By Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD
Having been in clinical practice since 1999, I’ve observed trends of both illness and wellness in my canine and feline patients. I’ve survived the intensity of an internship, experienced the variety of presenting illnesses in general practice, witnessed the extreme states of sickness seen on an emergency basis and now provide an integrative approach to holistic health and pain management on a house call basis. All of these experiences have developed my perspective on what I feel are the most important aspects of pet healthcare that pet owners should prioritize. I’ve developed this list to help you make well-informed decisions for your pet’s health.
1. Obesity is Easy to Prevent Through Calorie Restriction and Exercise
Exercise is a very important factor in your pet's overall health. 52% of dogs and cats (approximately 89 million pets) in the United States are overweight or obese according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). Being overweight puts your pet at risk for a variety of health problems, including arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and hypothyroidism. Pets who maintain a healthy body weight are at a reduced risk for health problems. Fortunately, The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine Body Condition Scoring Chart helps pet owners and veterinarians determine a dog or cat’s Body Condition Score (BCS). To prevent weight problems:
- Use portion control when feeding your pet.
- When deciding how much to feed your pet, err on the side of feeding less.
- Research has proved that dogs consuming calorie-restricted diets live two years longer than those lacking calorie restriction.
- Make physical activity a daily priority for your pet. Exercise reduces weight and strengthens the pet-owner bond.
2. A Human-Grade, Minimally Processed, Whole-Food Diet Is Healthiest
Nature makes food, then humans highly process nature’s ingredients to create ‘nutritionally complete and balanced’ pet foods conveniently available to scoop out of a bag or can. Unfortunately for our animal companions, there are serious short and long term health consequences associated with eating grain and protein “meals and by-products,” artificial colors and flavors, preservatives and recognized toxins and carcinogens found in many commercially available pet foods and treats. Gastrointestinal, skin, immune system and metabolic diseases and abnormalities, including cancer, can be correlated to these unnecessary food ingredients. As pet foods are so radically altered from nature’s original format, energetic changes occur that reduce the nutritive content of the basic components.
Human-grade, whole-food based, home-prepared or commercial diets undergoing minimal refinement should replace processed dry or canned pet foods. Start small; treat your dog with carrots, or add a handful of broccoli to your dog’s dinner. Cook a broiler chicken on the weekend and add a little cooked chicken to your cat’s meals. Be sure to reduce the amount of dry or canned food so you’re replacing some of their diet with healthy food instead of adding calories. There are lots of guides online for creating a whole food diet for your pet, but you should consult with your vet before making any big changes.
3. Home Dental Care Is a Daily Responsibility
There are serious and potentially irreversible health repercussions associated with periodontal disease. Millions of bacteria live in the mouth and enter the bloodstream through inflamed gums or gingivitis, which showers the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and other body systems with a constant stream of toxic bacteria. Just like in humans, periodontal disease in pets is very preventable. You might squirm at the idea of brushing your pet’s teeth every day, but it’s not as hard as you might think. Brushing with a moistened toothbrush, cleansing with an oral antiseptic wipe like DentAcetic and chewing on pet-safe toys and treats are my top picks for home dental care. Electing to not prevent or resolve your pet’s periodontal disease truly amounts to neglect on behalf of the pet caretaker. If you take care of your pet’s teeth now, you won’t have to pay for expensive dental procedures later, and your pet won’t have to suffer from surgeries or the everyday pain of not being able to chew comfortably.
4. Health Is a Bigger Factor Than Age with Anesthesia-Based Teeth Cleaning
Pets are never too old to undergo anesthesia. Pets certainly can be too unhealthy though. There are risks in putting a pet under anesthesia, but any risks can be minimized by working with your veterinarian to make sure your pet is as healthy as possible before the procedure occurs. Blood testing, X-rays, an ECG (electrical evaluation of heart rate and rhythm) and possibly other diagnostics such as a heart or intestines ultrasound should be done in an appropriate pre-anesthetic period. All illnesses should be resolved or improved before an anesthetic procedure is performed. Remember, age is not a disease; the bacterial infection and associated inflammation in your pet’s mouth are.
5. Use Holistic Healthcare to Reduce the Need for Medications with Serious Side Effects
Many human and veterinary prescription medications are used to treat animal diseases. Although these drugs fight infection, reduce inflammation, minimize pain and kill cancer cells, some have associated mild to severe side effects. As a result, it’s vital that you reduce your furry companion’s reliance on medications to improve quality of life. Keeping your pet as healthy as possible is the best way to minimize meds. Some ways you can work with your vet to take a holistic approach to health and disease management include:
- Environmental modification: making your home safe for pets
- Administering nutraceuticals: omega fatty acids, joint support products, antioxidants, etc.
- Maintaining a lean body condition score with portion control and exercise
- Providing whole-food based diets rich in non-processed or synthetic nutrients
- Pursuing physical rehabilitation, such as massage, stretching, and range of motion, and acupuncture treatment including laser, moxibustion, and electrostimulation.
6. Only Vaccinate Healthy Pets
It is important that your pet is healthy enough for vaccinations. Life-threatening health consequences may be associated with non-judicious administration of vaccines. Even a single vaccine can elicit a hypersensitivity/allergic reaction, immune system diseases, cancer, inflammatory response, organ system failure, seizure activity, coma and death. In my practice, I advocate the provision of vaccinations according to the UC Davis Canine and Feline Vaccination Guidelines. Pets should be vaccinated only when they are in the best state of health. Illnesses should be resolved to the utmost extent before a vaccination is given.
7. Wait 3-4 Weeks Between Each Vaccine
Some pets receive multiple vaccines during a single office visit. Even if their veterinarian does not recommend vaccinating individually at the time of a particular office visit, doing so is in a pet’s best interest. If more than one vaccine has been administered and a post-vaccination reaction occurs, it’s nearly impossible to determine which agents are at fault. Common post-vaccination adverse events include lethargy, decreased appetite, hyperthermia or more serious reactions such as vomiting, diarrhea, shock or death. Receiving more than one vaccination in a single appointment will not make your pet healthier. Doing so only saves an additional trip to the veterinary hospital. A three to four week interval between vaccinations is a healthier choice even if adhering to this interval is less convenient to the owner or veterinarian.
8. You Can Check Your Pet’s Immunity Before Vaccinating
If your pet has previously been vaccinated, adequate antibody levels may exist in the blood. According to AVMA Vaccination Principles, “while there is evidence that some vaccines provide immunity beyond one year, revaccination of patients with sufficient immunity does not necessarily add to their disease protection and may increase the potential risk of post-vaccination adverse events.” Pending the pet’s the overall health status and the likelihood of exposure to an infectious organism, owners should consult with their veterinarian about performing antibody titers before an additional vaccine is administered. Distemper, Parvovirus, Adenovirus and Rabies vaccinations produce antibodies, measured in titers, that can be detected through a simple blood test. If the titer level is adequate and the likelihood a dog could be exposed to these organisms is low, then the decision to hold off on the vaccination can be made under the guidance of the overseeing veterinarian. If the titer is low, then the vaccine can be appropriately administered. As immunity is a complex process, merely having a sufficient titer does not guarantee resistance to infection by a particular organism. This is why an individualized, case-based approach is important.
9. Consider All of the Responsibilities of Pet Ownership
Owning a pet can change your budget, and planning ahead is always a great idea. Pet ownership is a responsibility only to be undertaken by people willing and able to make lifestyle choices for their companion canine or feline on the basis of health. Incorporating a pet into your household compromises available time, space and financial resources. Pets are not autonomous beings and therefore their owners’ continuous role in providing for them.
Pet owners should never acquire a pet without first carefully evaluating their ability to fiscally and emotionally provide care both in sickness and in health. There’s no guarantee a pet will remain free from disease, trauma, or lack exposure to toxins, so the need to expend money on maintaining wellness or treating illness inevitably arises. Visual Economics shares insightful perspective on the lifetime costs of our companion animals. If you’re worried that you have a pet and now you’re in over your head, start preparing now. Stockpile pet food and supplies when they’re on sale, or get a membership to a warehouse buy-in-bulk store like Sam’s Club or Costco. Save up some money for a medical emergency, or look into pet insurance. Paying a monthly pet insurance fee could save you a lot of money in the long run.
10. Obtain Medical Information from Credible Sources
We live in a modern age where you can easily seek advice about your pet’s illness or wellness from multiple sources. Therefore, veterinarians must be equipped to advise clients on the best web-based resources for medical information. My preferred on-line references for pet owners include: PetMD and pet360 Veterinary Partner American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Pet Poison Helpline Veterinary News Network Truth About Pet Food Dog Food Advisor Dr. Mahaney’s Pet Safe Blog