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Health & Wellness

Here’s what you need to know about your pet’s first vet visit

Especially if you rescued a dog or cat.

On your pet’s first day home, you’ll be itching to give them a tour, snuggle in and take some selfies. But once your dog or cat has settled a bit, it’s a good idea to schedule their first vet visit (also called a wellness checkup). 

Aside from scheduling the appointment, it’s helpful to be prepared for the first visit with an understanding of your dog or cat’s health history and overall temperament. And if you’re thinking — my pet and I are just getting to know each other — there are people you can turn to for answers. 

As a practicing veterinarian with over 25 years of experience, especially with shelter pets (my nickname is "The Street Vet," after all), I've got some tips to help you navigate your pet's first wellness checkup. And as a member of Fetch by The Dodo's Veterinary Advisory Board, I'm extra excited to share them on The Dig.

A photo of Dr. Kwane Stewart
Dr. Kwane Stewart, a member of Fetch by The Dodo's Veterinary Advisory Board and a practicing  veterinarian.

What is a pet wellness checkup? 

As a new pet parent, it’s natural to have a million questions about the best ways to care for your dog or cat. That’s what makes wellness checkups — especially the very first one — so important. You’ll learn of any health hiccups your pet may be experiencing, you can ask any questions you may have about their behavior or medical history and you can put plans in place for their future wellness. 

What should pet parents ask the shelter before taking their pet home?

Getting to bring your pet home is the most exciting part of their Gotcha Day — but before you rush out the shelter door, make sure to learn as much about your pet as you can. The shelter may not know all about your pet’s history, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Here are some subjects worth bringing up:

Temperament: If you haven’t already, make sure to ask about your dog or cat’s mood or behavior. Rescue organizations can often evaluate if a pet is aggressive, and to what extent. (This is an important question to ask before adopting, too, especially if you have kids, other pets or live a social lifestyle.) If your pet’s temperament needs specialized attention, a vet can guide you to the right resources. 

Diet: To make the transition from the shelter to your home smoother, ask about the food your pet’s been eating. In most cases, the shelter will send you home with a bag of that brand so you can start mixing it in with a vet-recommended option (which you can ask about at your wellness visit). The goal is to eventually switch them over to the vet’s choice full-time.

Personality: Is your new pet very active? High-energy dogs need exercise and mental stimulation or else they tend to become destructive due to boredom. Ask your vet how to satisfy their needs so they stay healthy and out of trouble.

RELATED: How much do dog MRIs cost?

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What does a pet wellness checkup entail? 

A wellness checkup is essentially a complete, thorough physical examination of your pet. Veterinarians use their hands and stethoscopes to check the pet’s organ systems, heart rate and lungs. They’ll likely feel your pet’s skin for any tumors, swollen lymph nodes or irregular skin patterns, look at their ears and check out their weight and bone structure, too. 

Pets commonly struggle with periodontal disease, which is when bacteria forces the gum lines to recede, leading to tooth loss. Even if your pet isn’t showing signs of pain (some dogs and cats are good at hiding it!), that doesn’t mean they have a clean bill of health. It’s important for vets to check for mouth infections and disease during the first visit. If periodontal disease is present, they may recommend a professional dental cleaning or tooth extraction.

Veterinarians will also address a pet’s vaccine needs during their first visit. It’s usually case-by-case, depending on your pet’s future lifestyle — like, if you’re looking forward to lots of nature hikes with your pup, a vet would likely recommend a vaccine to prevent Lyme disease

Another heads-up: Carrying around a bag of your dog’s poop may not be the most glamorous part of pet parenthood, but your veterinarian will likely ask you to bring a sample of your pet’s stool to their first visit. Vets use the sample to determine if your pet has parasites like roundworms, hookworms or Giardia. If your pet struggles with any of these infections, they’ll likely receive deworming medication. 

What if a pet has anxiety at their vet visit? 

Finding a vet that can accommodate your pet’s needs can be an important part of setting up that first appointment. Take vet-induced anxiety for example. It’s so common amongst pets that some vets and veterinary technicians take part in a training module called the Fear Free movement, which teaches protocols for making pets’ trips to the vet as stress-free as possible. 

One tip: Fear Free movement advocates say it’s helpful for your pet to skip breakfast the morning of a vet visit. If a pet comes to the vet hungry, they’ll likely accept treats, which can be used as a distraction to eliminate or reduce anxiety. And if you give your pet bland, freeze-dried treats at home, they’ll be even more excited to receive the vet’s high-reward treats, like chopped up hotdogs, cheese and peanut butter.

Did you know that where you touch your pet actually can cause or reduce stress? Take cats for example —  they don’t usually like being touched on their bellies and will often scratch or bite people that rub their stomachs. Fear Free advocates are trained to carry or touch your pet in ways that help them feel more comfortable. 

The Fear Free movement also encourages veterinarians to spray themselves with pheromones, aka anxiety-reducing scents that only cats and dogs can smell. Pair that with some calming music (classical music, for example, has been shown to reduce anxiety in cats and dogs) and your pet’s experience could go from stressful to manageable.

What resources can I ask my vet for at the wellness checkup? 

Your pet’s first wellness checkup is a great opportunity for you to develop a trusting bond with your new veterinarian. This type of relationship will allow you to feel comfortable when navigating complicated conversations that may come up, like talks around medications and vaccines.

A good veterinarian will look at the first vet visit as the start of a long-lasting relationship between you and your pet — and they’ll likely feel happy to be apart of your pet’s journey.

Photo by SeventyFour on Shutterstock

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