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What does a veterinary examination involve?

At every routine health check, your vet will assess a wide range of parameters during a physical examination (also called a clinical examination) to assess your cat’s health. The picture below highlights some of these.

Stress and the clinical examination

Most cats, having been transported to the veterinary clinic and being in a very unfamiliar environment will inevitably be stressed by the time a physical examination is performed. We encourage both owners and the veterinary care team to take a very gentle approach to cats in the examination room. Where possible, to let them come out of the carrier/basket on their own, and have time to become accustomed to the room. The examination should be interrupted if the cat becomes anxious, to allow it to calm down.

Eyes, ears, nose and mouth

Cats can develop a number of abnormalities relating to their eyes. Sometimes these will be diseases of the eyes themselves, and sometimes they may reflect underlying internal problems. Your vet will assess your cat’s eyes carefully for changes including any discharges or swellings, the size and symmetry of the pupils (central opening of the eye). Your vet may examine the back of the eye with an ophthalmoscope – in exactly the same way as we would have our eyes examined – to detect any changes that may be going inside the eye.

Your cat’s nose will also be evaluated, again for changes such as swellings, discharge or blockage. Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell and a variety of infectious (eg, cat flu) and non-infectious diseases can affect the nose.

Your cat’s ears will also be examined to detect any abnormal discharges or smell. Examination of the deeper part of the ear (the ear canal) may be performed with an instrument called an otoscope. In older cats especially, your vet may also assess hearing ability, as this can be impaired as cats age.

All routine examinations will also include careful evaluation of your cat’s mouth and teeth. For young cats, it is important to assess development of their permanent (adult) teeth, while for older cats your vet will be particularly looking for any signs of dental disease or gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), both of which are common and painful problems in cats.

It is a great idea to get your cat used to having its ears and mouth examined when it is still a kitten. If cats become accustomed to this, it makes the examination in the vet clinic very much easier. Talk to your clinic staff about how you can do this at home, as well as perhaps how you can clean your cat’s teeth on a regular basis too – this will help enormously in preventing dental disease later in life.

Chest and abdomen

By watching and observing your cat, and by feeling and listening to its chest (with a stethoscope) your vet will assess your cat’s breathing and heart rate, the heart and lung sounds and their rhythms. Percussion (tapping the side of the chest) may also be performed to further assess the lungs and chest.

By carefully feeling your cat’s abdomen, your vet can evaluate a number of internal organs such as the stomach and intestines, the liver and spleen, and the kidneys and bladder. This has to be done very carefully, but your vet will be able to check for any signs of pain or discomfort, and for any swelling or other change in the size or shape of these organs.

Thyroid glands

Especially in Mature, Senior and Super Senior cats, evaluation of the thyroid glands is important. These are two small glands located in the neck near the larynx (voice box). Although difficult to feel in a normal cat, in a cat that has developed a condition called hyperthyroidism (a common condition in older cats where the thyroid gland becomes overactive), the glands often become enlarged.

Joints and mobility

During a full examination, your vet will also feel (palpate) your cat’s muscles and joints to detect any signs of problems such as pain, swelling or abnormal loss of muscle quantity. Osteoarthritis is now recognised as a common problem in Mature and older cats (the disease tends to get more common and more severe as cats get older). Your vet may therefore ask you questions about your cat’s mobility, or ask you to fill out a short questionnaire about this.

Hair coat, skin and lymph nodes

A careful examination of your cat’s hair coat, skin, and palpation (feeling) for any swellings, lumps or bumps in or under the skin will also be carried out. Changes in the quality of the hair coat can be an important indicator of underlying internal disease, nutritional problems or the presence of skin disease or parasites (such as fleas). Your vet may also use a special comb to try to detect whether fleas are present or not (this is a remarkably common problem in cats, even if we don’t like to think about it!).

Various lymph nodes (sometimes referred to as lymph glands) can also be felt during the examination. These are an important part of the immune system in cats, and they can become swollen or enlarged and sometimes painful in many different diseases.