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The Physical Examination in Cats (and its Importance)



The physical examination and the patient history are two of the most critically important functions that a veterinarian performs. The importance of these two veterinarian functions cannot be stressed enough. Because our patients can't tell us directly what "hurts," or why or if they don't feel well, we rely on a thorough physical examination and patient history to help guide us in making a diagnosis, as well as in determining which diagnostic tests, if necessary, would be most appropriate to perform in order to reach a diagnosis. Additionally, because vaccinations are not without some risk, and certainly should not be given to animals who aren't healthy enough to mount an appropriate immune response to the vaccine, a physical examination is essential prior to the administration of any vaccine.

Except in rare instances, all examinations performed at Cat Hospital of Chicago are complete and thorough examinations. These examinations include a thorough check of both the superficial and deep ear canals, the eyes (including retinal examinations, especially on older cats), nose, mouth/gums/teeth, skin/coat, auscultation of the heart and lungs, palpation of the abdomen, palpation of peripheral lymph nodes, body temperature and weight, and a general assessment of the overall appearance of the animal and his or her posture, gait, neurologic status, attitude, etc. A very important part of the examination is observing your cat's demeanor, gait, posture, etc. as he or she acclimates to the exam room environment.

In addition to the physical examination, the patient history provides extremely important information to the veterinarian. It is not uncommon for the history and physical examination to provide as much, and often more, information than does the laboratory work, x-rays,etc. The patient history includes inquiring about diet/diet changes, changes in water intake/urine output, information on bowel movements, questions regarding vomiting, behavior changes, appetite, changes in "pecking order" with other cats in the home, changes in mobility/ability to jump, whether the patient spends any time outside, what medications the cat is taking, whether the cat has done any traveling recently, status of viral testing and vaccine history for the patient (if a new patient on whom we don't have previous veterinary records), the health and vaccine status of other cats in the home, and so on. For those patients who are seen because of "behavioral" problems (inappropriate urination, scratching, aggression, etc.), a thorough "behavioral" history is taken in addition to the above "standard" history. This may include questions regarding number of litter boxes, location of litter boxes, type of litter, how often box(es) are cleaned, maps of the home, dynamics among cats in the home, etc. It is not uncommon for the patient history and physical examination alone on a cat presenting for a behavioral problem take 30-45 minutes.

BOTTOM LINE: We can't stress enough the importance of the physical exam and the patient history!

Because as a rule, cats don't "act sick" until they are advanced in their disease process, it is not uncommon for cats to have disease processes that are picked up at a routine patient visit/medical progress exam PRIOR to the cat exhibiting overt signs at home.

At Cat Hospital of Chicago, we recommend that physical examinations be performed at least annually for healthy, young cats; for healthy, geriatric cats, we will often recommend twice-yearly exams (again, in hopes of picking up a medical problem prior to the onset of clinical symptoms); twice yearly exams, or even more often in some cases, are recommended for cats with conditions such as hyperthyroidism, renal failure, diabetes, cancer, cardiac disease, hypertension, etc.



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