Image: Cat and Veterinarian

Wouldn’t it be great if all pets came with an owner’s manual, an easy-to-understand guide to exactly what each individual pet needs, and when? Well, there is, and there’s no reading involved (says the author of 2 “owner’s manuals” for pets).

What’s this magic non-book guide to your pet’s health needs? A solid relationship with your veterinarian, based on trust and mutual respect — and a willingness on your part to actively participate in your pet’s care. Veterinary recommendations are made with your pet’s best interests at heart, which is why it’s important to follow your trusted vet’s advice.

In these days of Dr. Google and social media, your veterinarian might have fallen from favor as your first source of pet health information. That’s unfortunate, because the last I checked, groomers, pet store employees, breeders, trainers, and well-intentioned friends don’t have the education, training, and all-around experience to be a “true pet health expert,” and they also don’t take an oath to care for your pet like vets do. This includes providing advice on nutrition, parasite control, vaccinations, spaying/neutering, accidents and illnesses, and even behavior. When it comes to those important topics, your veterinarian’s goals are simple:

  • To prevent health problems whenever possible
  • To catch diseases and conditions in their earliest phase, thereby minimizing unnecessary pain or worse
  • To be a spokesperson for your pet’s best interests through all your pet’s life stages
  • To look after your pet’s physical and emotional well-being
  • To help both you and your pet live the best life possible

In a lot of ways, it’s like the relationship that parents have with their child’s pediatrician, only it literally lasts from cradle to grave. Of course, it’s not an exact parallel in another way: Human doctors only need to know one species, and many focus on only one discipline (like an internal medicine specialist) or a single organ (like a nephrologist, or kidney doctor). Your veterinarian, on the other hand, knows multiple species, all life stages (pediatrician to gerontologist), every discipline (internist, surgeon, radiologist, pharmacist, behaviorist, and grief counselor), and every organ. But our job is harder still. Pets can’t tell us where it hurts or other details like when or how the condition started. In fact, most of them try to hide their illnesses. They also age faster than humans.

Just like you take steps to help protect your home or car from serious or expensive problems by regularly changing furnace filters and oil, you need to do the same with your pet. However (taking this analogy further), you can’t predict a natural disaster like violent wind damaging your house or getting in a fender bender on your commute, nor can you predict your dog swallowing something he shouldn’t eat or injuring a leg during a romp at the dog park.

But there are many things that you can largely help prevent, such as flea or tick infestations, internal parasites, dental disease, and obesity. To help optimize your pet’s health and happiness, follow these 4 steps:

1. Take your pet to the vet.

There is simply no substitute for your pet being in front of a highly trained professional who does a thorough examination and consultation regarding any concerns you have. That’s when your vet looks beyond obvious problems and sees things you might miss. Your veterinarian can even help with problems like getting your dog to stop barking or the cat to reliably use the litterbox.

2. Schedule regular visits.

It used to be that every year you got a postcard in the mail telling you it was time for your pet’s annual vaccinations. This was considered by some to be the veterinary equivalent of a lube, oil, and filter reminder for your vehicle. Now the recommendation from many practices is that you schedule your pet for twice-yearly wellness visits, at which time the veterinary healthcare team will work with you to decide which, if any, vaccinations are needed and what other services or testing might benefit your pet. Remember, visiting every 6 months is like every 1-and-a-half to 2 years for a human, since pets age so much faster. Talk to your vet about how often your fur baby needs a checkup.

3. Religiously follow preventive healthcare recommendations.

Not to sound preachy, but there’s a reason it was the “10 Commandments” and not the “10 Suggestions.” When the veterinary healthcare team recommends you use a parasite control product monthly, have your pet vaccinated, reduce the amount of food you’re feeding by 10%, or provide your pet with some type of daily oral healthcare, for instance, there are good reasons. Just know that many pet parents can have problems doing some of these tasks, so if you’re struggling, please don’t feel guilty or be too embarrassed to ask your veterinary team for help.

4. Plan for veterinary expenses.

You need to think of pet healthcare like you do other budgeted items such as your mortgage, car payment, cell phone bill, or human health insurance premiums. Pet health insurance, wellness plans available at many veterinary practices, or money diligently set aside each month for future veterinary expenses are all good options. (In my experience, the vast majority of pet parents don’t feel the need to save for pet care, or they do, but it gets robbed for another unplanned expense.)

Finally, consider that while you can decide when and how often you see your own doctor or dentist, your pet has no choice — and no voice! He relies entirely on you to find a veterinarian you trust and then make sure he sees that veterinarian regularly. Please don’t turn your back on that responsibility. Your pet is counting on you.

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