Sniffing Out Trouble: How Your Vet Uses His Nose to Diagnose Your Pet

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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.

Five Ways Your Veterinarian Uses His Nose

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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