How do vets find out what's wrong with your pet?

Before your vet can give your pet the right treatment, they need to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong. This process is called ‘diagnosis’ and there are plenty of tools and resources to help your vet go about it.

Diagnosing what’s wrong with a pet can be a challenge – they can’t tell us directly how they feel, or where it hurts. Getting to the bottom of what’s wrong with a pet can take a bit of detective work.

What your vet will look for when you bring your pet in

There are lots of ways that veterinary staff can diagnose what is wrong with a pet. The first thing they’ll do is give your pet a good check over, looking at their whole body. They might be able to diagnose an illness or injury without doing any tests. Your vet or vet nurse will:

  • Examine your pet. This is the simplest way to diagnose a problem. If it’s not obvious what’s wrong – like a broken leg or a nasty cut - then a physical examination can help to find out which part of your pet’s body is causing them pain. Your vet will also check your pet’s heart, breathing, eyes, ears, mouth and weight. They may even press their finger against your pet’s gum, as all these things can help to point to certain problems.
  • Talk to you. No-one knows your pet better than their owner and you can give your vet lots of important information. They’ll ask about your pet’s history, behaviour and any changes in the way they’ve been acting. If you notice a change in your pet (e.g. they’re eating less or going to the toilet more often) make a note so you can tell your vet.
  • Think about your pet. Your pet’s species, breed, age, gender and background can all play a big part in their health. Certain illnesses are more likely to happen in older pets or specific breeds. These clues can help your vet to narrow down the possible problems.

Further investigation: tests to help get the right diagnosis

Some illnesses are a bit more difficult to diagnose and your vet will want to be sure they’re treating your pet for the right thing. Luckily, there are lots of tests available to help vet staff find out more about what’s going on inside your pet:

  • Tests. Your vet might need to take some blood, urine, skin or even poo samples. These tests can help confirm what’s wrong with your pet or rule out some possible illnesses. At PDSA, some of these tests can be done in house at our Pet Hospitals, keeping the costs down. Other tests need to be sent off for analysis, so it can take a little longer to find out the results.
  • Scans and x-rays. These help your vet see inside your pet’s body. X-rays can help a vet find broken or fractured bones and see how serious the injury is. X-rays can also help to flag up if a pet has eaten something it shouldn’t - vets have spotted spoons, toys and even a TV aerial on x-rays! Other scans, like ultrasounds, can help diagnose conditions like kidney stones, tumours or heart problems.

The right treatment for your pet

Diagnosing the problem is just the first step in their treatment. Next, your vet will talk you through what’s best for your pet.

Sometimes there’s more than one way to treat your pet. Your vet will talk you through the risks and benefits of each option.

Not all illnesses can be 100% confirmed by tests. Some tests might be painful or dangerous, particularly for older pets. If your vet has narrowed it down to two or three likely illnesses, they may recommend trying one treatment at a time and seeing which helps your pet. Your vet is using years of training and experience to make this decision and will always keep the welfare of your pet as a priority.

Ongoing care

How your pet responds to any treatment can also be an important part of understanding what’s wrong with them. If you notice any unexpected changes in your pet after starting a course of treatment, always contact your vet for advice.


Pets and antibiotics

If your vet decides that your pet needs antibiotics, here is all you need to know about them.

Pets and antibiotics

Dog Healthcare

Find out what vaccinations protect your dog from and why they're such an important part of your dog's healthcare.

Read more

PDSA Pet Insurance

Pets can get into all sorts of mischief, so make sure you're protected with 5 Star** insurance selected by our vets.

Get a quote