If you want to save money on pet care, you need to work on preventing illness instead having it treated after health problems have advanced. By practicing preventive care, you will save money, and you'll also spare your pets a lot of suffering.
That sound advice sums up "The Angell Memorial Animal Hospital Book of Wellness and Preventive Care for Dogs" (McGraw-Hill, $22), a recently released work by well-regarded pet writer Darlene Arden and the staff of one of the world's top hospitals of veterinary medicine, the Boston-based Angell Memorial.
"Preventive medicine, or 'wellness,' is one of the few things that started in humans and then went to animals -- most advances in medicine work the other way around," said Arden by phone from her home in Massachusetts. "Rather than using stopgap measures to make a pet healthy after the animal has become ill, if you can prevent or catch illness early on, it's easier on the pet, the owner and the pocketbook."
Arden is quick to share some of the most important foundations of preventive care, all of which are expanded on in the book. They include:
-- Don't forget annual exams. "Just because vaccinations schedules are moving away from pets having to have shots updated annually, doesn't mean you don't need to take your dog to the veterinarian every year," says Arden.
"The annual exam is where you catch things before they become serious -- and expensive -- problems."
-- Practice good dental care. "People don't seem to realize that pets get cavities and periodontal disease just as humans do," says Arden. "You ought to brush your pet's teeth every day, with a toothpaste made for them –- they like the taste! Do not rely on hard chew toys to clean teeth -- hooves and bones can fracture the teeth, causing real problems."
Arden adds that pet dentistry is about more than healthy teeth. Rotting teeth and gums are breeding grounds for harmful bacteria, which end up in the bloodstream and can shorten a pet's life by damaging the heart, liver and kidneys.
-- Nutrition and exercise. "Choose a complete and balanced food from a reputable company that meets the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards," says Arden. "As for exercise, you need to keep your dog healthy inside and out. A dog who gets lots of physical and mental exercise will be less likely to be fat and less likely to have behavior problems."
-- Accident-proof your dog. "We don't recommend that people use choke or prong collars," says Arden. "I always say to people, 'What part of "choke" do you not understand?'" Arden adds that Angell recommends positive-reinforcement training, a safe and effective alternative to old "boot-camp" methods.
Arden cautions that you need to "pet proof" your home to prevent accidents. "Get garbage cans that seal so your dog will stay out of the trash, and keep lower-level cabinets secured," she says. "You would not believe what an animal without opposable thumbs can get into. Be careful with medicines, too, and be sure to pick up any dropped pills.
"Pick up around the house, and teach your children to do the same, so small household items and toys don't get swallowed. Inside and out, keep your pets clear of household chemicals, such cleaning supplies, herbicides and pesticides. Watch out for toxic plants, as well."
-- Practice good parasite control. "Work with your veterinarian to develop safe and effective strategies for fighting fleas, ticks and worms. These parasites can make your pet miserable or even kill, and they can also present a health risk for the rest of your family," says Arden.
Want more? You'll find it in this thorough book, which in itself qualifies for a good investment in preventive medicine. If the book sells well enough, it will be followed by a similar work on preventive care for cats.
A good way to evaluate the health of a bird is to pay attention to what your pet leaves at the bottom of his cage. Birds produce feces with three components: the stool, which is semisolid and dark in color; the urates, which are a loose, whitish solid; and urine, which is nearly a clear liquid. Get to know how these wastes look normally, as well as the usual variations -- some foods can change the color of the stools, or increase the amount of urine. Once you know what's typical for your bird, you can spot abnormalities that might be an early indication of a serious illness developing.
PETS ON THE WEB
Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston and the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan are just about the only places where an animal can be treated by a staff of board-certified veterinary specialists outside of hospitals affiliated with schools and colleges of veterinary medicine. Angell's Web site (www.angell.org) is mostly dedicated to the running of the hospital, with a little bit of pet-care advice thrown in for good measure. The Animal Medical Center (www.amcny.org) is more generous with its advice, offering a wide array of pet-care fact sheets.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Can you tell me why it is necessary to boost my cat's vaccines on a yearly basis? Humans develop immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases, and we know that immunity is sustained for varying lengths of time before it drops below protective levels. For example, in humans, the tetanus vaccine is required only every 10 years after an initial basic series. -- D.T., via e-mail
A: Annual boosting of many feline vaccines is no longer routinely recommended for most cats. Instead, the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Academy of Feline Medicine recommends that veterinarians tailor their preventive-care regimen based on the lifestyles of each individual cat -- an indoor-only cat may need to be vaccinated against fewer diseases than a roaming one, for example.
For many vaccines, after the initial series of shots brings a kitten's immunity up to par, boosters are recommended at three-year intervals. Veterinarians are also advised to use individual vaccines (no combination shots, in other words), and place the shots in different parts of the body to make it easier to identify and treat any possible reactions. (The Winn Feline Foundation has a thorough explanation of vaccination protocols and the reasoning behind them at www.winnfelinehealth.org/health/vaccination-guidelines.html.)
Educate yourself about the new recommendations and then talk to your veterinarian about what's right for your cat -- exactly which vaccines are needed, and how often your cat needs to get them. And remember that even if your cat no longer needs annual boosters, she still needs an annual examination, which is an essential part of a preventive-care program.
Q: My hubby and I have two cats, but would like to add a dog now that we finally have a home of our own. We've decided that a good choice for our lifestyle would be a rescued greyhound.
Some rescue organizations say these dogs sleep all day and are happy alone, but other groups say they need someone home most of the day.
Who is right? My husband and I may be able to come home at lunch sometimes, but with today's economy there are no guarantees that workloads won't change.
Our hobbies include walking, hiking and the occasional bike ride or camping trip. We spend most of our time studying, reading, renting movies and socializing with outdoorsy people who love pets. Our yard is small, but we have a fenced dog park nearby. Oh, and we're not having kids, which shelters seem to think is important to decide in advance of adoption.
Sometimes I wonder if rescue organizations are a bit rigid in the way they decide what dogs "have to have." What do you think? -- H.H., via e-mail
A: Your situation sounds perfect for a greyhound, most of whom would be perfectly happy to sleep while you and your husband are at work -- especially if you have a nice, soft couch. The only concern would be for your cats, since some greys are cat-aggressive. Reputable greyhound adoption groups do cat-test their dogs, however, and you should be able to find one who will pose no threat to your cats.
Remember that rescue groups vary widely when it comes to adoption guidelines and yes, some are more than a bit rigid. If you are working with a rescue group that insists someone be home at all times, then by all means find another group that's a bit more open-minded when in comes to what constitutes a "good home."
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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