Just like human medicine, early detection of canine disease improves the odds of a successful outcome. That’s why integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby is passionate about teaching you her five-minute weekly dog health and wellness scan. By committing to this at-home assessment, you’ll learn your dog’s baseline as well as basic skills that will help you monitor for changes. Should a problem arise, you’ll be poised to fast-track diagnosis with your veterinarian. Ultimately, these 10 touches could save your dog’s life.
I absolutely love showering Jake, my sweet hound, with affection.
Sure, he enjoys having his belly rubbed, head stroked, and back scratched. But if I’m honest, I think it brings me more joy than it does him. I just love being close to my dog.
I know you can relate.
Keeping your dog healthy from tip to tail
Petting your furry friend is a “sport” you’ve already mastered. Good thing, too—because that’s the exact prerequisite you need for a new at-home healthcare habit I’m going to teach you in this week’s blog. It’s called the 5-Minute Tip-to-Tail Wellness Scan™. Learning these ten specific touches will equip you to understand and monitor your dog’s health on a whole new level. Think of it as petting with a purpose!
My 5-Minute Tip-to-Tail Wellness Scan combines petting your dog with scanning his body in a methodical way to detect changes. Performing it weekly is recommended and all the more important as your dog ages. I’m confident through these ten touches, you’ll develop confidence as your dog’s advocate, a deeper bond of trust with your dog, and a closer partnership with your veterinarian.
Practice makes perfect
A few years ago, our family visited the Money Museum in Kansas City. We learned that the Secret Service is the branch of government in charge of counterfeit money. Who knew? Surprisingly, the way agents train to identify fake money is not by scrutinizing counterfeit money. They train by looking at real money—over and over and over and over again so that when they see a counterfeit bill, it jumps out at them.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do with our weekly wellness scan. You’re going to do it over and over and over while the weeks and the months and the years march on, so that when something changes, it will jump out at you. And those changes will be your red flags, alarm bells, and blaring sirens in your mission—early detection of your dog’s health concerns.
Before jumping into the 10 touches, I want to share a personal (and somewhat embarrassing) story with you that shows how important it is that you examine every part of your dog on a regular basis. As a new vet, I had to learn that the hard way.
Learning the hard way
The week after I graduated from veterinary school, I examined a patient during a routine vaccine visit. I was so new in my career that my physical exams were rather scrambled. I simply checked the dog over with no specific plan, pattern, or method.
I thought everything had gone well…until the next day. The client called, and she was irate—justifiably irate. She told the receptionist, “My dog has a rash all over her belly. I was just there yesterday and the vet didn’t even mention it.”
And it’s true, I had not.
During the exam, I never even looked at the dog’s belly. I examined the dog’s topside thoroughly but never looked under the dog. Of course, we brought the client back in and made it right, but I learned an embarrassing lesson.
From that day forward, I learned to perform physical examinations like a pilot going through a pre-flight checklist—slow, methodical, and with purpose. Twenty-three years later, it’s second nature.
As you begin your dog’s 5-Minute Tip-to-Tail Wellness Scans, you’ll need to train yourself to do them in a very specific repeatable pattern week after week, or sadly, you’re bound to miss something just like I did.
10 touches that could save your dog’s life
For many of us, the best way to learn is by doing. I invite you to sit down with your dog and go through these 10 touches together in real-time. The first three touches are going to cover the whole dog’s body…looking at the “forest” so to speak. The last seven touches cover very specific parts of the dog’s body where we will be admiring the individual “trees.”
I like to begin with a warmup exercise. This should feel to the dog like a quick full body rub. It should be a bonding time and very comfortable for you both. We want to set the tone for this to be a happy, positive experience.
So begin now by long strokes, petting your dog’s back and sides and down the legs. Work towards a mellow and thoughtful mood—not excited and playful. After a few minutes, you are going to change those strokes from random to intentional.
Touch 1: The body condition score
Body condition score is a big term, but it essentially means assessing your dog’s weight—but not just his weight in pounds. It’s your dog’s weight for his frame size.
It’s hard when a client asks, “What should my dog weigh?” They’re often looking for a precise number down to the decimal point. It’s much more accurate to look at things from the standpoint of a body condition score because it takes into account the dog’s weight in relation to his individual build and frame.
Weight has been statistically correlated in both human and veterinary medicine to health and life span. It’s something pet parents need to take very seriously. So let’s turn our hands and eyes to our dog’s “waistline” as you learn how to body condition score (BCS) your dog.
1. Look for fat over the ribs
First, take the palms of your hands and stroke them down the rib cage on both sides, starting on either side of the spine and moving down to the belly. I usually do this while standing or sitting behind the dog with his rump towards me and his head facing away from me. (So kneel down behind your dog or have your little dog in your lap.)
Second, move your hands to your dog’s shoulder/elbow area and slowly move your palms toward the tail. The goal is to easily feel the ribs without seeing them.
2. Look from the side
Next, we’re going to do a quick visual inspection from the side. We’re looking for what I call the “racehorse tuck.” We don’t want to see a doggie beer belly—the belly sagging from the side. We want that abdomen to follow a bit of an upward curve toward the hind legs.
3. Look from above
Finally, when viewed from above, you’re looking to see that your dog’s chest is wider than his abdomen. Your dog should not look like an oval or a rectangle when you stand over him and look down at his general shape. He or she should have a tapered “waist” just behind the rib cage, moving back to the hips.
As a side note, I will tell you that clients often come to me for a second or third opinion about their dog’s weight. They are usually willing to do just about anything to help their senior dogs be more mobile and more comfortable. I tell every single client that the simplest and most valuable step they can take in their dog’s health management is maintaining their dog at a healthy, normal weight. It’s mission-critical.
More than 50% of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, so you’re in good company if your dog falls into that majority, but you absolutely need to transform your dog into a leaner version of himself under your veterinarian’s supervision. For some weight management tips, check out these two articles:
- How to Help a Dog Lose Weight (Without Losing Your Mind)
- Is My Dog Overweight? Your 7 Most Weighty Questions Answered
Touch 2: The skin and coat
As we continue stroking the whole dog, we’re now going to turn our attention to assessing his skin and coat. More specifically, we’re looking for external parasites like fleas and ticks, which put your canine companion at serious risk of tick-borne disease in dogs. (If your dog’s lifestyle or environment puts him at risk for tick exposure, you should actually be doing this step daily, even if you are faithful with monthly flea and tick control.)
When petting your dog, you intuitively go with the lay of the fur. But in order to see down to the skin, you need to push the hair out of the way in sections and slowly move forward towards your dog’s head, examining the coat and skin from tail to head. While positioned behind your dog with him facing away from you, take the side of your thumb, starting back at the base of the tail, and flip the hair back against the grain.
Why do you think I want you to start at the base of the tail? If you said “Fleas!” you are absolutely right. Fleas tend to congregate around the tail head, and it’s the first place a veterinarian will look when checking for the pesky parasites (and their droppings called flea dirt.)
PRO TIP: If you ever find specks of black in your dog’s coat, and you’re not sure if it’s run-of-the-mill outdoor dirt or if it’s flea dirt, here’s how you can distinguish the two. Take that black speck and streak it across a wet paper towel. If it leaves a brownish-red mark, it’s flea dirt, which is actually digested blood, hence the color. Standard dirt will not change color.
Next, we’re going to lift up one leg at a time and view the skin on the corresponding underside of the dog. This is important because the skin is less furry here and more visible, but also because the abdomen, groin, and axilla (doggie armpits) are more affected by certain skin conditions. It’s so valuable for you to understand what your dog’s “normal” is here.
Touch 3: Lumps and lymph nodes
Let’s move on to touch number three, the two L’s—lumps and lymph nodes. You will now run your hands over your entire dog again, this time paying attention to the presence of any lumps or bumps.
Just like humans, lymph nodes are located in specific places in the dog’s body:
- The submandibular lymph nodes are under the dog’s jaw.
- The pre-scapular lymph nodes are in front of the shoulder blades.
- The axillary lymph nodes are in the armpits.
- The inguinal lymph nodes are deep in the groin and hard to feel even when enlarged.
- The popliteal lymph nodes are on the back of the hind legs, behind the dog’s knees.
Normal here is not feeling anything when you check these spots. Lymph nodes are pea-sized to maybe grape-sized in a very big dog, so if all is well you shouldn’t feel anything at all.
If you find a lump on your dog, whether you believe it to be an enlarged lymph node or a tumor, make an appointment with your veterinarian. I love the mantra of Dr. Sue Ettinger, a board-certified veterinary oncologist, who says that if a lump is pea-sized or greater and has been there for at least a month, it needs to be aspirated. Once again, knowing your dog’s baseline is a critical to quickly noticing when a lump has popped up.
Even board-certified veterinary oncologists—the best of the best—cannot determine the nature of a mass simply by looking at it. You need to evaluate extracted cells under a microscope to get answers. Fine needle aspiration accomplishes this.
Fine needle aspiration is the process of drawing out cells for analysis under a microscope. It’s a simple, relatively pain-free procedure that can be done in the exam room while your dog stands beside you. It’s no big deal for the dog and can often yield a diagnosis without the more invasive step of biopsy.
To learn more about how veterinarians diagnose lumps and bumps and to see a short video of a fine needle aspiration, check out my article on lipoma in dogs.
Touch 4: The ears
The next three touches are all on your dog’s head.
Touch four is the ears, and in all fairness, the ears probably aren’t one of the touches that will save your dog’s life. However, ear disease is really painful, so it’s critical you’re proactive about monitoring them.
Veterinarians use all of their senses when trying to make a diagnosis, and I need you to do the same. Try not to be grossed out. You’re going to have to take one for the team as you look—and sniff—your dog’s ears. Discharge and odor are both red flags. An offensive smell generally indicates an ear infection (i.e. otitis in dogs) because the odor is produced by yeast or bacteria.
First, you’re going to gently flip back the pinna—the flap of the ear—and look for any sort of discharge or debris. Certainly, there is diagnostic value in taking debris from an ear, smearing it on a microscope slide, and looking at it on a cellular level to determine the offending pathogen and the best treatment plan.
But I’m not asking you to diagnose anything. I’m just asking you to notice, “Hey, my dog’s ear is pinker than normal. It has gunk in it. There’s a funky smell,” and understand that it warrants a veterinary visit. As I said, ear problems are painful for pets and a prime example of early detection equaling faster treatment times, simpler treatment protocols, and better outcomes.
Touch 5: The eyes
For touch five, you’re going to look in your dog’s eyes. Because you’re initiating a staredown, use caution even with your own dog. Go slow and be reassuring. Expect your dog to frequently avert his eyes out of respect.
Use your index finger and thumb to gently open the eyelids. You’ll need to do this inspection quickly because most dogs won’t hold this pose long. Look at the lids, the whites of the eyes, and peer into the pupil itself.
You’re scanning for anything abnormal—swelling, redness, color changes, or growths. Get into the habit of also noticing your dog’s normal pupil size since changes in pupil size and position can indicate problems ranging from pain to brain disease. In senior dogs, rapid eye movement can also be a classic indicator of a condition called old dog vestibular disease.
If you’re not sure if something looks normal, check the other eye to identify the corresponding structure. If you find something in one eye that doesn’t exist in the other, call your veterinarian. Eye problems like glaucoma in dogs are very painful and can turn into emergencies fast. They aren’t something to mess around with.
Senior dogs may also have nuclear sclerosis in dogs (a normal age related change to the lens) and cataracts in dogs (an abnormal opacity of the lens). These two conditions—one serious and one not—can look similar to many dog parents. So it is important you consult your vet anytime you notice eye changes.
Touch 6: The mouth, lips, gums, and tongue
Touch number six is the mouth, lips, gums, and tongue. This touch is all about observing color.
You don’t want to learn how to do this during a health crisis because you won’t be able to do it accurately. The weekly scan is the perfect time to learn where to check your dog’s gum color and your dog’s normal shade of pink.
Pretty in pink
I could have written a book called 50 Shades of Grey, and it wouldn’t have been R rated. It would have been about knowing your dog’s normal mucous membrane color because gray is a shade we never want to see. Some dogs have pigmented, black gums, but even then, you should be able to find a section of non-pigmented tissue to assess for pink mucous membranes.
Looking at the color of the tongue is also important. Just like the gums, we’re looking for a healthy pink rosy color. Any shade of blue, gray, purple, or white is likely a critical veterinary emergency.
As a measure of hydration, you can also rub your index finger across your dog’s gums while holding up their lip. Your finger should glide over the gums because there should be enough moistness on the membranes to act as a “lubricant.” If instead, you find the gums to be dry or tacky, often this indicates dehydration or a more serious health issue.
As with all these touches, if you have more than one dog in your house, you can look at their gums and compare, to better help you understand what normal looks like.
Check those pearly whites
You will also be assessing the teeth in this step to make sure they’re not cracked or fractured. Use right-to-left symmetry to help you understand your dog’s normal. If you’re concerned that the crown of a tooth looks weird, check the same tooth on the other side for comparison. It’s not uncommon for dogs to fracture teeth. So if you note any abnormality, please follow up with your veterinarian.
Lastly, open your dog’s mouth completely and take a quick peek “down the hatch.” The mouth is a very common place for dogs to get cancer, so you should be checking for any masses in the throat, mouth, or lips to the best of your ability.
To learn more about dental disease in dogs, check out my article: Dental Disease in Dogs: Why Prevention is the Best Medicine.
Touch 7: The legs, paws, and nails
Your dog is probably going to relax a little as you move away from his head and on to the rest of the body. So this is a good place to give a treat, offer some praise, and breathe.
You are now going to scan your dog’s legs, paws, and nails. And it’s great that we have four legs on a dog because that allows for a symmetrical standard to measure against if you ever wonder if something is abnormal. We’ve talked about the gift of symmetry throughout all these touches, but it’s especially helpful for the legs.
Please cup your hands around your dog’s front legs, as close to the body as possible, and then slide down both forelimbs at the same time toward the paws.
Next you will do the same thing on the rear legs, simultaneously assessing both hind limbs—checking for symmetry, feeling for any enlargement, swelling, or tenderness.
Clients often look at me like I’m clairvoyant as I’m palpating their dog’s legs and say something like, “So does your dog limp on his right hind leg?” Their eyes get wide and they say, “How’d you know that?”
Well, it’s simply the art of observation in touch—comparing right to left symmetry and noting that a joint is enlarged and inflamed on one side. Those observations typically correlate with pain, and a dog will favor a painful leg.
PRO TIP: If there’s a spot that I come across in my palpation, and I’m not sure if it’s tender or not, I look for repeatability. Seeing the dog react once doesn’t necessarily worry me. It may just be that the dog was repositioning and not consciously trying to get away from my touch due to pain. So I go back, start higher up, work down a second time, and even a third time to see if the original tenderness is repeatable.
Next, take each paw, look at the top side, and then flip it over to look at the pads. Gently spread the dog’s paw so you can look between the toes. This is a common place for sores, especially secondary to allergies, which can be missed.
Dog’s toenails are a soapbox of mine that I could discuss forever. Suffice it to say that your dog’s nails should be trimmed to an appropriate length and maintained on a regular basis. This is important to your dog’s posture and gait. It is also a good way to avoid a situation where your dog ripped a nail off.
If this is not something you already do yourself, I would love to teach you with my new ebook, How To Trim Your Dog’s Nails Without Blood, Sweat, or Tears. If at-home dog nail trims are not a possibility, please have your veterinarian or groomer keep up with your dog’s toenails regularly.
Touch 8: The chest
Next, we move to the chest, heart, and lungs. I use a stethoscope at the veterinary hospital to listen to both, but I want you to feel empowered to do these touches anytime, anywhere, without special tools.
Here is the stethoscope-free method for observing your dog’s heart rate. Place flat fingers on the left side of your dog’s chest just behind his leg. Do you feel your dog’s heart beating? Pay attention to the rate and rhythm. (Avoid checking your dog’s heart rate right after exercise as it will be higher than normal. Your objective is to track your dog’s resting baseline rate.)
Observe your dog’s respiratory quality and rate. Consciously note what is normal for your dog so you’ll quickly recognize abnormal.
Want to know average “norms” for your dog’s vital signs? Check out my article: Keeping a Pulse on Your Dog’s Vital Signs.
Touch 9: The abdomen
Touch number nine is the abdomen or belly. As veterinarians, we palpate deeply and specifically. It honestly took me about two years in vet school to acquire this skill. Prior to that, everything just felt like oatmeal. Fear not. I am not asking you to identify your dog’s liver margins or intestinal loops. I just want you to know the general shape of your dog’s belly. That way, if your dog ever has an emergency like bloat, you’ll quickly spot the problem.
Also, consider your dog’s abdomen from a softness/hardness standpoint. A dog that has belly pain from pancreatitis, for example, tends to guard their belly because it’s painful. In that situation, the abdomen feels tense and hard to the touch. But that’s not a normal baseline for a dog who is calm and handled gently. Your healthy dog’s abdomen should feel soft.
Touch 10: The rump
Our grand finale is checking your dog’s hind end and under the tail. I can’t tell you the things I’ve noticed below dogs’ tails just by going where no man has gone before. My sweet conscientious clients often gasp, “I had no idea!”
So we’re going to look around the anus for swellings, growths, skin issues, anything protruding, and parasites like tapeworms. A few notes:
- Fecal material can get caught in the fur around the anus and lead to skin infection/irritation, and in some cases, difficulty pooping. Make sure the area is always clear and clean.
- For female dogs, it’s important to look at (and around) the vulva. Check for discharge, skin discoloration, and odor. My belief is that there are a lot of female dogs running around with undetected urinary tract infections as a result of vulva hygiene issues.
- Tapeworms in dogs resemble little pieces of dried rice. They can be found around the anus or matted to the fur of the tail.
Looking under your dog’s tail for discharge, odor, and growths may not be your first choice way to spend time with your dog, but it’s a very important step.
You don’t have to be a pro—just proactive.
How long did it take you to walk through this wellness scan? Ten minutes? Twenty? I’m confident the more you practice it, the more efficient you will become. By the time you’ve earned your black belt in the Tip-to-Tail Wellness Scan, this whole process should only take moments.
Remember, I’m not asking you to change your daily routine. I’m not saying, “All right, I need you to go to the gym for 90 minutes a day so figure out how to work that into your schedule.” I’m just asking you to pet your dog with a little more intentionality. You don’t have to be a pro—just proactive.
Sound too good to be true? Well, there may be a downside. The risk is that I send you running to your veterinarian, panicked about a bunch of normal stuff. So if you go rushing to your veterinarian for a bump on your male dog’s belly that turns out to just be a nipple, please don’t send me the bill. Wink.
You, your vet, and your dog make a great team
In all seriousness, this at-home scan requires working closely with your veterinarian. But consider the fact that your vet may examine your healthy dog only a few times a year while you’re touching and petting your dog a zillion times a day. You are the logical first line of defense.
Will practicing these 10 touches make you a better pet parent? “Yes!” is an understatement. They will make you a better advocate, a better care provider, and a better veterinary client.
Start today folding a 5-Minute Weekly Wellness Scan into your routine. Your dog will soon look forward to it, and you’ll have the reassurance that your dog is the healthiest he can possibly be!
Has a “touch” helped you discover a health concern with your senior dog?
Share your story in the comments below. We’d love to hear your story!