It can be an especially harrowing time for a pet owner when their beloved animal falls ill, as research currently proves. After all, they can’t tell you what’s wrong, nor where their pain is, so how do vets know how to sort the problem out?

Vets are qualified medical experts who receive years of training in animal care and welfare. They have substantial expertise in their field and know the anatomy of animals like the back of their hand. Because of this training, they are equipped with the relevant knowledge to diagnose a range of pet problems quickly and easily.

That’s not to say they are mind readers though. They can only do their best with the tools and equipment that’s available to them, as well as the years of experience amassed throughout their work. It can sometimes take longer to get to the root of an issue, but vets always put a pet’s health as their number one priority.

So, what are some of the methods that vets use to diagnose what’s wrong with our pets? Let’s take a look.

Initial check

A puppy being held

The first thing a vet will do when you bring your pet in is take a thorough look at them. They’ll assess their whole body, running routine checks to analyse any initial, obvious issues which wouldn’t require further testing to diagnose. They normally complete this check in three steps:

  • Physical examination. If it’s not immediately obvious what’s wrong with the pet, a vet will physically examine them to find out which part of the body is causing them pain. During this stage, the vet will run routine health checks on the pet, monitoring their breathing, weight, ears, mouth, eyes and heart rate.
  • Discussion. You, as an owner, know your pet better than anyone else. To them, you are their world, so you will know a lot of information that can potentially help your vet out. You can expect to be asked about your pet’s recent behaviour, their history, and any problems they may have started showing recently. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for your vet to identify what’s wrong.
  • Think. This might seem like a slightly obvious step but, next, the vet will combine everything you’ve told them and have a good think about what the likely cause of the problem is. They will assess your pet’s species, breed, age, gender and background, performing some detective work to get to the root of the problem.

Further investigation

A microscope

Once a vet has made their initial diagnosis, they will then need to follow it up, investigating the issue further to make sure it is definitely what they think it is. As some illnesses are more difficult to get to the bottom of, vets will often use one or more tests to do this.

So, which tests are they likely to use?

The most common tests that vets use involve taking samples of blood, urine, skin or poo from your pet. They then look at and analyse these samples in more detail, confirming or ruling out any conditions that could be affecting your pet. While some of this research can be carried out at in the vet practice itself, other tests will need to be sent off to a specialist lab for analysis, which can take longer and cost more.

Depending on the injury or illness involved, another test that vets commonly use is a scan or X-ray. These enable your vet to actually look inside of your pet, to find out what’s been going on. Using an X-ray can help identify any broken bones your pet might have, as well as see if they’ve eaten anything they shouldn’t have. Scans – such as ultrasounds – can help identify conditions such as kidney stones, heart problems or cancerous tumours, and are typically slightly safer than X-rays.

For a more comprehensive list of the tests that vets use, please click here.


A vet holding a dog in place

After the vet has diagnosed what’s wrong with your pet, the next step is to obviously help them get better! To do this, they will talk through with you what the best treatment plan is for your pet, clarifying any related risks or benefits.

However, not all illnesses can have the vet’s diagnosis 100% confirmed using tests. Some tests, such as X-rays that require anaesthesia, could even be potentially harmful to certain animals. When this is the case, vets may choose to take a more staggered, precautionary approach to the treatment plan, trying one medication at a time instead of all at once. They will then work alongside you and your pet to see how effective each treatment has been, identifying the best course of action to take.

Treatments typically come as one of three main forms: biologics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Biologics mainly involve treatments such as vaccines – preventative drugs that protect your pet from potentially harmful conditions. Pesticides are typically medicines that focus on killing pests, such as fleas and ticks. Whereas, pharmaceuticals incorporate medicines that help with more serious pet problems. These include pain medication, anaesthetics, antibiotics and chemotherapy (anti-cancer) drugs.

Ongoing care

Just because your pet’s illness has been diagnosed and treated against doesn’t mean that’s it. Vets will ask to see your pet for follow-up appointments, to make sure that the treatment they have provided is working effectively and to see if any other problems have developed during their recuperation. Your pet’s health is a vet’s top priority, so it’s their job to get your pet back to feeling its best.

If your pet is in pain, or if you’d like some helpful advice, find your nearest vet by clicking here.