Vet examining Dachshund

Is your pet sick? Though many pet owners are keen to spot symptoms that can be the telltale (or should that be the telltail?) signs of illness, others are, well, somewhat less observant, to put it mildly.

Last spring I was on a national tour for my book Your Dog: the Owners Manual, and as part of that tour I gave talks for veterinarians only in each of the cities we visited. I remember a discussion I had with veterinary colleagues in Jacksonville, Fla., about the things that were wrong — sometimes very wrong — with “healthy” pets brought in “just for shots.” Like a malignant tumor the size of a lemon jutting out from the upper jaw of a 40-pound dog.

Moments like that are when all my years of medical experience come in handy: I know how to treat my tongue when I have to bite it so hard it hurts. The totally clueless are a small minority (thank heavens!), and every workplace has to deal with them. They’re the customers who leave us shaking our heads, sometimes in sadness, sometimes in humor and always in amazement.

Fortunately, though vets love to share war stories about the worst, the fact is that a lot of times the things that are wrong with a healthy pet are problems you’d have to be a veterinarian yourself to notice. Like what? I’m glad you asked. Here are some things we check for in those regular wellness checks your pets should be having.

Lumps and bumps. I know all the folks reading this would notice a mass the size of a lemon, but it’s easy to miss something small in a place you almost never touch your pet, like the back of the knees. A lump there can mean a swollen lymph node, and that can be a very big warning sign. Other lumps and bumps may be nothing — or they may be something very dangerous.

Lameness. Minor limping can go completely unnoticed by pet lovers — but the trained eye of a veterinarian can spot it easily. On our book tour, I was signing books while a handful of my colleagues chatted nearby. A person walked in with a dog he thought was healthy, but the eyes of every single veterinarian there immediately noticed the dog’s slight limp. Since that can be one of the early signs of bone cancer, it’s best caught early.

Heart problems. That stethoscope isn’t just a fashion statement. Heart abnormalities are something a veterinarian can hear that a pet owner won’t notice, sometimes until a pet is found dead.

Weight loss. With more than half of all pets seen by veterinarians either overweight or obese, you’d think we’d love seeing a slender animal. And we do, but only when the weight loss is intentional in overweight pets or otherwise explainable. Gradual loss is easy to miss, but it is important to notice, since it can be a sign of diabetes, kidney disease or cancer, among other things.

Abdominal abnormalities. Veterinarians are trained to “palpate” animals — press our hands gently but firmly so we can feel internal organs. Internal masses such as those on the spleen can be addressed if caught early, but if they rupture your pet will need emergency surgery from which he may not emerge alive.

Now do you see why we do a tip-of-the-nose-to-tip-of-the-tail examination of your pet, even when the appointment is "just for shots"? That list is just a few of the problems veterinarian find wrong with pets considered perfectly healthy by their owners. Of course, tests of blood and urine, radiographs and ultrasounds can reveal even more.

Regular checkups have long been an essential part of human medicine, and they're no less necessary for animals. When your pet sees the vet regularly, even when you’re sure he’s healthy, you’re giving him the best chance to stay that way.