Do you know what veterinarians are looking for during your dog’s physical exam? Learn what to look for so you can involve yourself in the process.

Vets have all the luck. Their patients are cute, furry and don’t ask for second opinions. Well, at least not usually. A trusted, loving vet plays such a critical role in the health and well-being of your dog. But you’re curious (and maybe you’ve wanted to ask), what exactly is your vet examining during a physical checkup of your pet?

For the answer, the Woof Report turned to Dr. Patty Khuly’s recent post at PetMD (you’ve heard us mention Dr. Khuly before since we’re fans of her blog). Every vet has their own examination methods of course, but here’s a quick look at her top ten elements of the vet physical exam. These will help you, as Dr. Khuly explains, “interpret what your vet is doing,” and encourage you to “ask questions and involve yourself in the process.”

From vital signs to intangible signs of canine health, a good vet will exam your dog from head to tail to assess her state of health. Here’s a quick primer on each step in the process, and be sure to read the full article at the link below for all of the details.

#1. General overview

Your vet takes your pet’s vital signs, notes any immediate impressions in attitude as well and assesses her total “body condition score.”

#2. The head

By looking closely at the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and teeth, your vet can check for discharge, levels of hydration and other critical signs of health.

#3.  Skin and coat

A close look at the skin and coat can tip off the vet to fleas, ticks, lumps and general hydration.

#4.  The chest

By listening to your pet’s chest with a stethoscope, vets “try to alter your pet’s breathing pattern with our hands on the nose and mouth and feel the pulses as they relate to the beats of the heart.” To help the vet stay focused, it’s best to stay quiet during this aspect of the exam.

#5.  Circulatory

By feeling for the pulse during the chest exam, your vet also checks the refill time for the mucous membranes and that pulses are well synchronized with the heartbeat.

#6.  Orthopedics

Your vet takes the time to assess the symmetry of the musculature and your pet’s mobility by observing how your pet moves and physically moving the limbs in their joints.

#7.  The abdomen

By palpating the abdomen, the vet can assess the size and texture of the organs and identify any abnormal masses.

#8. Lymph nodes

Vets palpate the nodes in the neck, in front of the shoulders, and behind the knees and look for enlarged lymph nodes throughout the body.

#9. Neurologic

By testing basic reflexes and cranial nerves, vets can review basic neurologic response.

#10. The invisible intangibles

Little things like your pet’s scent or motion may cue your vet to other problems. Experienced vets are often successful at identifying health issues that don’t present themselves with obvious signs.

The Scoop:

Read the full article from Dr. Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA at (check out her well-read blog,, too)

Thank you to Bruce Toombs and Wrinkles for the photo.

Originally posted September 2009; reviewed and updated September 2018.