Years ago, while thrift-store shopping with my sister in Los Angeles, I came across a T-shirt with the slogan “Happiness is a Healthy Pet.”
I wore that shirt until it fell apart and the slogan truly became my motto. These days, now that I am working as both a shelter veterinarian and a private practitioner, I know this to be true; happiness is a healthy pet and the key to a healthy pet is preventative medicine.
Preventative medicine means doing the things that prevent disease, because keeping your pet from getting sick in the first place is much easier and more cost effective that treating illness once it occurs.
The first step to any basic preventative medicine program is vaccination. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), there are two categories of vaccinations for dogs and cats: core and non-core.
Core vaccines are those that every dog and cat should get regardless of lifestyle or exposure to other animals. Rabies is considered a core vaccine for both dogs and cats and is required by law in most jurisdictions due to the deadly and potentially contagious — including to humans — nature of the disease.
Dogs should also receive a distemper and parvovirus combination vaccine to stay healthy and prevent disease because these viruses are very contagious between dogs and can cause severe illness, which is much more difficult to treat than it is to prevent. Similarly, every cat should get a ‘feline distemper’ combination shot that includes Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia (FVRCP), diseases that are very contagious between cats and can cause severe illness.
The Central Coast lifestyle is an active, outdoor lifestyle for both people and animals. Therefore, which of the available non-core vaccines your pet receives will depend on his or her lifestyle.
For example, cats that spend time outdoors should get a Feline Leukemia vaccine to prevent infection with this immune-compromising and cancer-causing virus because of exposure to unknown, potentially unvaccinated cats. Outdoor cats should also receive regular flea prevention and deworming because bird and rodent hunting, as well as digging and rolling in the soil, will repeatedly expose them to intestinal worms and ectoparasites.
There are several non-core vaccines available for dogs, and which ones are right for your dog will depend on what your pet does and where he or she goes. In California flea and tick season is year-round, though there is a Lyme vaccine available, effective tick control remains the cornerstone for reducing the risk of all tick-borne diseases.
There are also a couple of intestinal parasites of dogs and cats that can be transmitted to people, especially kids eating mud pies. Monthly deworming medications and picking up after your dog reduces contamination of public areas such as parks and beaches with these parasites.
One of the lifestyle vaccines that is strongly recommended for dogs on the Central Coast is Leptosporosis. Lepto is a bacterial infection that is shed from wild animal urine into water sources, including ocean water. Even sea mammals can be infected, so any dog that visits the beach should be vaccinated.
In addition, vaccination against Bordatella, the bacteria that causes kennel cough, is recommended for dogs that stay in boarding facilities, go to groomers, visit dog parks and beaches, or frequently contact large numbers of dogs.
It is important to mention that in general, vaccines may cause localized pain or swelling and low-grade transient fever. Allergic reactions are rare, but in dogs are usually seen as facial swelling and hives that can be most easily seen on the dog’s belly. In cats, an allergic reaction is usually seen as severe vomiting and diarrhea or wheezing within 30 minutes of receiving the vaccine. Overall, the risk of any reaction is quite small compared to the risk of the diseases they protect against.
The second step to a preventative medicine program for your pet is spaying —for female dogs and cats, and neutering — for male dogs and cats. As a shelter veterinarian, I am committed to reducing the population of homeless animals in our community, but as a private practitioner, I can say with confidence that spaying and neutering has significant health benefits for each individual pet.
In addition to controlling pet overpopulation a la Bob Barker, spaying female dogs before their first heat cycle reduces their changes of developing breast cancer to less than 1 percent, but not to worry, even if they do not have surgery until after their second cycle it is not too late, their risk is still cut in half.
Perhaps the most important disease prevented by spaying female dogs and cats at any age is a life-threatening uterine infection called pyometra. The treatment for this infection is the same as preventative spay surgery, but it is more dangerous because the animal is sick and not a good candidate for surgery, however, without surgery the dog or cat will die.
As you can imagine, this more difficult and dangerous surgery can easily cost 10 times as much as the usual cost of preventative surgery. Females are not the only ones who benefit from surgery. Neutering male dogs and cats completely eliminates the chances of testicular cancer, and though it does not reduce the risk of prostate cancer, it can significantly reduce the chances of tumors of the anus and certain types of hernias.
Neutering male cats results in a more than 90 percent reduction in roaming, fighting, and urine marking behaviors, helping male cats become loving, well-adjusted household citizens.
The third step in a basic preventative medicine program is microchipping. Microchipping is a simple procedure that can be done at the time of vaccination or during spay or neuter surgery. The microchip is placed under the skin on the top of the back, usually near the shoulder blades. It is a permanent form of identification that can help get lost pets back to their owners, even if their collar and tags have fallen off, and sometimes even years after they are lost.
Technology has not advanced far enough to allow you to find your lost pet via GPS on your smart phone, so it is important to realize that the microchip number must be attached to your contact information via registration in a database, and that contact information must be kept up to date when you move.
All shelters, rescue organizations, and veterinary hospitals have microchip scanners and will search for a microchip upon first encountering a lost pet. The chips can move around in the space under the skin and sometimes over time get pushed out, or fail to work properly, so it is a good idea to have your veterinarian check that the microchip is working whenever your pet is in for a check-up.
A preventative medicine program is not limited to just these three things, but getting these things done will go a long way in maintaining a healthy pet and avoiding expensive and dangerous illness for both your dog or cat and all of the animals and even humans in the community, because after all, “Happiness is a Healthy Pet!”