Why Diagnostic Tests are Important to Your Pet
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Bringing your pet in for their annual and bi-annual check-up is the first step towards helping them to live the longest, happiest, healthiest life possible. However, there are only so many pieces of your pet’s overall health that can be gathered from only looking on the outside during the physical examination. A tremendous amount more can be learned about what is going on inside the body by performing important diagnostic testing on a routine basis. Some of these further tests could include: heartworm testing for dogs and cats, feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) testing, complete blood cell counts (CBC), serum chemistry panels, fecal testing, urine testing, tick-borne disease panels, and even eye-pressure screenings. Just like you and I, dogs’ and cats’ bodies can hide many abnormalities on the inside while outwardly looking pretty good or feeling great. Getting diagnostic information from the inside helps us to detect diseases early on and allows us to better come up with an individualized treatment plan to help your pet remain as healthy as possible. Additionally, the earlier we are able to catch diseases, the more options we have for treatment!
The following breakdown details a few critical diagnostic tests we offer and may recommend to make certain that your pet is the healthiest they can be!
Heartworm Testing In Dogs and Cats
Most people are aware that in dogs we yearly collect a small amount of blood to test for heartworm disease, but fewer owners know that cats (even indoor cats) should be tested as well. Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets and there is no cure for heartworm disease in cats. Infected mosquitoes carry and spread this disease and even pets that are kept completely indoors are at risk since mosquitoes can travel anywhere. Heartworm disease is known to result in severe lung disease, heart failure, upper respiratory infection, difficulty breathing, and even death. Though this may sound extremely scary, heartworm disease is 100% preventable if you keep your pets (including dogs, cats, and ferrets) on monthly heartworm prevention and have them retested every year. For dogs it is vital to have them retested yearly and have them tested if they have been off of prevention (even for a month) because some of the heartworm preventions can be fatal if given to an infected dogs. With cats, testing is recommended but not required before starting prevention since they do not have the same reaction to monthly preventatives if they are heartworm positive. However, one of the signs of heartworm disease in cats is sudden death so it is best to have them tested annually and also if they have not been on heartworm prevention consistently.
Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Testing for Cats
Among all the causes of lethal disease in cats, none should be taken more seriously than the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Both of these viruses, if undetected, can take a major toll on a cat’s overall health and even result in premature death. FeLV is spread when an infected cat swaps saliva with an uninfected cat during grooming, sharing food and water, etc. FIV, on the other hand, is most often spread through a bite wound of an infected cat to an uninfected cat. To give you even more reason to have concern about FeLV and FIV, the most recent estimates of infection rates reveal that 2 – 4% of the 80 million cats in the U.S. are positive for one or both of these diseases and this does not even take into account the huge population of feral or outdoor cats that have never been tested. The positive news is that testing your cat for both of these diseases only requires a simple, small blood draw that can be performed in the clinic on the day of your pet’s exam and the results are known within minutes. Also, as they say “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” so having your cat vaccinated against Feline Leukemia yearly, spaying and neutering your cat at a young age to prevent fighting and roaming behaviors, and keeping your cats indoor only can also help prevent your cat(s) from contracting these serious, potentially fatal, diseases. It is recommended to have your cat vaccinated for feline leukemia even if he is an indoor only cat since it only takes escaping outside once to potentially contract this serious disease that has no cure. It is also recommended to have your cat tested even sooner than the yearly test for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus if he has been in a fight since that is the most likely time these diseases are transmitted.
Intestinal Parasite Exam and Testing (Fecal)
Your pet’s stool should be checked twice yearly for signs of disease or intestinal parasites. The stool sample is examined in two ways: outward appearance and then under the microscope. When we examine the stool, we look for outward signs that could indicate disease—such as blood, mucus, and abnormal color or consistency. Under the microscope we are able to see the presence of internal parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms, whipworms, coccidia, giardia, etc., which can cause serious, even fatal, disease in your pet. Roundworms, hookworms and whipworms are among the most common parasites picked up by pets and some of these can be transmitted to people so it is critical to ensure that your pet does not have any of these intestinal parasites, especially if there are children, elderly people, or anyone with a decreased immune system in your household. One way to help protect the pets and people in the household is to have your pet on a monthly heartworm, flea and intestinal parasite prevention and to immediately clean up your pets bowel movements and wash your hands well after handling the stool.
Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Serum Chemistry panel
Sometimes, symptoms of diseases won’t manifest clinically until our pets are very, very ill and the majority of an organ function is already depleted. Pets are extremely stoic creatures and hide illness well from us and the body is also able to compensate (function with the decreased function) up until it is too late at some points. This is why annual blood work is so important. By running these tests, our intent is to detect and try to prevent disease as early as possible; it also helps us to have a baseline value for your individual pet so when/if they do have a problem we know exactly what your pet’s values typically are. A CBC gives us an overview of how the bone marrow is functioning. A CBC can tell us whether or not your pet is anemic (not making enough red blood cells), if their body is trying to fight an infection (making a large quantity of white blood cells), or it can even tell us if their body is losing the battle against an infection or has had exposure to a toxin or poison. Serum chemistry tests show us important information about internal organs, such as the liver or kidneys. Certain values on these tests can let us know whether vital organs are functioning properly and give us clues to other disease processes in the body which may be affecting the organ values. In some cases, diseases like diabetes can be detected early on with these simple blood tests, which make regulating the disease a lot more easy on you and your pet in the long run.
Both dogs and cats frequently get thyroid disease, though they are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to how the thyroid gland is functioning. With dogs, typically the thyroid gland is not producing enough hormone (leading to hypothyroidism) and with cats, typically the thyroid gland is producing too much hormone (leading to hyperthyroidism). A simple blood test is able to tell us how much hormone is being produced by a pet’s thyroid gland and allow us to medically intervene to get your pet’s hormone level back into the normal range. The thyroid hormone affects the entire body and can affect a multitude of things, including (but not limited to): attitude, weight, appetite, skin health, and heart health. Often if thyroid disease goes undetected, the other parts of the body that are affected with disease are not able to be treated successfully until the thyroid disease is under control. The good news is that, once detected, thyroid disease is a very manageable illness.
Similar to blood testing, a urine test can give us a good understanding of how healthy your pet’s bladder and kidneys are and if they are functioning properly. We will always recommend this test if your pet is having urinary related issues—this could include symptoms such as straining to urinate, excessive urinations, excessive drinking, blood seen in urine, and/or inappropriate urinations, among others. However, it is a good idea to get in the habit of testing urine samples once yearly in order to detect urinary tract disease before you start to see clinical signs at home. In addition to the basic urinalysis, we are also able to have a urine culture and sensitivity preformed if there is evidence of infection in order to guide our treatment to provide the most effective medication for your pet.
Tick-Borne Disease Testing
One of the most commonly seen parasites in veterinary medicine is the tick. It is important to remember that all ticks are at risk of carrying diseases, which in turn means that our pets (and ourselves!) are at great risk when bitten. Among the diseases that ticks can carry, Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) is by far one of the most well-known tick-borne diseases affecting not only dogs, but also cats, many wild animal species and human beings. Vaccinating and testing yearly for tick-borne diseases should be part of every pet’s annual medical regiment. This test only requires a simple blood draw and can be performed in the clinic on the day of your pet’s exam. Our in-house test screens for Borrelia burgdorferi and Ehrlichia canis, the two most common tick-borne diseases seen in dogs and we will be able to provide you with results within minutes. Often times Lyme disease can lay dormant and virtually undetectable clinically in pets. Sometimes the disease only causes clinical signs, such as lameness and anorexia, for short periods of time. Many owners do not think much about these short-lived symptoms because they resolve (often on their own); however, if left undiagnosed and untreated, Lyme disease causes a life-time of problems and can even result in multi-organ failure.
Intraocular Eye Pressure Screening
Intraocular eye pressure screening is a simple, painless in-house test that focuses not only on the health of your pet’s eyes, but can even give us insight into issues with blood pressure or issues within the brain or nervous system. More specifically, this diagnostic test helps us to determine if the pressure in your dog’s eye is normal or abnormal. An abnormally high pressure is called glaucoma and an abnormally low pressure is called uveitis. Glaucoma, or an increased pressure within the eye, can be caused by a variety of diseases and it is generally classified as either primary or secondary in animals. Primary glaucoma is an inherited condition that usually develops around 2 to 3 years of age or older, which is why it is so important to start testing early and continue testing often. Secondary glaucoma occurs when the eye has been aggravated by other forms of eye disease or injury that decrease the eye’s ability to drain the fluid within it normally. Glaucoma can cause severe pain, damage to the retina and optic nerve, leading to vision loss. In fact, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in dogs so it is critical that we are screening for it since there often are not very obvious clinical signs in the early stages. Screening for abnormal pressure within the eye helps us to develop a treatment plan and avoid blindness in our pets!
Many aspects of veterinary medicine are geared toward preventative care because our goal is to provide our patients with the longest, happiest, highest quality of life possible. Routine examinations and diagnostic testing allows us to identify or prevent medical conditions earlier, before they become major problems. The earlier we can detect an issue, the better we are able to manage or treat it and the more options we have, both medically and surgically, to keep our pets living longer, healthier lives! When simple diagnostic tests, such as the ones mentioned above, are combined with your pet’s bi-annual examination, all types of disease and internal problems can be discovered before any clinical symptoms appear. It is important to remember that many times pets are sicker internally than they let us know externally, and a simple bi-annual examination with the recommended diagnostic testing could prove to be a life saver!