National Pet Wellness Month: Health Screens
Prevention is the best medicine!
The importance of annual wellness exams and health screens cannot be overstated. While there is a special spotlight on Pet Wellness in October, we focus on health screens year-round at Companion Animal Clinic. It is so much better to catch problems early when we can intervene and often at a lower cost than when they become big issues and often larger expenses. Pets are very good at hiding illness, so by the time you might see a problem, it has likely been going on and progressing for a while. If caught early, as in before your pet starts acting sick, your veterinarian can often intervene and treat or at least drastically slow down the progression of disease, and with a better prognosis. It is also less expensive to treat a smaller problem than a bigger one once your pet is sick and needs more treatments. So not only are we trying to look out for your pet’s health and quality of life, we are trying to make it more affordable to do so!
So, what do health screens tell us? So much!
A complete blood count (CBC) tells us about your pet’s red and white blood cells and platelets. An anemia could be indicative of a chronic illness such as kidney disease or cancer, a bleeding splenic tumor in the abdomen, or an immune-mediated disease destroying red blood cells. White blood cells can tell us about systemic inflammation, both acute and chronic, and in some cases can alert us to lymphoma or leukemia. Platelets can be low in cases of tick-borne diseases or immune mediated destruction.
A chemistry tells us about your pet’s metabolic health. Kidney values alert us to early or advanced kidney disease. Liver values help us evaluate liver health. Serum proteins can tell us about gastrointestinal health, liver health, kidney health, and systemic inflammation. Electrolytes reflect kidney, urinary, gastrointestinal, adrenal, and metabolic health. Blood sugar reflects pancreatic (i.e. diabetes) and liver function.
Some health screens also contain a urinalysis. Urine can tell us about kidney function, alert us to diabetes, and evaluate the urinary tract (such as for UTIs, stones, and cancer).
Adult and Senior screens include a total T4 to screen the thyroid gland. If this is high (usually in cats), this can alert us to hyperthyroidism. If this is low, this can alert us to hypothyroidism or other chronic illness—we often will need to run an additional test to discern this.
Many canine health screens also include heartworm/tick borne tests and fecal tests. Heartworm disease can be devastating, so testing is important, as is prevention (see our blog about heartworm disease and prevention from April!). Tick borne diseases (such as Lyme) can also cause havoc on your pet’s health, and we live in a very tick-heavy area. Early on, these diseases can show little to no clinical signs, but they can snowball into devastating diseases. Monitoring is key! Another great addition to these health screens is that if Lyme disease exposure is found, the lab automatically adds another test at no additional fee to quantify the antibody level to see if it is a previous exposure or something more medically significant, helping ease the uncertainty of should we or shouldn’t we treat.
Fecal exams look for gastrointestinal parasites that can affect nutrient absorption and anemia. Some parasites are zoonotic—can be spread to humans—such as roundworms and hookworms. Since we are not these parasites’ ideal hosts, roundworms typically migrate to our other organs, such as eyes, liver, etc. Hookworms can migrate through skin. Immunocompromised people, such as the elderly, young children, chemotherapy patients, etc. are particularly vulnerable. Make sure your pet is parasite-free so you can feel better about those face kisses! (Full disclosure: I let my dogs lick my face, but I also keep them on preventative and monitor them annually to lessen my risk!)
Many feline screens contain a value called ProBNP. This evaluates the heart and is elevated when there is stress and stretch to the muscle that shouldn’t be there. This is particularly important in cats because only about 50% of cats with heart disease have a sign such as a heart murmur or arrhythmia that can be detected on exam. So, your kitty could have a normal exam, but have underlying heart disease. This value can give us even more security going into anesthesia for a procedure, for example.
How often should we test?
Annually! Unless we find problems or your pet is older and more at risk, in which case more frequently for closer monitoring. Also, some chronic medications require more frequent monitoring for safety and efficacy.
Heartworm/tick tests and fecal parasite screens are routinely recommended annually as well, and these health screens make it even more cost effective to add in blood work with these routine tests. If your pet is due for its annual exam and tests, think about adding a health screen to the routine to be on top of your pet’s health!
-Dr. Kelly Lemkul
Companion Animal Clinic has been serving Blacksburg, Virginia and surrounding Montgomery and Christiansburg communities since 1974. We are an AAHA accredited veterinary hospital and provide quality, professional care for dogs, cats, exotics, and small mammals. Learn more about our amazing team.