The quick checks that could save your pet's life

Examining your pet regularly can help you to nip common ailments in the bud before they become more serious. Brian Faulkner, Petplan's Vet of the Year 2008, outlines the essentials steps of a quick checkup

Caring for your pet doesn't stop with feeding and exercise. Noticing that something is unusual in your pet and seeking early veterinary attention can often be the difference between curing a condition or not. Follow this five-minute routine at least once a month with your dog, cat or rabbit and you will not only become familiar with what is normal in your own pet, but you'll be able to help your vet detect subtle abnormalities much sooner.

Start with the head. Check that the surfaces of the eyes (the corneas) are shiny and moist but not discharging excessive tears. Check that the pupils are symmetrical and dark black. Make sure the whites of the eyes are not yellow (indicating jaundice) or red (a sign of several conditions). Any abnormalities in these areas can signal significant disease elsewhere in the body, not just in the eyes, so it is advisable to get them checked out.

Elsewhere on the head, ensure that the nostrils are shiny and moist. Lift the upper lip (which can be tricky with rabbits) and check the gum colour to make sure it isn't jaundiced, very pale (which can indicate anaemia) or very red (indicative of various infections). Lift the lip all the way to the back of the upper teeth, as these are commonly decayed - dental diseases can spread to the liver, kidneys and heart. It is difficult to examine a rabbit's molars (cheek teeth), but check the front incisors as well as the lower jawline for lumps and bumps, as abscesses and tooth root problems are common in rabbits. Finally, look inside your pet's ear canals - they should not smell or have excessive black wax.

Move onto the chest. When your pet is resting or sleeping, count the number of times it breathes in and out. This should be less than 40 breaths per minute in dogs and cats; it will perhaps be slightly more in rabbits, as it is hard to catch them asleep. Fast respiratory rates when resting commonly indicate various lung and heart conditions in cats and dogs. Look at the movement of the chest and the effort your pet makes while breathing at rest. The ribs should move up and down gently. Resting pets that breathe with rapid, jerky, laboured movements should always be checked out by a vet.

Moving to the abdomen, run your hands over your pet's sides and belly. Ideally, the belly should be tucked in and up as it moves backwards. Overweight animals will have a flat undercarriage. A pendulous abdomen (one that obviously sags downwards) may not be due to obesity and often indicates fluid inside the abdomen. This is a serious sign with many potential causes, all of which need to be checked out.

Check the entire body surface, including the legs and the groin, by frisking your pet much like an airport security guard would. Touch every part and feel for lumps and bumps (and concealed weapons!). Gently flex and extend the leg joints in dogs and cats and feel for creaking and restricted movement. Comb through the fur and look at the skin beneath for redness, scale and scurf. Always remember to lift the tail right up and check the bottom for swellings, lumps and infections. This is particularly important in rabbits and hairy dog breeds.