Vet examining dog

You know what makes me happiest about veterinary medicine? It’s a real hands-on, touchy-feely profession. I’ve loved animals from my earliest years, and I can’t help showing it. I’ve been known to scratch, rub, sniff and kiss people’s pets during exams. Sometimes a pet’s owner thinks I’ve lost my marbles when I hear some music and take hold of a dog’s paws and do a quick dance with him, but I’ll share a little secret with you: There’s often a method to my madness.

We veterinarians need to use all our senses when we examine your pets. After all, our patients can’t tell us where it hurts or why they might be feeling a little off. Some of the things we do as we’re examining your pet might seem a little unusual — even just plain weird — but they often tell us important things about what’s going on with your dog or cat. Here’s some of what we do and why.

A Little Tickle Goes a Long Way

We’ve all seen pets go wild when we find their “tickle spot." That’s called the scratch reflex, and you’ll see it when you lightly touch, stroke or scratch your dog’s side, usually at the back of the rib cage or front of the abdomen. The sensation of being tickled there causes dogs to make a scratching motion, the same movement you might see if they’re trying to remove a flea or other irritant. Your veterinarian takes time during an exam to tickle your pet for a good reason: The reaction shows us that the neural pathways and reflexes are in good working order. Lack of response may indicate spinal damage.

You know how your cat’s rear end goes up into the air when you scratch the base of his tail? I like to call that “elevator butt” — because it gets a rise out of your cat, in a good way. Cats love that sensation for a couple of reasons. One, it just plain feels good. And two, you’ll see female cats “assume the position” when they are in estrus, or heat. It’s how male cats know females are ready and willing to mate. As a veterinarian, though, I scratch a cat’s butt to get this reaction for a very practical reason: If a cat tries to raise his rear but can’t, it’s a common sign of arthritis in the knees or hips.

The Scent of Good Health

I’ve written before about how smell is an important part of a veterinarian’s diagnostic arsenal. Getting a whiff of your pet’s breath, ears, skin and, yes, even his butt tells us a lot right off the bat. Your pet’s body, not even his hiney, should never smell bad. (Well, his normal butt odor doesn’t smell like a rose, but it shouldn’t be gross.) If I flip up his lip, bury my nose inside his ears, or lift his tail and give a big sniff, I don’t want to smell anything rotten or nasty. If I do, it could be a clue that an infection or abscess has set up in that part of the body.

And what about “Frito feet”? You may notice sometimes that your pet’s paw pads smell like popcorn or corn chips. That’s because they’re crawling with billions and billions of microbes. If the smell becomes overwhelming, though, your pet’s yeast organisms may be out of control. If I give your pet’s paws a sniff, it’s not just because I love that smell — though I do — but also because I want to make sure no yeast infections are brewing.

A Dance — and a Kiss

When I hear a favorite snippet of music during an exam, even if it’s just from the ringtone on a client’s phone, it’s not unusual for me to pick up a pet’s front paws and do a little two-step with him. Sure, it’s fun, but it also tells me about his mobility. If he seems reluctant or stiff, I’m going to check him over more closely for signs of arthritis or maybe an injury that went unnoticed.

And last but not least: Why do we kiss your pets during exams? That’s easy. We just love ’em.

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