You scratch your head every morning when you wake up, an unplanned, natural ritual you’ve probably been doing since you were a kid. And then one day, you feel a bump. The next day, it’s larger. Maybe you tell your wife, who checks it out. Soon, you call the doctor, who examines you and removes the small flap of skin. Life goes on.

Sounds simple and common, of course, but you have the ability to not only tell when your body feels different but also when that difference merits a second opinion. Your dog? Not so much.

That’s why it’s important for dog owners to feel their dogs’ bodies on a regular basis. Like an interested parent who checks every square inch of her infant daughter, a good dog owner knows what’s normal and not normal on a dog’s body. 

Set a baseline

A good dog groomer or care provider gets to know your dog by checking out every part of their body. We rub them down and pet them all over to get a feel for them and to make sure that they’re comfortable with us. As a result, we become aware of any changes that might take place from week to week or month to month. Sometimes, those changes are in the form of lumps or sores that the owner may have missed.

Owners should take a full-body approach to their dogs as well. After all, you need a baseline. What does your dog’s stomach normally look and feel like? Are their eyes clear? Can you pet them anywhere or do they react negatively to touch in a certain area?

Also, take stock of your dog’s normal behavior. You may write off your dog’s habit of scratching his ears each night as “just this thing he does,” meaning you may be unaware of an infection. If you lift your dog’s ears and notice that they’re inflamed or have a distinct, sour smell, it’s likely that they’re infected. That’s not to say every time they scratch their ears, they have an ear infection. Sometimes, they’ve been rolling around outside and they have dirt in their ears. If you lift their ears and see or smell dirt, that’a cue to get them cleaned. If they’re puffy, that’s probably an infection.

Body language

It’s important to gauge your dog’s reaction when you pet certain parts of their bodies. If they pull away because an area is particularly sensitive, keep an eye on it. If you feel a small mass and notice that it’s growing at a fast rate, you still should call your veterinarian, who may be able to help you over the phone. If not, a quick check-up can determine whether or not that growth is serious.

In some cases, dogs don’t react to growths at all. A lump may be a fatty tumor, which can be common in older dogs and often ignored by dogs, owners and vets alike. But if the lump is growing and is obviously tender to the touch, bring your dog in for an examination.

Warts are similar. Common in older dogs, warts can start out small but grow very quickly. They can be any anywhere, including ears, paws and on the top of their heads. In some cases, you’ll notice that your dogs are bothered by warts. They’ll scratch, lick and bite them and can sometimes cause a larger problem. Some dogs aren’t bothered by warts at all. If you notice a wart that looks abnormal, call your vet.

Different thresholds

Like people, a dog’s threshold for pain and discomfort varies. Your co-worker who complains about the smallest headache but still shows up at the office differs from your other co-worker with a similar headache, only he calls in sick. And then there’s the third co-worker, who wouldn’t dare miss a day tackling spreadsheets if her head was the size of a beach ball and throbbing in pain. Dogs are similar. They grow a tolerance to certain discomforts over time. That learned behavior can mask larger issues. That’s why it’s an owner’s responsibility to check every inch of their pet, making sure that their bodies stay in similar condition from week to week.

We’ll be examining—pun intended—some of the basics of dog health the next few weeks, with a focus on what dog owners can do to help keep their pets in shape. And the next time you give Fido those scratches behind the ears that he just loves, be sure to pay some attention to the rest of his body. You’ll be more aware of his overall well-being and mindful of some of the issues he may face in the future.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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