Although we hate to compare our pets to people, for many, it really is true that our furry friends are just as much a part of the family as our children. They eat family meals with us (albeit crumbs from under the table), they sit on our laps to watch TV with us, and even sleep in our beds at night. Just as we want to do what is best for our children, we also want to do what is best for our pets. However, due to our pets’ inability to communicate what they want or how they feel, sometimes our best intentions can miss the mark.
Perhaps the most common health problem in companion animals is obesity. To some extent this can be due to lack of exercise, but for the most part, it is due to over-feeding. When interacting with my dog, I often find myself imposing human feelings on her. For example, if it’s raining outside, I don’t take her on a long walk because I imagine she doesn’t want to get wet. While this may be true for some animals, the reality is that for most, the keys to their happiness lie in having their basic needs cared for (food, water, shelter), being able to move around as they please, playing, receiving positive attention, and enjoying the more than occasional nap in the sun. Our pets’ weight becomes a problem when we, as owners, become too driven by our pets’ love of food. Wild dogs and cats are predatory animals, and the source of their next meal is never certain. Other wild animals have to forage and therefore must exert energy when finding their next meal. Thus, many pets with the predatory history are actually unable to regulate how much food they eat, and if something is offered, they will always take it. The animals that forage for their own food in the wild need to eat more than their counterparts that we keep as pets, as they have this extra energy expenditure.
Additionally, many animals are food motivated, so we find ourselves falling into a pattern of offering a “treat” to get them to perform a desired behavior, or just generally rewarding good behavior with “treats.” The problem here is that our pets do not need treats, as they are being fed their dietary requirements in normal pet food. These treats are also often high calorie, and the pet is not doing excess exercise to prevent these frequent treats from adding to their bodyweight. Therefore, while the treat momentarily makes the animal (and owner!) feel good, in the long run these treats negatively impact our pets’ happiness by hindering their ability to move about as they please, and increasing their risk of other weight-associated diseases such as heart disease and diabetes (yes, pets can become diabetic!) Obesity also puts unnecessary stress on the joints of our pets. Therefore, especially in older pets who may be battling arthritis, it is especially important that they maintain a good weight, to prevent more joint pain. An alternative to “over-treating” pets is to break up treats into smaller pieces, thereby reducing the calories each time our pets get a treat. Another alternative is to give our pets healthier treats such as carrots. Treats are to our pets what dessert is to us: a delicious snack. Just as we do not want our children to always eat unhealthy desserts, we should also be watching the treats our pets get.
Treats are much less commonly given to cats, but cats can also have problems with obesity. This could be due to over-feeding at mealtime, or due to leaving a full bowl of food out for the pet to eat free choice (a practice more common in cats than in other companion animals). Allowing the pet to eat free choice leaves regulation of feed intake up to them, which is not something that is instinctual. Thus, these animals have a tendency to overeat.
If you are still struggling to maintain the weight of your animal, I would strongly suggest increasing your pet’s activity level, as well as bringing the animal in for an appointment with the veterinarian. The veterinarian can, after a physical examination, tell you approximately how much your pet should be consuming in one day, and can even suggest switching they type of feed your pet eats (e.g. wet vs. dry food, amount of nutrients in the feed). The veterinarian may also suggest reducing the amount of table scraps fed to your animal. Table scraps are a form of a treat given to many animals, but as they are not formulated specifically for your pet, they may actually be harmful. Even if there is no poisonous effect of the table scraps the pet may eat, they can still cause short-term digestive upset, and in the long-term can cause tooth decay. Therefore, while your pet may be happy when eating the table scraps, it will be uncomfortable later if it experiences an upset stomach, and may even be in pain years down the road if eating table scraps negatively affected your pets teeth. If there is still no change after actively trying to reduce the weight of your pet, the veterinarian can take a blood sample to check for other metabolic problems that can be causing excess bodyweight.
Yet another common problem that jeopardizes animal health is a lack of open and honest communication with the veterinarian. We trust our veterinarians with the health and wellbeing of our pets, and so it is important that we provide them with the most knowledge we have regarding a health concern of our animal. I was working at a veterinary hospital when a client called saying her pet had been having diarrhea for two days, and was not eating well. The veterinarian suggested the client bring her pet in, but the patient said she did not have time, but requested some anti-diarrheal medication, and said she would bring her pet in for an appointment in two days if there was no change. When the animal came in to the hospital, it was clear to the veterinarian that the animal had been sick for much longer than the owner had let on, and was severely dehydrated. With more open and direct communication on that first phone call, the problem would have been much less severe.
It is certainly understandable that we feel some sort of remorse for bringing our pet to the veterinarian with some sort of problem. As we are responsible for their health and well-being, when something is not right, we automatically feel guilty. At the same time, we are afraid of being judged by the veterinarian for not being good parents to our pet. We may not admit to letting our cat go outside, or feeding our dog from the table, just as we may not admit to our doctors if we smoke or do not exercise. For the sake of our pets’ health, it is important that we overcome this fear and speak openly with the veterinarian. After all, both we and the veterinarian want to keep our pets alive and healthy for as long as possible. Mentioning things like a pet’s limp, or a change in eating habits, or scratching at a particular area are all indicators of some other problem that is going on. Mentioning them to the veterinarian will help him/her better identify the underlying issue and will save both time and money in the long run.
This idea of open and honest communication should go both ways. If a veterinarian does not explain something to you in a way that you understand, feel free to tell them this. Often, veterinarians find the mechanism of a health problem more interesting than the precautions that need to be taken to prevent it from worsening, so that pet owners without a medical background find themselves lost. It is perfectly okay (and even encouraged!) for owners to ask for clarification, or even for information to be repeated, or written down. If you have additional questions, do not feel embarrassed to ask them! The better you understand what is happening to your pet, and what your role is in managing the situation, the better the outcome will be.
Possibly one of the biggest areas of veterinary medicine where communication could be improved is euthanasia. Euthanasia is a very sensitive subject matter, but it is not one that should be avoided, as both the veterinarian and the pet owner need to be on the same page with animal care, animal quality of life, as well as the financial situation of the family. For example, if your animal has been diagnosed with cancer, the options at first are to treat the cancer, or to leave it. If you wish to treat the cancer, you should tell the veterinarian. If you cannot afford it, the veterinarian will accept the circumstances and in the future, medical decisions will be based on pain management. Although sharing such personal information as finances may seem uncomfortable, the veterinarian will be better able to care for your animal if you are up front with this information. If you are too embarrassed to state that you cannot afford chemotherapy, telling your veterinarian you will “think about it,” is wasting time that the veterinarian could be treating your pet to manage pain. If it comes to the point where you feel your animal is in too much pain, and is not able to do the things that make your pet happy, then ultimately euthanasia is your decision. You are the advocate for your pet, and it is your responsibility to ensure that they receive the proper care. If due to an adrenaline rush upon entry to the veterinary hospital, your pet is acting as if it feels much better than it usually does at home, voice this opinion to your veterinarian. After all, you spend much more time with your pet than your veterinarian, and environment does affect behavior. When it is time to make the final decision regarding your pet’s life, it is best if both the family and the veterinarian are in agreement that this is the right decision.
On a lighter note, it is important to communicate openly with your veterinarian about your pet’s habits for routine vaccinations as well. For example, if your dog is now older and no longer spends its days outside in a fenced-in yard while you are at work, you might want to tell your veterinarian that you are able to supervise your dog consistently when it is outside, and no longer feel that the leptospirosis vaccine is necessary, because your pet is not going to be drinking from ponds, or puddles. Similarly, do not be afraid to ask what the vaccinations your pet is getting are for, and ask for the signs of a possible allergic reaction just in case. It is also okay to express concern regarding the number of vaccines your pet gets in one visit. It is better that you ask your questions and have the veterinarian explain the reasons for her actions rather than you being surprised upon your return home that after three vaccinations, your pet is sore the next day.
To summarize, the best advice I can give you on being a better pet owner is really to care for your pet as you would your own child. This includes making sure they are eating healthy, as well as getting enough attention and playtime to make sure they stay lean and happy. It also means that you need to be completely open and honest with your veterinarian, sharing all symptoms, being honest about the duration of the symptoms, and being honest about your pet’s lifestyle. This will all build a healthy, trusting relationship between you and your veterinarian, which will help you care for your pet to the best of your ability, and extend its happy and healthy life for as long as possible.