Preventive Veterinary Care
Bringing your animal in for routine check-ups, prophylactic treatments, examinations, diagnostic testing, and other preventive veterinary care can help save you heartache, discomfort, cost, and hassle in the long-term. Most animals should come in for appointments with their general veterinarians at least once per year and preferably biannually. During these visits, your doctor will assess your pet to diagnose any problematic conditions before they become more severe. He or she will most likely also perform preventive procedures or services to keep your animal healthy and ward off any potential illness or injury.
Veterinarians understand the importance of preventive care for pets, but unfortunately, many animal caretakers do not. A 2010 report from Partners for Healthy Pets, based on a survey of over a thousand veterinary professionals, found that:
- 24 percent of owners believe routine check-ups at the vet's office are unnecessary
- One third of animal caretakers would only bring their pets in to a veterinary practice if they were already ill or injured
- 30 percent find the thought of taking their animal to the vet's office stressful
- 45 percent of owners have observed that their pet dislikes going to see the veterinarian
- 53 percent did not expect their preventive care visit costs to be as high as they were
These statistics indicate that, for many pet owners, the stress, financial strain, and lack of perceived necessity for regular vet visits outweigh the benefits of preventive care. Ironically, however, putting off veterinary treatment until it becomes a medical necessity only serves to increase the hassle, stress, risk, and expense associated with them. If you have or plan to adopt or purchase an animal, it is your responsibility to bring it in for preventive care in order to preserve its comfort and health while reducing your costs and hassle. Talk to your veterinarian to learn more about how often you should bring your pet in for checkups and what services he or she will provide during these visits.
An essential part of preventive veterinary care is assessing healthy animals' conditions. During this process, doctors look for subtle symptoms of potential illness or injury and record pets' information to create baselines for future diagnoses. Each type of pet has distinctive needs and concerns, so these services performed during these appointments can vary, but wellness exams can include:
- Measuring pets' heart rates and pulses
- Using a stethoscope to listen to animals' breaths
- Palpating (touching for medical purposes) pets' lymph nodes
- Observing of animals' limbs
- Performing dermatological analysis for any abnormalities with skin, fur, feathers, or scales
- Examining pets' teeth and gums
- Analyzing animals' ears, noses, and throats to look for irregular discharge or other troubling symptoms
- Conducting ophthalmological tests for ocular health
- Weighing the animal to determine if it is overweight or underweight
- Taking your pet's temperature and blood pressure
- Feeling the abdomen and bladder to look for any structural issues or signs of discomfort
- Examining claws or paws
- Observing the animal's behavior and motion
- Performing orthopedic tests to look for abnormalities with the animal's joints, bones, or muscles
- Discussing your pet's daily routine, diet (including the type and brand of food you provide), water consumption, weight, preexisting conditions, behavior, or any other pertinent information
Your veterinarian will use this data to explain the condition of your animal and make recommendations about how to maintain or enhance its wellbeing.
At the conclusion of your animal's wellness exam, your veterinarian will recommend a customized treatment program to help you keep your pet as healthy as possible. Your doctor will tailor his or her suggestions to your animal's particular needs, preferences, and diagnoses. A wellness plan for your pet could include:
- A recommended type and amount of food, as well as a specific feeding schedule
- New exercises, activities, or ways to play with your animal to improve its physical fitness
- Vitamins, supplements, or medication prescriptions, which can be in the form of treats, pills, or topical treatments
- Grooming suggestions, such as new brushes, shampoos, or topical medications, to assist with dermatological conditions
- Training techniques you can use to improve your pet's behavior
- Recommendations for when to schedule future appointments
- Providing advice for spaying, neutering, and breeding
- Explaining how to take better care of your pet's teeth and gums with at-home hygiene techniques
Implementing these suggestions could help you give your animal a healthier, happier, more comfortable life.
Preventive veterinary care often includes numerous diagnostic exams to determine if your animal is suffering from any troubling medical conditions. These diagnostic exams can include:
- Fecal sample testing to assess for intestinal parasites or certain digestive issues
- Urinalysis for irregular calcium, nitrites, phosphorous, ketones, glucose, electrolytes, bacteria, protein, enzymes, debris, and acids in your pet's urine
- Blood tests for a variety of conditions, including infection, kidney issues, neurological disease, or nutritional deficiency
- Complete Blood Count, or CBC, a specialized type of blood test used to assess the number and type of platelets and cells in your blood, which can help your doctor diagnose infection, leukemia, and the effectiveness of certain treatments
- Ophthalmoscope and tonometer tests for ocular disorders including glaucoma and cataracts
- Hormone testing for thyroid, central nervous system, and reproductive diagnosis
- Radiography (x-rays) for orthopedic or internal medical conditions
- Saliva swab and analysis to detect viruses, food intolerance, rabies, and other issues
- Ultrasound testing for cardiovascular and abdominal conditions, as well as to monitor an animal's pregnancy
- ECG, or electocardiogram, to check for heart conditions
- Endoscopy, using a computer-controlled camera within the body to test for internal conditions based on any unusual symptoms your veterinarian may have noticed during the wellness exam
After performing these diagnostic tests, your veterinarian may recommend further, specialized testing, prescribe a specific procedure, or refer you to a veterinary specialist to gather more information about your pet's condition. Diagnostic examination is a vital part of proper preventive care because it allows doctors to keep animal caretakers at ease and stop or slow the progression of any disease detected.
Most animals age much more rapidly than humans. Your veterinarian will perform geriatric exams to help maintain your animal's heath and physical fitness as it grows older and begins to deal with resulting conditions. These visits, typically performed at six-month intervals, can allow you to preserve your pet's quality of life even in its later years.
When is Your Pet Considered A Senior?
Since various species and breeds age at different paces, it can be difficult to determine when exactly your pet requires geriatric examination. Your veterinarian will most likely consult with you about your pet's conditions and your concerns to help you decide when to begin geriatric care. However, the following guide can help you approximate when your animal would be considered a senior and require geriatric exams:
- Dogs: between six and nine years old, depending on the size of the breed. Smaller dogs typically live longer, as do mixed breeds, since purebred dogs are often more likely to suffer from congenital issues.
- Cats: between seven and ten years old. Although this may only be about halfway through the animal's life expectancy, many felines begin experiencing aging-related conditions at this age, making geriatric exams appropriate.
- Horses: approximately 15 years old. However, horses can age differently based on their breed, medical conditions, and level of activity.
- Birds: between six and 30 years. This wide range is due to the vast diversity of bird species. Typically larger birds like parrots live much longer than smaller species such as lovebirds.
- Hamsters: about two years old, given that these animals tend to live for only about two and a half years. This also applies to similar pets such as rats.
Your veterinarian can give you more specific information about when your animal would be considered a senior pet.
What Happens During a Geriatric Exam?
Geriatric exams are somewhat similar to typical preventive care wellness exams, except they are geared to suit older pets' particular needs. At this appointment, your veterinarian may:
- Discuss your concerns about your pet
- Evaluate your animal's mobility and perform orthopedic analysis
- Observe your pet's mood and behavior, especially as it pertains to energy and quality of life
- Perform analyses of your animal's blood, urine, and feces, as well as more advanced diagnostic exams such as ultrasounds or radiography
- Conduct hormone testing, particularly for thyroid, kidney, and liver function
- Weighing your pet and determining its BMI, since aging can create potentially unhealthy weight fluctuations
- Compare your animal's current condition, records, and diagnostic testing results to baselines from when it was younger
- Monitor the progression of your animal's preexisting conditions, including evaluating the success of current treatments and procedures
- Check your animal's senses (taste, touch, feel, smell, and sight) to determine if, how, and why they are diminishing
- Inquire about your pet's daily routine, including its diet, exercise, sleeping, and elimination patterns
- Complete preanesthetic screening, a comprehensive array of diagnostic and general testing to determine if your animal can undergo anesthesia or sedation for an upcoming procedure
- Look for symptoms of pain or discomfort in your pet so that you can treat or at least manage them
- Palpating for masses, growths, or other symptoms of cancer
- Examine your pet for signs of diabetes, immune issues, or other chronic conditions that may develop due to aging
- Administer booster vaccines to maintain the effectiveness of previous treatment
- After seeing your animal, your veterinarian may also make recommendations for improving its health. For example, geriatric pets may need to:
- Consume a lower-calorie diet since they are less active
- Exercise or play more gently since they have aging joints and bones
- Take different vitamins, supplements, and medications to make the aging process smoother and slower
In addition to regular geriatric exams, you should bring your senior pet in if you notice any changes in its behavior or habits. For example, drinking more water, whimpering, eating less, sleeping more, urinating or defecating improperly, experiencing weight fluctuation, or developing lumps could be signs of more serious conditions.
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Just as they do in humans, vaccines prevent future illness in pets by exposing them to a small amount of a disease (or a synthetic version of it) so their bodies can preemptively develop immunity. Veterinarians administer vaccines by carefully injecting the recommended dosage into your animal's tissue. These treatments can help keep individual pets and groups of animals (at parks, in medical clinics, and within households) healthy and safe.
Which Vaccines Does Your Pet Need?
The vaccinations your veterinarian recommends for your animal will depend on its:
- Age, since younger animals typically require more vaccines and different forms than older pets
- Contact with other animals and humans (pets who frequently interact with others are at higher risk for illness)
- Preexisting conditions
- Immune function (animals with suppressed immune systems may be at higher risk for side effects or complications from vaccines)
- Previous vaccines, since many require repeated treatment or boosters
You can discuss your pet's unique vaccination needs with your veterinarian at your preventive care appointment.
Core and Non-Core Vaccines
Core vaccines are those considered vital to a pet's health.
Veterinarians designate two categories of vaccines: "core" and "non-core." Core vaccines are those considered vital to a pet's health. For example, for cats, these include rabies, distemper, herpes virus, and calcivirus, while core canine vaccines are rabies (at both one year and three years), distemper, parovirus, and hepatitis. Non-core vaccines may be recommended depending on the animal's circumstances but are typically optional, to be administered at the caretaker's discretion. For example, non-core vaccines for dogs include canine influenza, kennel cough, Lyme disease, and Leptospirosis, while cats may or may not have the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) or Bordotella vaccines.
No medical treatment is without some risk, including vaccines. Even with repeated treatment, some vaccines may not stimulate the antibodies they are designed to produce, so your animal may not be protected from disease. In addition, other vaccine risks include:
- Allergic reaction
- Contraction of the illness the vaccine is designed to protect against
- Respiratory issues
- Inflammation, redness, or dermatological irregularities around the area of the injection
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Irritable bowel disease and other chronic immune conditions
- Thyroid disorders
These complications and side effects are not common. Talk to your veterinarian to determine if the benefits of vaccines for your animal counterbalance their potential risks.
An estimated 10 million pets get lost every year, but only ten percent return home without proper identification, leaving animal caretakers heartbroken. Fortunately, as part of preventive care, your veterinarian can use microchip technology. During this procedure, your doctor will insert a tiny device about the size of a grain of rice between your animal's shoulders. This procedure usually does not require anesthesia or sedation and is typically no more complicated than injecting a vaccine. This microchip will remain within your pet's tissue for its lifetime.
A veterinarian or animal shelter can simply use a special scanning tool to read the chip, which will convey your name, address, and phone number or other contact information.
If at any time your animal wanders away from home or becomes lost, a veterinarian or animal shelter can simply use a special scanning tool to read the chip, which will convey your name, address, and phone number or other contact information. This allows the practitioner to get in touch with you so your pet can finally come home. You should update your information with the microchip company your veterinarian uses if you move or your contact data changes for any reason. You will hopefully never need to use this preventive measure, but installing an identification device can help put your mind at ease.
Animal caretakers must be responsible for managing their pets' reproductive health. This involves providing preventive care to keep your animal, its offspring, and the general population as healthy as possible.
Spaying and Neutering
It is important to stop your pets from reproducing unnecessarily and contributing further to the overpopulation of companion animals in the United States. 7.6 million cats and dogs go to shelters every year, but only 2.7 million are adopted, leaving the rest to live out their lives in cages or be euthanized to avoid costs. This is in addition to the estimated 70 million stray cats and dogs wandering American streets, according to the ASPCA. Ideally, you will spay or neuter your pet at a young age, between two and six months old. Most rescue shelters include this procedure in their adoption fees for animals.
Some animal owners and caretakers may want to breed their pets, either for recreation or sale. Your practitioner can provide reproductive counseling to help you ensure healthy, successful procreation. Your general veterinarian or a veterinary specialist can help you understand your obligations as a breeder, discuss how to choose mates, perform breeding examinations, make recommendations based on your animal's genetics, and create a customized treatment plan to guide you through the reproductive process. In certain cases, your doctor may even be able to provide assisted reproduction technology (ART), such as artificial insemination or progesterone level measurement, to increase your animal's chances of conception.
Animals can be wonderful companions, but they can also have behavioral issues. Unfortunately, when faced with irritating, overly aggressive, or destructive behavior, some pet owners are quick to give up their animals. However, your veterinarian can provide counseling to help your animal become more obedient and well behaved. Your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes, treatments, or training techniques to improve the following:
- Biting, chewing, or ripping clothing, furniture, or other items
- House training for proper elimination
- Mounting behaviors
- Coprophagia, the name for the disorder in which pets eat feces
- Aggression toward other animals or humans
- Begging or territorial behavior around food
- Neurotic, compulsive, or obsessive behaviors, such as over-grooming
- Pica, a condition in which animals consume non-edible items such as plastic toys
- Crying, howling, yowling, barking, or hissing
- Unsafe chasing habits
- Excessive shyness
- Difficulty administering oral or topical treatments
- Ability to follow commands and instructions
Your veterinarian can create a customized program for your animal or refer you to a training specialist. Proper behavioral counseling can allow young pets to thrive and rehabilitate older, disobedient animals.
Animals are vulnerable to a variety of parasites, from external types like fleas and ticks to internal parasites such as worms, which can infect an animal's heart, lungs, or digestive system. Parasites can cause weight loss, respiratory conditions, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, fever, and dermatological irritation. They may require multiple rounds of oral, topical, or injected medications to treat.
Thoroughly cooking food and regularly changing water can also reduce the risk for parasites.
The best way to keep your pet healthy and free of parasitic infection is to administer preventive care. Your veterinarian will most likely run tests for parasites at your routine appointments so that he or she can begin treating the infection before it worsens. Your doctor may also recommend a variety of preventive treatment techniques, which typically include topical or oral anthelmintic medications, proper lawn care for outdoor pets, and specialized grooming procedures. Thoroughly cooking food and regularly changing water can also reduce the risk for parasites.
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