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There’s an old saying about how we were given two ears for listening, but only one mouth for talking. That’s why, like any other good doctor, I spend a lot of time listening not just to what I can hear with my stethoscope but also to what a pet’s owner is telling me about why an animal is in my exam room.
Many times what the owner tells me leads straightaway to a diagnostic technique that’s one of my favorites, and one of the most powerful in any veterinarian’s tool kit. Like those ears, my nose is a God-given gift, and I use it a lot.
I may even use it more than most medical professionals. I have always had a very keen sense of smell, as anyone who knows me can attest. When I owned practices, I insisted on them being “smell-neutral” — when you go into a medical facility, you shouldn’t smell anything, not even cleaning supplies. To this day, that’s one of the things I mention when I discuss how to choose a veterinary practice.
When I walk into, well, any place, really, from a veterinary office to a hotel to my own home, I can’t be happy if it’s not odor-neutral. In part that’s because I am so sensitive, but it’s also so I can do my job. If something doesn’t smell right, I want to be able to identify why.
Don’t be surprised if your veterinarian’s nose is part of his examination of your pet. Smell tells a tale, if you know where to sniff and how to interpret. Here's what I look — or smell — for when I'm checking out patients in my practice.
Flip the lip. You smell “doggy breath” or “tuna breath” on your cat. I smell periodontal disease. Broken, rotting teeth and infected gums are not normal, and neither is a constant, gut-churning stench from a pet’s mouth. When I smell it, I know that chances are I’ll see gums that look as if a blowtorch were passed over them. Painful? You bet. Also life-shortening, because that constant shower of bacteria from an infected mouth makes the internal organs fight for their lives, all the time.
In addition to smelling infections in the mouth that I know are taxing the internal organs, I can tell when there's a problem inside with just a whiff. Breath that smells unusually sweet can be a sign of diabetes, just as breath that smells like ammonia may indicate kidney disease. In either case, these smells tell me that more diagnostics are called for.
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