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Tips for keeping your pet healthy without breaking the bank

All Animals magazine, January/February 2016

by Ruthanne Johnson / Illustrations by Shaina Lieberman

Hip replacements, kidney transplants, chemotherapy. Veterinary treatments that were virtually unheard of a generation ago are now options for extending the life of a beloved companion.

But just as in human medicine, 21st-century health care for pets doesn’t come cheap. According to a 2011 veterinary usage study, the rising cost of care is a major reason many pet owners delay routine vet exams or turn to the Internet and home remedies to save money.

It’s a strategy that can backfire, says Wisconsin-based veterinarian Susan Krebsbach with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. True cost savings, she adds, come with preventive care, early detection of health issues and a good relationship with your veterinarian.

In her 20 years of practice, Krebsbach has seen plenty of preventable illnesses and many that could have been treated at less cost if addressed earlier. That was the case for a client who put off seeking treatment for his dog’s lipoma, a benign fatty mass, until it was the size of a softball. “It became so large that it made it difficult for the dog to walk,” she says. “It would have been easier and less expensive to remove it when it was the size of a quarter.”

You may not have complete control over whether your pet develops a tumor or other illness, but by following these tips, you can help ensure the long-term health of your best friend and your bank account.

STRESS-FREE LIVING: Many people don’t realize how much a “happy, loving home” promotes good pet health, Krebsbach says. Insecurity causes stress, while boredom and lack of sufficient exercise can lead to obsessive or destructive behaviors. The cat who excessively licks her fur can develop skin problems, while the dog who chews apart furniture can end up with an intestinal blockage. 

Of course, exercise and stimulation shouldn’t be provided at the expense of safety, and one of the surest tickets to the emergency vet clinic is allowing your pet to roam freely outdoors. If you have a fenced-in yard, make sure you periodically check
or any damage that might enable your dog to escape. Cats can be active and happy indoors with toys, interactive games, climbing posts and scratchers, and they can safely enjoy the outdoors on harnessed leash walks or within catios (fenced-in enclosures for felines).

FIT AND TRIM: Excess weight can trigger a bevy of health problems. Take an objective look at your pet’s physique by comparing it to a body score chart (available online). If your pet exceeds his ideal weight, consult your vet for a safe plan to shed those pounds.

Of course, it’s better if your pet never develops a weight problem. Nutritional needs vary by individual animal, says Georgia veterinarian and HSUS consultant Will Mangham, so you should ask your vet about your pet’s calorie, fat and protein needs. Keep in mind that a cup of kibble from one brand can have significantly higher calories than another brand. Read food labels to calculate daily portions.

Be careful with table scraps, Mangham warns: Too much fat can lead to heart disease or diabetes and even trigger an emergency vet visit. “A small amount of fat relative to our diet is a huge amount in a pet’s diet,” he says, “especially with the toy dog breeds. Things like hot dogs, bologna and the fat trimmings off of the owner’s own meal create a high risk of pancreatitis.”

DRINK UP: Inadequate hydration makes the kidneys and heart work harder, Mangham says, and it slows the blood’s passage though the liver and spleen. It can be hard to measure daily water intake, especially in multiple-pet households, but your vet can show you how to assess your pet’s hydration status. A well-hydrated pet will have gums that are moist and a healthy pink color and urine that is light to medium yellow; if you pinch the skin between his shoulders and then release it, it will immediately fall back to normal position.

One of the best ways to ensure adequate hydration is to provide fresh water every day. Mangham recommends using a glass or stainless steel bowl and washing it daily. If your pet still isn’t drinking enough water, check the chlorine levels and consider investing in a filtration device. You can also add water to meals or treats.

Early treatment is a lot less expensive.”
- Susan Krebsbach, HSVMA

GOOD HYGIENE: Regular toothbrushing, preferably daily, can prevent gum disease, heart problems and costly dental surgeries. Ear cleaning, for pets who need it, can prevent infections that could lead to deafness and require surgical intervention. Keeping your pet’s nails trimmed promotes good posture and healthy joints. Regular grooming promotes skin health and helps you detect changes in your pet’s body, like a new lump or an area that is sensitive to touch.

Even the simple act of cleaning your pet’s paws after he’s been outside can prevent medical problems. “Parasites like hookworms migrate through the skin of animals’ feet,” Mangham says. Pets can also ingest pesticides and other chemicals from lawns and streets while licking their paws. “For the most part, the contaminants are never large enough to cause immediate health concerns,” Mangham says, “but over time, they can absolutely affect your pet’s health.

DIY, WITH GUIDANCE: Before you pull out the ear solution or clippers, ask a veterinary professional or experienced groomer to show you the proper technique and tools. Human toothpaste isn’t safe for pets, for example. Ear cleaning has to be done properly or you can damage the inner ear. If you’re not squeamish or needle-phobic, your veterinarian can teach you some more advanced skills for at-home care, such as expressing anal glands, giving subcutaneous fluids or testing the blood glucose levels of a diabetic pet.

Keep in mind that certain treatments should always be left to the professionals. For example, you may excel at brushing your pet’s teeth, but you shouldn’t attempt to give him a full dental. “If you aren’t trained,” Mangham says, “you can do more damage by scraping off the protective enamel.”

CORE MEDICINE: Along with keeping pet populations in check, spaying and neutering have a number of health benefits. Krebsbach remembers the call from a family member about his dog’s testicular cancer. “He asked me if this would have happened had his dog been neutered, and I had to tell him no. He was devastated.” Spaying can prevent ovarian cancer as well as inflammation and infection of the uterus, and it decreases the risk for mammary cancer, she adds.

Many life-threatening and costly-to-treat diseases can be easily avoided with the right preventatives. Keep current with vaccines, monthly flea and tick topical treatments and heartworm preventive medications as appropriate for your pet and your geographic region.

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR: Don’t skip annual exams in an attempt to save money. “Early treatment is a lot less expensive,” Krebsbach says. Checkups are also a time for you to get to know your veterinarian and discuss any concerns you have.

When you have a good relationship with your vet, it’s easier to discuss money-saving options and different levels of treatment. If you have a question about an expensive diagnostic test, for example, Krebsbach recommends that you ask your vet what information it will provide and how it might affect the choice of treatment. “Don’t ever feel like you shouldn’t be asking questions,” she says. “You are your pet’s advocate just like you’re your own advocate with your physician.”

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