How to Perform a Daily Snout to Tail Examination

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A daily snout-to-tail exam accomplishes several important things all at once, but most importantly, it teaches what is ‘normal for the dog.

Quite a few essential items are accomplished through a daily examination of your dog.

  1. You will very quickly find any changes in your dog, such as lumps, injuries, flea/tick infestations, hotspots, and even internal parasites.
  2. Your dog will become very comfortable with being handled all over the body.  This is especially important when your veterinarian wants to examine an injured paw or check the ears or mouth.  Also, grooming becomes much easier since your dog is more relaxed.
  3. It builds mutual trust and respect between you and your dog.
  4. It teaches you what is “normal” for your dog.

Daily Snout to Tail Examination

You can start to teach a daily exam as early as eight weeks as part of puppy socialization or with an older dog to improve his handling.  Here’s how to do it.

1.         Position the dog.   

Position the dog in a sit or stand with his back facing you. This is much more calming to a dog than facing directly toward them.

The dog’s head must be facing away from you.  If the dog squirms (and many do at first), “steer” the dog back into position.  It is crucial not to allow him to wriggle free.  Do not release the dog until they stop wriggling, then praise and release quickly before they can start wriggling again.

2.         Slowly build up the time you hold the dog in a daily exam position. 

When the dog is sitting or standing calmly, speak softly while massaging him wherever he enjoys being petted.  If he wriggles or fusses, stop talking and petting.  You can add a verbal NO in a neutral tone of voice. When the dog can remain still for a minute or so, begin the exam.

3.        Develop a pattern.

Try to develop a pattern, so you perform the exam simultaneously and in the same way.  This way, you won’t accidentally skip over a part.

4.       Start at the head. 

Check the nose.

It should be moist without a discharge.  Older dogs tend to have dry noses. You can add Bag Balm or other topical to help their noses from cracking.

Check the mouth.

Next, lift the flews of the mouth and examine the gums.  These should be pale pink (at least wherever they don’t have black pigment).  Find a pink area and gently press on it with your finger.  Release the pressure and observe the white fingerprint left on the gum.  If it takes longer than one second for the gum to turn pink again, there may be a circulation problem. Next, check that none of the teeth are loose. Next, check the edge of each tooth where it enters the gum.  Yellow or brown accumulations indicate tartar buildup, which can lead to gingivitis.  This is a good time to brush the teeth with an appropriately sized, soft toothbrush and canine toothpaste (don’t use human toothpaste).  The gums’ swelling or redness may indicate gingivitis, which, left untreated, can threaten the dog’s life. Next, check the “bite” by gently closing the jaws together to see how the teeth meet.  Make sure the teeth are not injuring the inside of the lips or cheeks.  Check the lips for injury, infected follicles, zits, and warts.  Balding areas, especially around the mouth and eyes, may indicate a form of mange that may require a medication from your veterinarian.

Check the eyes.

Look at the corneas of the eyes.  They should be crystal clear, smooth, and shiny.  Cloudiness may indicate cataracts or injury. Next, gently pull down the lower lid and look at the mucous membrane lining the lid’s surface, which rests against the eye.  It should be moist and pale pink.  Grayness may indicate anemia, possibly as a result of internal parasites.  Redness may indicate irritation of the eye or illness.

Check the ears. 

There is a section with a small flap on the outer edge of the pinna (the external part of the ear, as opposed to the ear canal).  Be sure to check it for ticks.  Check for tears in the edges and puncture holes.  Look inside the ear to see if it needs cleaning or if there might be an infection.  Prick-eared dogs (ears that stick up) are somewhat less prone to ear infections than are drop-eared dogs.

Look inside the ear.  Is it red?  Redness and swelling can indicate an infection. Smell the inside of the ear.  A sour or foul smell could indicate a yeast infection.  Wipe out any wax build-up with a baby wipe.

5.        Move on to the legs.

Start at the shoulders.

Feel along the scapula from the withers to the shoulder’s point and then on to the elbow.  Follow the spine of the scapula and feel the muscles that attach there to the scapula.  Check for tenderness, heat (which may indicate injury), external parasites, crusty areas in the skin, bald patches, and any deformity in the bone.  The scapula is usually rotated about 45 degrees from the dog’s spine, pointed from the withers toward the front of the dog’s chest.  At the point of the shoulder (a joint), the humerus attaches at about a 90-degree angle to the scapula.  The humerus should be well muscled.  Follow it to the elbow, still checking for signs of injury, crusties, or parasites.

Check the elbows.

While at the elbow, gently glide it forward and feel the shoulder joint movement (point of the shoulder).  It is important not to move the elbow out away from the body or to twist it, but only move it in the direction the dog would move it himself when taking a step forward.

Next, check the elbow joint by gently straightening and flexing it.  If the dog is very relaxed, his pastern (carpus or wrist) joint will automatically straighten simultaneously when you straighten his elbow joint. Next, follow the radio-ulna (forearm) down to the wrist.  On the forearm, there are fewer muscles and more tendons as compared to the shoulder and humerus. This is because only tendons run along the front of the forearm, but there are muscles and tendons along the back of the forearm.

Check the feet.

There may be a large dimple near the pastern pad where the skin folds between the tendon and bone.  Check the pastern pad for cuts, cracks, and tenderness.  Flex the pastern joint.  The leg starts to split into five digits from the pastern joint:  four toes and a dewclaw.  Some dogs have a functional dewclaw, which they use similar to a thumb to grasp things while chewing.  In others, the dewclaw hangs loosely and may be prone to injury.  In some dogs, the dewclaw may be surgically removed.  Check each pad in the paw the same as the pastern pad.  Check between the pads for cuts, thorns, burrs, and ticks.  Feel along each toe.  The bones in dog toes go in unexpected directions, kind of like a “Z.”  Make sure you know what normal feels like so the next time you step on your dog’s paw, you won’t assume his toes are broken because the bones feel so crooked.  Check that none of the toenails are split, cracked, sharp, overgrown, or worn into the quick.

Once a week, pick a day and trim toenails.  You may also apply pad toughener or Musher’s Secret to the pads, depending on whether it’s needed that particular day.

6.      Work from the withers to the hips.

Feel down the dog’s length from the withers to the hips, checking the spine’s bones and the muscle and skin along the way. Next, feel along from the throat to the genitals, checking the rib cage’s bones and the muscle and skin along the way.  The abdomen is a good place to check for fleas because the hair is usually thinner, so fleas and flea “dirt” are easier to see.  The skin is slightly warmer there as well, so fleas are attracted more to this area.  Check for lumps or swelling as well.

7.       Feel the underside of your dog. 

If you have an intact male, you should gently feel the testicles for lumps and make sure both are descended. Next, for both males and females, feel the breast tissue, checking for lumps. Next, feel down both sides, again checking the ribs, the musculature, and the skin.

8.          Check the hindquarters.

Check the hindquarters and tail as you did with the forequarters, except be extra gentle when flexing the hind leg joints.  They usually don’t move as far as the front legs.  Never force the leg (front or back) to flex or straighten.  Always use the very gentlest pressure and do not force the dog if he resists moving a limb, as this may cause injury.

Pull gently on the tail.  Many dogs are very reactive when someone comes near their tail or touches it. A good thing to get your dog accustomed to its tail being touched.

Run your fingers through your dog’s fur.

If at any point, you cannot run your fingers through your dog’s fur to the skin, it’s time for a good brushing or combing out. After that, you should be able to reach your fingers to the skin, even on dogs that are supposed to have dreadlocks.

Use all your senses.

As you check the dog, use all of your senses.  Is the smell normal or strong and foul?  Untreated injuries start to stink as they become infected.  Breath odor or ear odor can also indicate conditions that require treatment.

Let’s talk dogs, or even better, let’s learn about dogs.  Set aside some time to receive Spike’s dog blogs by Acme Canine.


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