Test Is Not a Four-Letter Word
For most pet owners, dogs and cats are more than just animals. They offer comfort during life’s challenges, friendship during the good times, and almost always serve as a reminder to enjoy the simple things in life. And over the years — perhaps most important — pets become family.
This special connection that develops between pets and their owners often means that it can be devastating when a pet is diagnosed with a serious illness. Fortunately, diagnostic testing offers you and your veterinarian a way to identify potential health problems early, to intervene and treat the illness, and, hopefully, to prolong your pet’s happy life.
Why Is Regular Testing Important?
Much like the “check engine” light in your car, diagnostic tests serve as an important signal to your veterinarian that a pet may suffer from an underlying health problem that isn’t clearly visible through physical examination alone. It’s important for dogs and cats, especially as they age, to have periodic diagnostic testing as part of their regular wellness exams.
Diagnostic tests play a crucial role in early detection of illnesses. The sooner a problem is found, the sooner your veterinarian can begin work to develop a treatment plan. This early intervention may not only increase the likelihood of a better outcome, it can also improve your pet’s quality of life and may cut down on treatment expenses.
Which Pets Should Be Tested?
The most obvious category of pets that need diagnostic testing is dogs and cats that seem sick or just aren’t acting like themselves. For these pets, it’s essential that your veterinarian conducts a complete diagnostic workup as soon as possible.
However, this isn’t the only group that can benefit from diagnostic testing. It’s also important to regularly test healthy pets. Some illnesses cannot be detected through physical examination alone, and a sick cat or dog may not exhibit any noticeable symptoms.
In addition, regular diagnostic testing allows veterinarians to establish what is considered normal for your individual pet. While each test comes with a normal range of scores, these ranges do not always take into account an animal’s specific breed, size, age, or past health history. Your pet’s own baseline score when he or she is healthy is also an important factor to consider when determining whether your pet is sick.
For example, hematocrit is a red blood cell test used to detect anemia in animals. Imagine that your dog has consistent hematocrit scores year after year. Then, one year the results suddenly take a significant drop. This change could signal a problem even if the most recent score is still within the test’s normal range.
Diagnostic testing becomes more important as dogs and cats age. Many pets 7 years old and older receive diagnostic testing annually, both to establish a baseline and to help identify potential health problems. In addition to the regular round of diagnostic testing, these pets may benefit from additional testing or from having certain tests performed more frequently than once a year. Your veterinarian will be able to customize a program suited to your pet’s age, breed, and overall health status.
What Tests Are Needed?
Most veterinarians recommend several tests to help establish the health of your pet. A complete blood count looks at red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, and can help identify signs of infection or anemia. A biochemical profile looks at how effectively organs, such as the kidneys and the pancreas, may be functioning. This profile also helps veterinarians examine factors such as blood sugar (glucose) level and the amount of calcium and phosphorous in the body. This information can be invaluable, as high levels of glucose can indicate diabetes, while high calcium levels have been linked to certain types of cancer. Veterinarians also conduct an electrolyte panel, which shows sodium, potassium and chloride levels in your pet’s blood. Electrolytes are a key part of nerve and muscle function. Taken together, these tests can enable early disease detection, which can make it easier for your veterinarian to treat a hidden medical problem.
Even your pet’s waste offers valuable information. One crucial test is the urinalysis, which looks at your pet’s urine. A urinalysis is often necessary to help interpret blood test results, and it can help identify possible health problems. Fecal exams, which analyze your pet’s stool, should be performed at least once a year to help your veterinarian identify whether your dog or cat is harboring parasites that could affect your pet—as well as other family members. Depending on where you live — and where your pets play — more frequent testing for parasites may be warranted.
Other tests relate to your pet’s lifestyle. For example, it’s especially important for cats that go outdoors to be tested for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus.
Senior pets may need more specific testing. As pets age, they are more at risk for developing certain illnesses and health complications, like thyroid disease or kidney problems. Diagnostic testing provides a way to identify these potential concerns early. Your veterinarian may suggest some of the following tests for senior pets:
- Thyroid testing: Senior cats are prone to elevated thyroid activity (hyperthyroidism), while dogs may have decreased thyroid activity (hypothyroidism). Both diseases are treatable. Adding appropriate thyroid tests to the diagnostic workup can help veterinarians ensure they’re identifying this illness and starting treatment as early as possible.
- Kidney concerns: Kidney damage is a serious and often fatal condition for senior pets, especially cats. To detect possible kidney damage early, a urine protein-creatinine ratio test may be added to your senior pet’s testing regimen.
- Regular testing: Senior pets — really, all pets — need a complete diagnostic workup periodically to identify life-threatening illnesses. Once a year may be appropriate for some pets, but many veterinarians recommend testing twice a year, or even more frequently depending on a pet’s overall health. Talk to your vet about your pet’s health status, what tests are recommended, and how frequently they should be repeated. And be sure your mature cats and dogs see the veterinarian regularly (whether that’s annually, semi-annually or more often) to get the care and attention they deserve.
A Healthy Outcome
After all these diagnostic tests are completed, your veterinarian hopes that nothing is found. Why? Because that means your pet is healthy. And that’s the most vital test for cats and dogs to pass, year after year.