Close up of dog at vet

The very best way to fight disease is to prevent it in the first place.

That’s why the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association recently teamed up to create new guidelines for canine and feline preventive health care. These guidelines have been shared with veterinarians throughout the United States in hopes that they’ll help them talk to clients about disease prevention.

The new guidelines cover a wide range of preventive health care issues, from weight management and dental care to geriatric screening tests and nutrition. I’ve selected my top three prevention guidelines to share with you. I consider them to be essential ingredients in the recipe for a healthy, happy pet.

Get Your Pet to the Vet

Veterinarians have done a remarkable job over the years using vaccine postcards and emails to remind their clients to schedule visits. The downside of that success is that clients have become programmed to believe that vaccinations are the most — if not the only — important part of their pets' regular visits. Now that many vaccinations need to be given only once every three years rather than once a year, it’s no surprise that veterinarians have seen a drop in the number of annual office visits. That’s bad news for pets.

Why? Because an annual physical examination is a key ingredient in maintaining your pet’s good health. It’s a chance to talk to your veterinarian about any issues that warrant veterinary advice, such as nutrition, behavior issues, and parasite control. An annual physical also allows for early disease detection and treatment. It’s a no-brainer that the earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome in some cases. The same holds true for heart disease, kidney disease, periodontal disease, and a host of other medical issues that might have clues your vet can identify during a routine exam. Here's the bottom line: Vaccines or no vaccines, get your pet to the vet at least once a year! (And even more frequently if your pet is geriatric or coping with a chronic disease.) 

Take Prevention to Heart

Heartworm disease is a very serious health problem that is easy to prevent. A parasitic infection that is spread from one animal to another by way of mosquitoes, heartworm disease is now found in all 50 states.

Heartworms set up housekeeping primarily within the heart and the blood vessels inside the lungs where they are capable of wreaking havoc on your pet’s health. Treatment for this disease isn’t always successful and can cause significant negative side effects. To make matters worse, there is a worldwide shortage of the only approved drug to treat heartworm disease in dogs. And, while it’s tempting to believe that your pet’s thick hair coat or primarily indoor lifestyle will protect her from heartworm disease, statistics prove otherwise. There, have I adequately made my case for heartworm prevention?

There are a number of safe and effective medications on the market that prevent heartworm disease in dogs and cats. Talk with your veterinarian about the incidence of heartworm disease in your community to find out if prevention is needed. If it is, please use the product exactly as prescribed. Lack of compliance is the number one reason dogs and cats receiving heartworm preventive medication develop the disease. To learn more about heartworm disease, visit the website of the American Heartworm Society.

From Bad Dog to Good Dog

Here’s another preventable problem. One of the leading reasons dogs and cats are euthanized or given up to shelters is behavior. Separation anxiety, spraying urine, failed house training — these are just a few of the reasons people give up on their pets. I recently worked with a client for the first time whose adorable 6-year-old Miniature Schnauzer, Molly, has kidney failure. In an “Oh, by the way” comment, she told me that she and Molly never, ever spend time apart because of separation anxiety. Left alone, sweet little Molly assumes the role of demolition artist. When I asked Molly’s mom if she’d ever mentioned this problem to her family veterinarian, she sheepishly shook her head. She didn’t know that her veterinarian could refer her to a vetted trainer or behaviorist and prescribe medication to help treat canine separation anxiety.

Be sure to talk with your vet about any of your pet’s behavioral issues just as soon as they become apparent. The sooner problems — of any kind — can be nipped in the bud, the better the outcome will likely be. That’s the beauty of preventive care.

Dr. Nancy Kay graduated from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of Your Dog's Best Health: a Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet and Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. Dr. Kay is a specialist in small-animal internal medicine at Upstate Veterinary Specialists, with offices in Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C.