Chapter 1 History and Physical Examination
Veterinarians are faced with many diagnostic challenges on a daily basis. By far the most important diagnostic tool that veterinarians possess is their ability to obtain a complete history and perform a thorough physical examination. This information, when accurately interpreted, lays the foundation for a logical diagnostic and therapeutic plan. A systematic and thorough history and physical examination prevents unnecessary diagnostic testing and needless cost to the owner.
For a complete history, include a system-by-system review of the patient’s general health. This can be accomplished by the experienced clinician as the physical examination is performed. The novice may prefer to obtain the entire history before proceeding with the physical examination. Develop a consistent and systematic method. One method is to begin with questions concerning the patient’s head and proceed caudally, as demonstrated in the following text. It is left to the clinician’s discretion as to how in-depth the client is questioned about systems that do not appear to affect the primary complaint. Apply the general principles described in the previous section in the approach to all body systems (e.g., onset and duration).
Most problems related to the digestive system are clinically manifested as anorexia, regurgitation, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, or a combination of these. Determine which clinical sign is being exhibited, because the owner may incorrectly interpret what is observed. For example, owners often assume that their pet is constipated if it is observed straining to defecate, when diarrhea may be the actual cause. Ask specific questions to differentiate between vomiting and regurgitating. Regurgitation is characterized as a passive ejection of ingested material from the esophagus. It typically occurs soon after a meal is eaten. The regurgitated material is usually undigested and tubular in form. Vomiting frequently involves an abdominal heave movement or retching. Time of vomiting in relation to eating should be noted and is variable depending on the underlying disorder. Vomitus is not tubular in form and may consist of froth, fluid, yellow-green bile, food, or ingested foreign material. Include the following specific information in approaching a digestive system problem:
Ask if any abnormal masses or swellings have been observed that have not been previously mentioned. Note the location, how long the mass or swelling has been present, and any change in appearance, character, or size. If the patient has not been examined in your practice before, ask if the mass has been previously sampled by either a fine needle aspirate or a surgical biopsy. Obtain a fine needle aspirate from masses that have not been previously investigated.
An accurate and detailed history is essential for successful management of dermatologic problems. Remember that some systemic disease processes may manifest themselves in cutaneous changes, such as hyperadrenocorticism or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Some clinicians prefer to have the owner fill out a standardized dermatologic history form prior to specific questioning. Include the following questions on such a form, or directly ask the owner: