A Year of Wellness
Follow this plan to keep your pet healthy each and every day.
When your pet gets sick, your first thought is to contact your veterinarian. These caring doctors are ready and willing to help your pet recover, but keeping your pet from getting ill in the first place is their highest priority.
To catch and prevent health problems, veterinarians suggest a pet wellness plan. This is similar to your doctor or dentist outlining the need for regular checkups and daily flossing. Keeping your pet healthy involves a partnership between you and the veterinarian. Your veterinarian will outline the specific treatments or therapies that are right for your pet—and it’s up to you to carry them out. In general, following the care tips below will help keep your dog or cat feeling fabulous.
Do This Daily
Pet your cat or dog. This might seem like a no-brainer, but interacting with pets at least once a day is so important that it tops the list. People with dogs know it’s nearly impossible to ignore them. Cats, on the other hand, don’t necessarily greet you at the door. Cats tend to interact on their own terms, choosing the time and place for affection, but interaction and playtime are a must for them too. “Cats naturally spend much of their time engaged in hunting behaviors, and they nap in between to conserve their energy,” says Eliza Sundahl, DVM, DABVP, owner of KC Cat Clinic in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “But people need to give their cats plenty of interactive play and affection. Dog owners worry about exercise and discipline, and cat owners need to think about providing proper stimulation too.”
Another benefit of petting: It gives you a chance to check certain areas of your pet’s body. Feel for the ribs and consider whether your pet has put on weight. Check for lumps, and be aware of any funny odors. Take a look at your pet’s eyes and ears, looking for differences. Older cats might require more frequent nail trims, so check their paws. (Start trimming cats’ nails early to help them get used to it.) There is no need to do all this every time you stroke your pet’s wonderful fur, but going down the checklist at least once a week is smart. Follow up with your veterinarian if you discover any changes.
Nourish your pet. Obviously pets need food each day, and you should make fresh water available to them at all times. But the specific nutritional choices you make for your pet can weigh heavy on its health—literally, since obesity is a real problem in both cats and dogs. Speak with your veterinarian about which pet food choices are best for your pet. Remember, people food is never appropriate for cats or dogs. Pet food provides a balanced diet with all the necessary nutrients. Feeding pets from your plate upsets this balance and might even cause serious health issues.
Keep your pet active. Lack of consistent exercise leads to obesity. Overweight pets are at increased risk of many serious health conditions including diabetes, liver and kidney problems, and arthritis. No matter your pet’s age or breed, regular activity is a requirement. For ideas about how to get your pet moving, see page 28.
Educate your pet. “Pets need structure,” says Peter Fisher, DVM, co-owner of Pet Care Veterinary Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., “and dogs need to review obedience training daily. If owners spend time teaching proper behaviors and reviewing basic obedience then a lot of problems will be solved or prevented.”
Puppies should learn basic commands such as sit, down, stay, and come. Dogs eventually need to work on leash manners. Teach mature dogs to follow house rules, such as waiting to be invited indoors and not jumping on visitors.
Pets need structure. Teaching proper behaviors and reviewing basic obedience will solve or prevent a lot of problems.
Try using the same techniques with your kitten, which can easily be trained to sit or give high fives. Kittens also need to learn appropriate scratching places and to play without scratching and biting. Cats may also need to learn house rules, such as staying off the kitchen counter.
Regardless of your pet’s age or species, consider establishing a relationship with an experienced trainer. Your veterinarian might provide behavior training or he or she can recommend someone.
Watch for abnormal behavior. Pets won’t tell you when they are sick or in pain, but they will show you. An increase or decrease in water consumption, house-soiling accidents, a reluctance to engage in favorite activities, excessive sleeping, or the onset of aggressive behaviors are some of the signs of possible health problems. “The number one thing pet owners can do for their animals is to know what is normal so you know when their behavior changes,” Dr. Sundahl says. “If you catch a problem early enough, you can keep a mild condition from progressing to moderate or even severe.” If you notice a change in your pet’s behavior, consult your veterinarian promptly to rule out a medical cause.
Keeping an eye on your pet’s stool and urine is one way to identify health issues—especially for cats. “Noticeable changes in the litter box can be a sign of illness,” Dr. Sundahl says. “For example, changes in stool and urine volume can indicate a more serious underlying issue such as thyroid or kidney disease.”
Do This Weekly
Brush your pet’s teeth. Some doctors even recommend you do this daily. Why? Because diseased or infected teeth and gums are not only a pain in the mouth, but they also can lead to serious systemic illnesses such as heart or kidney disease. Taking a toothbrush to those canine and feline teeth helps prevent these serious problems. “Tooth-brushing intimidates a lot of pet owners,” Dr. Fisher says. “But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Use enthusiastic, encouraging words while brushing and never force the issue—you want this to be a positive experience.”
Whether you have a cat or dog, establish a tooth-brushing routine early on. Work with your pet daily at the same calm time, perhaps after a meal. Your pet may find the process confusing at first, but both cats and dogs enjoy the flavor of toothpaste and will gradually get used to the brushing. Do not use human toothpaste because it contains fluoride, which is toxic to pets. Instead, purchase a pet toothbrush and toothpaste from your veterinarian or pet store. “Don’t worry about buying mint-flavored toothpaste,” Dr. Fisher says. “The most popular option for our clients is poultry-flavored. And don’t worry about chicken breath. Plaque and bacteria are what cause a foul odor, so if you are brushing regularly, you will eliminate bad breath.”
Groom your pets. “Regular grooming keeps owners aware of possible skin disorders, infections, and allergies resulting in dermatitis,” Dr. Fisher says, “and it controls shedding, which will keep your house cleaner.” Some longhaired breeds may require more frequent brushing.
Even though cats groom themselves, it’s still a good idea to brush them to reduce shedding—and hairballs. More important is to watch for whether your cat stops self-cleaning, because this is often a sign of illness.
Do This Monthly
Prevent parasites. The products designed to repel fleas and ticks and prevent heartworm disease are better than ever. And your pet should use one all year, whether it’s a dog or cat, whether it spends its days indoors or out, and whether the temperatures are hot or cold. Fleas can enter your home from visiting pets and uninvited rodents. Fleas and ticks may gain access to your pet on the shortest walk through town. Staying away from mosquitoes, which transmit heartworms, is also difficult. Remember, you must treat all pets in your household all the time to keep your animals and home parasite-free. Your veterinarian will help you choose which parasite prevention product is right for your pet.
Do This at Least Once Every Year
Visit your veterinarian. Cats and dogs need to see the doctor every six months to a year depending on their age and health status. Why? Because all pets—even those that seem healthy—require regular check-ups to keep preventive care up to date. Your veterinarian will also suggest lab tests that help detect any emerging health issues. In short, these regular appointments allow the veterinarian to make sure the wellness care you’re so diligently providing is doing its job—helping your pet live a long, healthy life.
Parasite Prevention Protects Hearts—and Marriages
Aside from health benefits, wellness care can have other advantages, as one of Dr. Fisher’s clients discovered. “A number of years ago I had a bachelor client,” Dr. Fisher says. “He was pretty good about taking care of his Dalmatian, Blue. But one year he declined heartworm preventive when he was in for Blue’s yearly physical exam and wellness analysis. During the following year, this client got engaged. He brought his fiancé along for Blue’s next visit. After heartworm testing, Blue came up positive for infection. When I went into the exam room to share this news, his fiancé was aghast wondering how this could have happened. She glared at her fiancé when I said that he had declined the heartworm prevention medicine. Unfortunately, my client found out the hard way that heartworm disease is better prevented than treated. And his fiancé let him have it!”