums to see if they come off easily. If there’s noticeable tartar buildup, schedule a professional dental cleaning. Discoloration, red or inflamed gums, and teeth with cracks, chips, or other damage call for a vet visit, too. Check for growths in the mouth, and while dog breath isn’t known for being the freshest of scents, it should be bearable, not overwhelming; foul breath can indicate poor dental hygiene, dental disease, or other health concerns.
Body, Skin, and Coat
Your dog’s skin and coat are strong indicators of her overall health. Examine the skin for wounds, dryness, cracking, bleeding, crusting, redness, irritation, bald spots, and parasites. And while coats vary quite a bit, they should generally be clean, odor-free, soft, and very slightly oily. Methodically feel all over your dog’s body for swelling, lumps, bumps, sensitive spots, hard spots, changes to the normal feel of bones and muscles, and other abnormalities.
Your dog’s paws deserve special attention during home health exams, especially because debris easily gets stuck and causes discomfort or pain. Spread your dog’s toes, looking and feeling between them. Examine the tops, bottoms, and between the toes for wounds, stickers or other impaled debris, and rough spots. Make sure the claws and dewclaws aren’t too long or growing inward.
Beneath the Tail
It’s not the most dignified part of a home health exam (for you or your dog), but it’s important to check around her anus. There, you can find signs of internal parasites and infected anal sacs. Look closely at the area around the anus and genitals for redness, swelling, or irritation, and watch for excessive licking of the area. Also, keep an eye out for little white things that look like grains of cooked rice; these are tapeworm eggs.
Remain consistent with your home health exams. Catching changes in your assistance dog are the best way to ensure early detection of potentially serious health concerns. Your vet is not as likely as you to notice subtle or gradual physical changes. And while a log book may seem like extra work, it will prove useful if you can’t remember when you first noticed something or exactly what its characteristics were, and it can also provide valuable diagnostic clues for your vet.
Remember to discuss with your vet anything you notice that’s new or changing, or if you observe any of the warning signs mentioned above. Early recognition of a serious problem can save the life of your assistance dog.