Why might my dog need lab work?
There are a bunch of different types of lab work, and usually those are performed when we have to try to figure out what may be causing your dog to be ill. It doesn't have to be related to illness, but usually, lab work is done to discover the cause of an illness or to detect if there's any illness there at all, like in the case of like heartworm disease or intestinal worms. It's not always obvious, but we do laboratory work to see if those things exist in that particular patient.
Why are laboratory tests so important for my dog's health?
I think primarily for the reason I just mentioned. So some of them, specifically heartworm testing, stool samples, maybe even a urinalysis can be done more as preventative measures. And what I mean by that, preventative may not be the best word, but trying to uncover an illness before there are any clinical signs of illness. So I think that's where it's important because it's an early detection system to where we can address potentially an underlying or obscure disease before it becomes more obvious.
What are different types of lab work, and how are these tests done?
So this is when the answer could get rather large if I let it. Laboratory work. What does that mean? So we do things like urinalysis, fecal samples, or intestinal parasite screening as we like to call it, we do some blood work, which could be anywhere from a CBC, chemistry panel, thyroid test, a simple glucose test, and heartworm tests. So all of these things are possible lab work that we would do on any given day, depending on the need or cause or presentation of that patient.
What do the chemistries mean on my dog's blood work?
Good question. That's fair because chemistry is a broad term. So first off I will tell you this—a lot of different panels are available. When we say a chemistry panel, a chem panel, some people on the human field call it a SMAC, or a SMAC followed by a number. Because different panels offer different parameters. Some of them are larger and may offer 25 to 30 different parameters. Some, like pre-surgical, where we only want to know what the liver, kidney, and maybe a few electrolytes are, things like that might only have 10 or 12 parameters on it. But, to answer your question more specifically, what are those things that we're looking for? The big ones that we tend to look for on every sick animal are kidneys and liver.
So what are we looking at? Kidneys have certain markers that can appear on a routine chemistry panel. SDMA, BUN, creatinine, phosphorus. There's the BUN creatinine ratio that often appears on some panels. That tells me a picture, if you will, of what's going on with that animal's kidney function. The liver is another big one. ALT, AST, alkaline phosphatase, bilirubin, and cholesterol can be impacted by the liver, and albumin and globulin are two proteins that are produced by the liver. Sometimes you might have a coagulation factor. So you might want to run a coag test on an animal with impaired liver function because that can affect the clotting factors that need to be present for an animal to clot. So you see where that's going? There area lot. It's virtually impossible to cover every single one in this brief segment, but those are the big primers that we look at.
Chemistries also look at things like your blood glucose, your electrolytes, like sodium, potassium, chloride, and phosphorus. All of these results can be valuable pieces of the puzzle that helps us uncover the underlying disease process in a given patient.
How do the baseline lab tests benefit the health of my dog?
So what does a baseline lab test look like? When we do yearly checkups on animals, when dogs come in and we talk about doing wellness blood work, people kind of give us a funny look. And they're like, "No doc, my dog's fine. He's three. Why do I want to do blood work?" But that word, what you just said, baseline, is important. Because what it does is it gives you a chance to see what that animal's values look like when they are young, healthy, and are not sick in any way, shape, or form. That's your baseline, because at some point, maybe it's in six months, maybe it's in six years, that animal is going to come back to you, and maybe this time he's not feeling so well. The dog could be vomiting or, perhaps, they’re drinking a bunch of water. Pick your disease presentation. The baseline sample that we pulled all those months or years ago now allows us to compare to with this potentially abnormal sample. And it makes it so much easier.
I say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. This dog's liver was 42 last time. His ALT was 42, and now it's 316. Something's off." You just know what normal for that dog is, because there's always variation in that. And now you get a much clearer picture of what's happening at a given time. So that's why I like baseline samples.
Why is early detection and diagnosis of my dog's potential illness using lab work so important?
Early detection with any disease process and any species, dog, cat, bird, human, anything, early detection is huge. Why? Well, for obvious reasons, the earlier you catch it, the better prognosis you're going to have. And why is that? Let's take the kidneys, for example. The kidneys are very finicky. If your kidneys begin failing, for whatever reason, from a toxin to just an old animal who's going into kidney failure. Once the nephrons, which are the functional units in the kidney, are damaged, they don't come back. And a dog can tolerate, they'll do fine until I think it's about 70% nephron loss or 70% of the nephrons affected. Don't quote me on 70%, but it's close. They can do just fine until they get beyond that point, and then it's a very slippery slope afterward. In other words, sometimes they can be too far gone for us to be able to pull them back and really improve their quality of life.
However, if you were to take that same animal and go back in time, months, or maybe even years, to a routine annual checkup when the dog was eight years old, and you noticed that, wait a second, his BUN and SDMA are just slightly elevated. That doesn't mean he's in kidney failure yet. It means that his kidney function might be impaired just a little bit. That is the prime time where you can put him on corrective diets. You can put the dog on various supplements. You can do things that will slow greatly the progression of those failing kidneys. This is much more helpful than in my example, in which you’re catching the issue two years down the road. Maybe that animal doesn't get to that point for five or six years. Maybe they succumb to something else that doesn't even involve the kidneys. That's where early detection comes in. The sooner you can address a problem, the better potential outcome you can have.
FAQ - Dog Lab Work/Laboratory
What can blood tests help a veterinarian detect?
Quite a lot. Laboratory tests in dogs allow us to get information from things or organs, perhaps internally, that we can't otherwise determine from an outward exam. And that's the best way to look at it. Because I can put my hands on a dog, I can look at things, and I can check their color and listen to their heart and do all those kinds of things. But I can't tell you what their liver function is. I can't tell you what their kidney function is. I can't tell you what their blood sugar is. So that's where laboratory tests come in and give us answers that we may not otherwise be able to see from the outside.
What type of lab tests do veterinarians use?
The most common things that I do on a day-to-day basis would be things such as heartworm tests, fecal samples or stool samples, maybe urinalysis, and probably almost as common we do things like chemistry panels and CBCs. Those are probably the big five or so types of lab tests run in veterinary clinics day-to-day, numerous times a day. We might have to send off other lab tests, like maybe a test for Cushing's disease, like a low dose dex suppression test or an ACTH stim test or thyroid testing. You could pick a disease presentation, and there's probably a specialty test that I can run to give you more information about it. But the ones I listed previously were probably the most common that we use.
How does my veterinarian decide which lab test to order for my dog?
Again, what the dog presents for will dictate what we have to do. And not to be repetitive, but on wellness visits, yearly checkups, heartworm tests, stool samples, and maybe even some wellness blood work, which is a CBC chem. Those are the most common. If you bring an animal in that presents for PU/PD, drinking a lot of water, urinating a lot...maybe they’re losing weight or dehydrated, then, no. My focus goes more to diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney failure, those kinds of things. So I'm much more inclined to get CBC chemistry and urinalysis on those animals. So again, it just depends on what they're presenting for, how sick they are, what their clinical signs are. All of that is going to dictate what tests we potentially run.
How long does it take to get the results from my dog's lab tests?
It depends on the veterinarian you use and what test that veterinarian runs. All the things I keep mentioning time and again, CBC chemistry, urinalysis, all of that. Many veterinarians now have those kinds of machines or equipment in-house in their clinic. The average turnaround time is probably 10 minutes for CBC chem and urinalysis. If I'm doing fecal and heartworm, it's a little less than that. It's probably more like six to eight minutes to have those two back.
If I have to submit a larger test, like an ACTH stim test or thyroid panel or level or a bunch of other things I don't list, I don't have those in-house. So those have to be pulled and sent to an outside laboratory. And depending on what test it is, it's either 24 hours to perhaps 48 to 72 hours for some of the longer taking tests. It’s completely variable and depends on what it is and the lab test. But anywhere from minutes for point-of-care diagnostics or a few days for some of the bigger, harder-to-find tests.
FAQ 2 - Dog Lab Work/Laboratory
How is blood drawn from my dog?
On the average size dog, meaning let's say anywhere from Labradors on down, most blood panels that have to we pull require a jugular stick from the jugular vein. If we're simply putting a heartworm test for lab work, that just takes a few drops of blood. We can usually pull that from a front leg or cephalic vein. But suppose we have to pull enough blood to do a CBC, chemistry, or any kind of send-off test. In that case, that usually requires several milliliters of blood, and it's usually more efficient, quicker, and safer for the dog if we pull it from a jugular sample.
Is the sample collection painful for my dog?
Do dogs like needle sticks? Probably not any more than you or I like needle sticks. So is there discomfort? I mean, yeah, they're getting poked with a needle. Do I always use the biggest needle I can? Of course not. No. I try to use a small needle, but it's a compromise. The smaller the needle I use, the longer it takes to get the sample, and the longer I have to restrain the dog and hold them in that awkward position.
So there’s a fine line between that. Not to mention, let's also be honest; a lot of dogs are different. Some dogs are very stoic. You can do just about anything in the world to them, and they will just sit there wagging their tail and not even moving. You have other dogs that, if you pinch them, they will act like you did something a lot worse than pinch them. So it just depends on the dog’s temperament, how big of a blood sample we need, and what kind of restraint would be necessary to get that blood sample.
How is the safety of my dog ensured when getting lab work done?
That's a fair question. So number one, most clinics have a very well-trained staff that can do all the sticks themselves if necessary—we do here. If time allows, I'm back there pulling it with them or for them. But I have a very well-trained staff who knows how to restrain the animals and how to pull the samples themselves if necessary. So that's step one.
Number two, if we have an animal that is fractious, nervous, anything like that, where snapping or biting is even a likely happening, then we'll put a muzzle on the dog just for everyone's safety, the dog included. And if that's not enough, then there are cases where we have to get blood work done. Say we have a very, very ill animal and he doesn't like anybody. So muzzle or no muzzle, he's going to fight you tooth and nail. Sometimes, the only safe way to do it—both for technicians, veterinarians, owners, and patients—is just to give them mild sedation first, or sedative first. I don't do that with everybody. Far from it. I don't like to do it if it's not necessary. But sometimes that's the only effective way to safely and humanely get a sample from an animal.
How soon will I receive my dog's lab results?
Depending on what test we run and if we do the lab in the veterinary clinic, I would argue to tell you between five and 10 minutes you'll have them back. And again, when we say lab results, we're talking about fecals, urine analysis, CBCs, chemistry, maybe a coag panel. Most clinics, including ours, has in-house equipment that allows for point of care blood work, such as that, or lab work, I should say. In the cases of those tests I just rambled off, I’ll have the results in 5-10 minutes. Some tests that have to be sent off, like phenobarbital, certain thyroid panels, ACTH, or various endocrine type panels that we're screening for, those likely have to be sent off to an outside lab. And that might take anywhere from one to maybe even two, three days to get back.
Will follow-up lab work be needed on my dog?
It depends on what test we run. I was just laughing because you sounded very nervous about your follow-up blood work, but that's okay. I'm sure the dog was too. No, it depends on what we uncover on the initial blood work. Let’s say we're doing wellness blood work and your dog is, just as the name implies, well, and there is nothing doing, then no. There'll be no follow-up. Maybe next year we'll want to do it again just to make sure we're staying on top of things. But no, there wouldn't be any follow-up.
Where follow-up blood work would come in is, say, you have an animal with elevated kidney numbers. Let's just pick kidneys for a second. You do that. You put them on a special diet. You might put them on Azodyl or some other supplement to help drop some of those numbers. Maybe we increase their fluids. Maybe we're giving them sub q fluids weekly or daily, something along those lines. And we'll want to follow up in either days or weeks to ensure that those values are going in the right direction. So that kind of follow-up, yeah, makes perfect sense. If there's no illness underlying and your dog's perfectly healthy, then, of course, no follow-up is necessary. So it just varies on what we're running and the condition of the patient.
Does my senior dog really need lab work done?
I think it's a good idea. And I'm faced with this question a lot because they'll come in for a yearly checkup on a, I don't know, let's say 10-year-old dog, and he's perfectly fine. Well, I get it. You wonder—does he need it? I don't know yet, to be honest with you. Do I recommend it? Yeah. You bet I do. Why? Because he's 10. If I catch something early, then I have a much better chance to treat it effectively. If I don't look, I'll never know. Maybe he's a dog that comes in two weeks after he was just here, and now his kidneys are greatly impaired. He's in kidney failure. Something like that. Would I have had better results knowing that two weeks prior and addressing it then? Heck yeah, I would have.
So if given the opportunity, yeah, I will always choose for the side of being cautious and more proactive when I can. But the word "need" blood work is an interesting word because it's, like I said, if you don't look, you'll never know. So it's my job to be the advocate for the pet and recommend things earlier if possible so we can catch them earlier and have a better treatment outcome.
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