How You Can Help Diagnose Your Pet’s Problem, Part 1

Photo by Fotol Eldar.

Diagnosing a disease in animals is quite the challenge, and we need to be like Sherlock Holmes at times. Our patients cannot talk to us, and they have substantially different anatomies and physiologies, with different requirements in husbandry and nutrition.

In a practice like ours that cares for wildlife and exotic animals in addition to dogs and cats, the body of knowledge needed to make an accurate diagnosis is extensive. To overcome any obstacles, we need to follow a methodical and comprehensive approach. It is called the diagnostic process, and it contains the following five parameters:

  1. signalment—age, sex, breed and reproductive status of your pet
  2. history—what has been transpiring at home regarding your pet’s routine habits
  3. physical exam—hands-on examination of your pet
  4. diagnostic tests—blood panels and radiographs
  5. response to treatment—whether your pet does indeed get well from our treatment

In this six-part series of articles, we will talk about taking the pet’s history and how you can help. You and your vet are a team and need to work together for your pet’s sake.

During the history taking, your vet should ask questions about things like appetite, activity and vomiting. Some of the questions will be general in nature, while some will be detailed. All are designed to determine where your pet has a problem and help tune your vet in to the cause. The more accurate your answers to the questions, the sooner and more accurate is the diagnosis.

Some answers to our own questions can be subjective. If we ask whether your pet is not as active as usual, one member of a household might say yes, and another might not. To help get around this problem, the most important thing you can do is to closely observe your pet’s routine habits, and make a written note of any deviation from its normal routine. Set up a system for this to work when multiple people are involved.

How you interpret any questions adds a subjective factor also. If we ask if your pet is drinking more than usual, you might say that he drinks real well because you fill the water bowl up frequently,and he drinks it all. You might think this is good because we all know the importance of drinking water.

What is sometimes missed in our question is the “drinking more than usual” part. We are looking for a change in drinking habits, not whether you think your pet is doing a good job of drinking water.

Another problem we sometimes encounter concerns the busy life people lead. Our questions are sometimes detailed, and some people just do not know the answer because they’re either so busy or don’t think to observe. Such people do not want us veterinarians to think poorly of them as parents, so they sometimes give us an answer that is misleading not correct. Such is human nature, and we design our diagnostic process to help minimize this by correlating your answers with other parameters in our diagnostic process.

Any change from your pet’s normal habits is a potential problem that needs to be addressed in the history. There are six major changes to watch for regarding serious disease that you should observe closely at home and that we will ask you about in the history:

  1. appetite
  2. breathing
  3. activity
  4. behavior
  5. vomiting

I picked these six because they’re important. They can be a harbinger of a significant problem, require no special medical instruments or skills, and are easily monitored. In the next article in this series, I will talk about appetite.

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