Why your Pet Needs Preventive Health Care in the New Year

Has it been more than a year since you brought your pet in for an annual health exam? With the recent topsy-turvy, pandemic world, this has become more common than it was pre-COVID. Remember the old adage, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?’ Those wise words directly relate to the health care of our pets. Avoiding illness is always better than treating it, so let’s explore ways to prevent diseases rather than cure them.

Pets Age Faster than We Do

The rapid aging process in pets makes preventive health care crucial. While people regularly equate one year of a dog’s life to 7 human years, this is an oversimplification. In fact, one calendar year for a dog may equal anywhere between 4-15 human years due to the way dogs mature and depending on the breed.

Pups mature very fast during the first year of life and are considered to be teenagers (15 years old) after only 12 months! By their second birthday, they are actually about 25 years old. After that, the aging rate slows down so a dog ages about 4-5 years for each calendar year with large breeds aging more quickly than smaller breeds.

Similarly, cats mature very quickly during the first two years of life, so it is generally thought a 2 year old cat equals about 25 human years. After that, one feline year is about 4 human years which means that a 4 year old cat is about 33 years old and a 10 year old cat is about 57 years old.

The bottom line is this: pets age faster than we do. If we get a physical exam and blood tests annually, that’s like our pets taking the same preventive health measures every 4-5 years if only visiting the veterinarian once a year. 

What are the Preventative Health Care Guidelines?

A preventive health plan revolves around regularly scheduled exams of an apparently healthy pet in order to maintain optimum health. To standardize wellness plans, the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) gathered medical information from various specialty groups (American Heartworm Society, American Association of Feline Practitioners, Companion Animal Parasite Council to name a few) and devised guidelines focused on preventive health care for cats and dogs.

An overview of some of the AAHA/AVMA recommendations for preventive care and why they are important to your pet is provided below:

  • History. A discussion of your pet’s home life will give your veterinarian an overall idea of his health status. Changes in your pet’s demeanor may occur so gradually that you are not aware of them until you are asked specific questions. Does your pet have a good appetite and regular bowel movements? Does he strain to urinate? Does he limp? Is he slow to rise when lying down? Does he ever cough, sneeze, or seem short of breath? Is he itchy? Does he drink a lot? Your answers will guide the veterinarian along a diagnostic path that will end with your pet feeling better. 
  • Examinations. Even healthy pets should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year. If your pet is older or has medical problems, more frequent visits may be necessary. Physical exams can detect heart murmurs or skipped heart beats; enlarged lymph nodes; skin tumors; abdominal tumors; and enlarged or shrunken kidneys, liver, or spleen that may mean systemic disease. A look at the eyes can determine a pet’s visual capacity. An orthopedic evaluation can tell if a pet is arthritic and in need of pain medication. A dermatologic evaluation of the hair coat will determine the need for flea and tick control or diagnose skin infections (bacterial, fungal, or parasitic). Hair loss may indicate systemic disease or hormonal imbalances. 
  • Testing. Although heartworms are more prevalent in warmer climates where mosquitoes thrive, infected dogs live in every state and in some parts of Canada. While the incidence of feline heartworms is less than canine infection, cats suffer serious effects from heartworms and should be tested, especially in warmer climates. Intestinal parasites can affect both pets and humans, so a stool sample should be analyzed at least once (preferably twice) a year. To diagnose organ malfunctions in the early stages, blood tests (complete blood count, chemistry panel, and thyroid screen) and urinalysis should be performed annually. If problems are diagnosed, more frequent testing may be necessary. For dogs in areas where ticks are prevalent, screening for vector borne diseases like Lyme disease or ehrlichiosis may be advised. Cats should also be screened for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and feline leukemia virus at least once in their life (or more if they have high exposure risk).
  • Dental Care. It is a well-known fact that oral health impacts a dog and cat’s general health. Simply put, pets with clean mouths live longer. The bacteria involved in periodontal disease do not just stay in the mouth. These organisms invade the bloodstream and travel to major organs like the kidneys, liver, and heart where they cause significant health issues. Dogs and cats may need their teeth cleaned every 1-2 years, but this frequency can vary more or less depending on a number of factors including preventive care. Dental radiographs (X-rays) will help determine the status of oral disease. Regular dental cleanings will also allow your pet to keep his pearly whites in good condition.
  • Parasite Prevention. Dogs and cats should be given medication to prevent heartworms all year long in endemic areas. Many heartworm medications also prevent or treat intestinal parasites, and some may also treat fleas and ticks. A parasite prevention protocol can be tailored to a pet’s specific needs within his personal environment.
  • Immunizations. Vaccinations are divided into two groups: core vaccines and non-core or optional vaccines. All dogs (without medical problems that prevent immunization) should receive vaccinations for rabies, distemper, canine parvovirus, and canine adenovirus-2 (hepatitis) (usually offered as a combined DAP vaccination). Vaccination for kennel cough, Lyme disease, leptospirosis, and canine influenza may be recommended for dogs with potential exposure to these diseases. All cats (without medical problems that prevent vaccination) should be immunized against rabies, feline panleukopenia virus, feline herpesvirus 1, and calicivirus (usually in a combined FVRCP vaccination). Cats at risk of exposure should also be vaccinated for feline leukemia virus.
  • Weight Maintenance. Research has shown that leaner cats and dogs live longer and have fewer health problems. Your veterinarian will assign a body condition score to your dog and give you dietary and exercise recommendations to help your pet maintain a healthy body mass index.
  • Spaying or Neutering. Spaying or neutering can have numerous health or behavior benefits. Having this surgery done can prevent infections and some types of cancer. Your veterinarian will discuss these benefits and the timing of the surgery for your pet.

Diagnosing Disease & Illness

Since pets cannot talk, veterinarians cannot ask them how they are feeling or what is bothering them. Plus, innate survival instincts make all pets hide illnesses so they do not appear weak or vulnerable to predators. That means thorough physical exams are crucial to keep pets healthy. And since your veterinarian cannot see what is going on inside a pet’s body, blood and urine tests are needed to complete the health picture. These preventive medicine steps will diagnose problems earlier making treatment more successful and less costly and, more importantly, will help your pet live a longer, healthier life in both the new year and beyond.