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DIY Physical Exam: An “owner’s manual” for your dog Part 3
Part 3 in 4 part guide

Welcome back for part three in our four-part DIY physical exam! This week we are going to move down to the chest area, known as the thorax. 

NECK, CHEST AND BREATHING:

Normal

  • You should not be able to hear your pet breathe at all (except with panting).
  • The act of breathing is for the most part performed by the chest wall; it should move “in and out” easily and rhythmically to and fro during respiration in an effortless way; each breath should look the same as the last.
  • The normal resting respiration rate is 15 to 60 breaths per minute; a sleeping or relaxed dog would be near the low end, while an active and engaged dog would be higher; and just like with heart rates, smaller dogs will tend to have a faster resting breathing rate than our larger dogs.

Abnormal

  • Any unusual noise heard while the dog is breathing could indicate a problem, especially if the noise is new for your pet.
  • A big concern: a change in your dog’s bark can indicate disease processes such as laryngeal paralysis (a common condition in our older large breed dogs such as Labs) or the development of a tumor in the airway.
  • Wheezing during expiration can indicate conditions such as asthma or allergic airway disease .
  • High pitched noises on inspiration indicate an obstruction of the upper airway and immediate medical attention is needed (see our previous blog).
  • Sudden or frequent sneezing can indicate foreign objects in the nasal passages, such as foxtails.
  • If there is noticeable effort by your dog to move the chest wall, or if the belly is actively involved in the process of inhaling and exhaling: these are signs of respiratory distress and can be caused by many conditions.
  • The onset of coughing in an older dog: coughing is one of the more common signs of the development of heart failure or lung cancer in dogs; x-rays of the chest will be needed to further evaluate if you notice this symptom.
  • Your dog stands with elbows held out further than normal, its neck extended out further than normal or, is unable to rest or lie down: these are all outward signs that your dog is having difficulty breathing and getting enough oxygen into its body.
  • An increased resting respiratory rate can be a sign that a previously diagnosed disease is progressing; for example: if your dog with heart disease has a normal resting rate of 15 breaths a minute, and then the resting rate goes up to 30 while asleep, then doubled rate means it’s time to see the veterinarian.

SKIN:

The skin is one of the body’s major organs and it is an important indicator of overall health. The first things to do are to simply look at, smell, and feel your dog’s skin and haircoat.

Normal

  • Shiny and smooth haircoat (except for wirehaired breeds)
  • Soft and unbroken skin
  • Minimal odor

Abnormal

  • Sparse or patchy haircoat: this can indicate underlying endocrine diseases such as Cushing’s disease.
  • Lumps and bumps, which can be normal or abnormal: many older dogs can develop accumulations of fatty tissue known as lipomas; in order to differentiate these benign masses from cancerous ones, an aspirate can be performed (collection of cells with a small needle); this simple and quick procedure can help your veterinarian determine the nature of the lump and help you decide if further tests or treatment are needed.
  • Open sores or wounds, or any ulcerated area of skin.
  • Foul or rancid odor: this can indicate a bacterial or yeast infection in the skin.

SKIN TURGOR TEST:

The skin turgor test is one of the most helpful ways to determine whether your pet is well hydrated; although this test can be affected by several factors other than hydration status, such as weight loss, age and general skin condition, it can help you to make a rough determination of the hydration status. To perform this test, pull up the skin over the neck or back into “a tent” and release it quickly: it should return quickly to its resting position. If the skin returns slowly to position, or if remains slightly tented, then this is a good indication that your pet is dehydrated.

That sums up the thorax region of our pets, including one of the other major organs—the skin.  Keep practicing your physical exam skills—it’s definitely a win/win for your dog! Not only does your pet get a good “once over” from you, he or she gets even more hands-on attention in the process. See you next week as we move to the last parts of the body which will include the abdomen and musculoskeletal system.

Check out DIY Physical Exam: Part 2 of this series if you missed it.

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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