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Dog Health: What Tests Your Vet Should Run and When

By Caitlin Ultimo

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed at your dog’s annual vet visit, you are not alone. That moment when your vet hands over a long list of tests and says it’s up to you to decide, can be very stressful. You may be worried you’ll prioritize the wrong tests, missing out on the ones that are most important. And if you tally up everything on the list, it could leave you with a hefty bill. Most pet owners would gladly pay top dollar to ensure their dog’s health, but do they really have to?

No matter if it’s your dog’s first-ever veterinary visit or a standard annual exam, plan to arrive equipped with the knowledge of essential tests your vet should run based on your dog’s age and overall health.

Tests for Puppies

Get your new puppy’s health off to a good start by running these tests at his first visit and puppy follow-up exams:

Physical examination. This exam will be worthwhile to establish a healthy baseline for your puppy. “A puppy visit is not just about getting that shot injected,” says Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center. “One of the most important and also overlooked tests is a physical examination.” An important test at any age, the physical exam will cover looking at your puppy from his nose to tail, checking his vital signs, evaluating his body condition, listening to his heart and lungs, feeling his lymph nodes, assessing his eyes, ears and teeth as well as checking for any bone and joint abnormalities.

Fecal test. During your puppy’s series of vaccinations, you’ll most likely be asked to provide a fecal sample. “A fecal intestinal parasite analysis should occur at the very first visit and at subsequent visits if required,” says Dr. Susan Konecny, RN, DVM and medical director at Best Friends Animal Society. “Intestinal parasites are extremely common in puppies and can be transmitted through mother's milk.” Additionally, not all intestinal parasites are visible to the naked eye, so a microscopic analysis of the stool is necessary.

Heartworm test. “If [a puppy is] greater than six months of age, we recommend a heartworm antigen test,” says Dr. Stephanie Liff, DVM and owner of Pure Paws Veterinary Care of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, N.Y. Heartworm can be transmitted through your pet's blood via an infected mosquito bite and will cause damage to his heart and lungs if left untreated. In most practices, veterinarians will generally run the heartworm test in conjunction with a panel of tick-borne diseases including Lyme disease, Anaplasma and Ehrlichia.

Blood tests. Your veterinarian will want to run a pre-anesthetic evaluation before your puppy is spayed or neutered. This could be a variety of tests, but the basics will check for anemia, adequate white blood cells and normal kidney and liver function. “This should be done to make sure your pet can have general anesthesia as safely as possible,” Konecny says.

Tests for Adult Dogs

Generally, an adult dog  should have yearly wellness visits. At these appointments, a physical examination will still be an essential component as well as the following tests:

Fecal test. Vets will often suggest that you bring along a sample of your dog’s stool to the visit. “Identification and treatment of intestinal parasites keeps your dog healthy and protects human family members since some intestinal parasite can affect humans too,” Hohenhaus says.

Heartworm and tick-borne disease tests. Similarly to puppy tests, tests for heartworm and tick-borne diseases will normally be recommended to be run together, especially in areas where ticks are common. “Heartworm infection is a serious medical condition that is easy to prevent, hard to treat and even harder to treat if left undiagnosed for a period of time,” Hohenhaus says.

Blood tests. “I like to establish a normal baseline for each individual patient, but we also do occasionally catch abnormalities too,” Liff says. The normal wellness blood panel for an adult pet can include the evaluation of your dog’s red and white blood cell counts (CBC), kidney, liver, and other organ functions and electrolyte and protein levels. “Conditions that these tests can identify are numerous and may include diabetes mellitus, early renal disease, hypothyroidism or anemia,” Konecny added.

Urinalysis. A test that perhaps wasn’t run in your dog’s puppy stage, “a urinalysis can help to identify many things, including a urinary tract infection, a loss of concentrating ability [often seen with kidney diseases] or potential stones in the urine,” Konecny says.

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Tests for Senior Dogs

One basic difference between an adult and senior dog’s wellness visits is that your vet will often recommend that you bring your dog in every six months instead of once yearly if possible. Your veterinarian may also run the following tests:

Physical examination. “A careful physical examination becomes even more critical in an older dog,” Hohenhaus says. “A good physical examination identifies weight loss associated with systemic disease, weight gain associated with thyroid dysfunction or immobility from arthritis, dental disease, heart murmurs from heart disease and lumps which may indicate cancer.” Results can help direct follow up testing, which might include a test for thyroid hormone level, aspiration of skin masses and x-rays to assess heart enlargement from heart disease.

Complete blood count and chemistry profile. Your vet may recommend yearly or bi-yearly complete bloodwork; a panel of tests that should identify major organ dysfunction and contain a complete blood cell count. Many senior pets may be on medications, so it’s important to monitor their results to be sure they are not experiencing any negative side effects. “Often times, older pets will have gradual and subtle changes, or will have lab work that is normal based on the lab reference ranges, but has changed dramatically year over year for that pet,” Liff says. “This leads us to try to find out why that pet is having those changes and typically lets us detect disease earlier, which generally leads to a better outcome.”

Urinalysis. Testing a urine sample can help uncover infections, bladder stones and diabetes. “A urine sample becomes a must when your dog exhibits increased urine volume, increased water drinking or frequent short urinations,” Hohenhaus says.

Blood pressure test: “I recommend a blood pressure test in dogs over the ages of eight or ten (depending upon their breed and other symptoms),” Liff says. Hypertension may affect your dog’s heart, kidneys, eyes and nervous system and could be the primary cause of related issues or a secondary symptom to another disease. 

Intestinal parasite exam and heartworm test. While a physical exam, blood work and urinalysis now take precedent, your vet may still recommend that your pet undergoes these tests yearly depending upon his likelihood of exposure. 

Additional Tests Your Veterinarian May Recommend

“There are a multitude of tests that may be recommended based on the physical examination findings and/or clinical signs that a dog may have,” Konecny says. These supplemental tests could be crucial in identifying a health issue that your dog is experiencing.

“Our patients can’t talk; they won’t give us a personal description of what’s bothering them, so we have to look a bit harder to ensure they are healthy,” Liff explains. Because of this, your veterinarian may recommend the following additional tests:

Thyroid testing. “I typically recommend thyroid testing for dogs starting around the ages of six or seven or any patients with signs compatible with thyroid abnormalities,” Liff says. Many older pets may experience weight gain or lethargy, which are often the first signs of hypothyroidism in dogs.

ACTH stimulation or low dose dexamethasone suppression test. If your dog is drinking a lot of water, urinating a lot, acting hungry all of the time, has a poor quality coat or recurrent infection, or has a bit of a pot belly, your vet may recommend these tests to determine if your pet has Cushing’s Disease. These tests check for an over production of cortisol by the adrenal glands, Konecny says.

Chest radiographs. “I recommend chest radiographs in all of my older patients having anesthesia, even if it is a routine reason for anesthesia, like a dental cleaning,” Liff says. “My recommendation would be based on the physical exam, but also as a precaution to maximize the dog’s safety.” Your dog’s lungs, airways, cardiac vessel size and cardiac size would be evaluated and your vet could rule out any major diseases in the chest prior to doing an elective procedure on an older pet.

Abdominal ultrasound. Your vet may recommend your dog receive an abdominal ultrasound to look for diseases associated with the spleen (which is poorly assessed on blood work), as well as the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, urinary bladder, abdominal lymph nodes, adrenal glands, liver and kidneys.

Specialized testing for inherited diseases. Some tests may be used to diagnose inherited diseases specific to a particular breed. “For example, a kidney biopsy may be indicated to diagnose congenital renal dysplasia found in Shih Tzu’s with signs of kidney disease. Additionally, West Highland White Terriers and Scottish Terriers are two breeds at high risk of developing bladder tumors, so an ultrasound may be recommended if [the dog] is having clinical signs of a bladder tumor like blood in the urine, straining to urinate or frequent urinations,” Hohenhaus says.

If your dog exhibits any recurring or unusual symptoms, check in with your vet even if it’s in advance of his yearly or bi-yearly visit. “Always discuss any unusual or concerning signs with your veterinarian and ask them to thoroughly explain the recommended tests and rationale for doing it,” Konecny says. You are your pet’s advocate, so it’s important you understand the options that will best help to keep him healthy and happy from his puppy years through adulthood. 

Image:  via Shutterstock