WHILE SMOTHERING PETS WITH LOVE, MANY NEGLECT TO TAKE THEM TO THE VET
As reported by Steven Dale, special for USA Today, on 1/11/2014.
There’s an American health crisis that doesn’t have anything to do with federal health care websites, rising deductibles or doctor shortages.
Our pets are getting sicker, and many pet owners don’t even have a clue.
In the past six or seven years, the percentage of U.S. pets that are obese or overweight has increased 37% for dogs and a whopping 90% for cats — leading to increases in other serious conditions, as with people, from diabetes to arthritis and other problems. Diabetes is up 32% in dogs since 2006, says an annual report from Banfield Pet Hospital. Arthritis is up 38% in dogs and 67% in cats since 2007. Thyroid and kidney disease are up. Even flea infestation are increasing.
Americans love their pets. We have 69.9 million dogs and 74.1 million cats, and many of us consider them our “fur babies” — 42% of dogs even share a bed with a human family member, according to the American Pet Products Association.
But many owners don’t know their pets are suffering from these serious chronic illnesses. One reason: They’re not going to the vet. Dog vet visits have slipped 21% since 2001 and cat visits have dropped 30%, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Meanwhile, emergency visits have increased, indicating people are waiting until their pets are really sick to do anything about it.
“Our pets don’t look into mirrors or inspect their own bodies,” says Peggy Lykens-Ruh of Yorkville, Ill., who has five dogs and produces pet rescue events around the Chicago area. “I believe checkups are important at least once a year — more often for older pets because they age so much faster than we do.”
“It’s really very simple — if we can get people to see veterinarians once or twice a year, pets would be healthier, and living longer, and overall pet owners could actually save money,” says Michael Cavanaugh, CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association.
This crisis in pet health has spurred a new $5.5 million public awareness campaign urging annual checkups. The campaign is sponsored by a consortium called Partners for Healthy Pets, made up of the AVMA, the American Animal Hospital Association and more than 90 other veterinary organizations.
Veterinarian Ron DeHaven, CEO of the AVMA, says the 2008 economic downturn contributed to the crisis, but the decline in veterinary visits began years before that.
In the past, he notes, veterinarians sent annual vaccine reminder postcards in the mail. The physical exam was downplayed, often not even mentioned. But now research has shown pet vaccines last for several years, so many pet owners see no need for annual visits.
Vets “may not be describing the value of what goes on in an exam,” says veterinarian Karen Felsted of Felsted Veterinary Consulting in Dallas.
Even as a dog walks into the exam room, most vets are observing gait, looking for undiagnosed arthritis or neurological issues. When they pet the pup or kitty, they are feeling for lumps and bumps, which may suggest thyroid disease or other conditions.
But about 30% of pet owners don’t understand their pet is more likely to get sick without an annual exam, according to the 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study.
Cost is an issue
But cost is an issue for many. Just over half of all clients say the price of a visit to the vet is often higher than expected. Some feel veterinarians push unnecessary vaccines or procedures just to make money.
“People don’t know how much medical care really costs,” says veterinarian Sheldon Rubin of Chicago, who has been practicing 43 years. He cites the equipment, which is often the same as in human medicine, as well as employee costs and the cost of owning or renting a facility. “Today, veterinary school graduates are typically over $150,000 in debt (from student loans). Compared to human medicine, veterinary medicine is quite a value,” he says.
To save time and money, many pet owners seek advice from “Dr. Google.” Internet pet sites have proliferated in recent years, and get tons of traffic; 39% of pet owners say they will go there before calling their vet, according to the Bayer study.
But vets say websites can only go so far. If a happy family dog suddenly begins to growl when petted, the response online may be all sorts of behavioral guidance — when the dog may be growling because of pain caused by an ear infection, or some other physical ailment.
Rubin cites one website that even suggested chicken soup as a remedy for a feline disease, which he calls “complete nonsense.”
“Perhaps veterinarians have simply failed to demonstrate the importance of a routine checkup, and the value that goes along with it,” he says.
Lynn Peterson of Fitchburg, Wis., says she never thought much about preventive care for her cat, Doc, until one routine vet visit six years ago, when the vet observed that one eye was slightly discolored, and just “didn’t look right.”
A veterinary ophthalmologist later diagnosed melanoma. Doc’s eye and ocular nerve were removed. He quickly rebounded without any further treatment.
“Without that exam to catch it early, they tell me there’s no way Doc would be here today,” Peterson says.
Two years ago at age 11, Doc injured a claw, and when she took him in, the vet noted weight loss. It was a red flag, and the vet suggested a blood test. Doc was diagnosed with liver cancer.
The early diagnosis made it possible to give the cat a chemotherapy drug. Peterson, an office clerk, says that Doc is outliving his latest prognosis.
“I believe that cats like to keep secrets; they don’t want us to know if they’re not feeling well,” she adds.
But many of the ills the USA’s pets are now suffering are easier to address than cancer.
According to the American Heartworm Society, despite perfectly safe and effective heartworm preventives, only 55% of dogs are currently on them — which leaves millions of dogs at risk for the potentially fatal condition, caused by parasitic worms.
Banfield’s 2011 State of Pet Health Report also found 60% of dogs and 49% of cats have dental disease, a 12% increase in dogs and a 21% jump in cats since 2006. The annual report is based on records of more than 465,000 cats and 2.3 million dogs that have visited Banfield’s 830 pet hospitals in 43 states.
Often dental disease is painful, but when pets don’t eat, owners think they’re just being finicky, says Felsted. The bacteria caused by lingering dental disease can cause or contribute to damage to the liver or kidneys.
Obesity is another chronic problem — it’s as much an epidemic in dogs and cats as in people, vets say: 52% of dogs are overweight or obese, and 58% cats fall into the same category, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
While there are many explanations — ranging from not enough exercise to leaving food out all day for cats to dispensing table treats — people often have no clue that their tabby is tubby or their canine is corpulent because our perceptions of what is “normal” for pets has changed over the years.
According to Banfield’s 2012 report, about 70% of people with overweight or obese dogs or cats had no idea their pet’s weight wasn’t ideal until the vet said so. And the impact on health is significant — overweight or obese pets may suffer quality-of-life issues, increases in arthritis and skin problems and diabetes.
Cats have their own set of problems. About 80% of cat owners think their kitties are so self-sufficient that regular exams aren’t necessary, according to Bayer Health Care Feline Findings 2013. As more cats stay indoors only, somehow owners believe they don’t get sick. While they may be safer inside — getting hit by a car or chased by a coyote is unlikely — they can still get heart disease, cancers, kidney or hyperthyroid disease.
But nearly 40% of cat owners say they get stressed just thinking about going to the veterinarian with a cat. And no wonder, because when the cat carrier appears most cats disappear.
“It’s such a struggle to get the cat in to see us — I understand,” says veterinarian Elizabeth Colleran of Chico, Calif., past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
“I’m not sure that we’ve done our jobs to make our offices as cat-friendly as possible,” she says. That’s why the group began to certify Cat Friendly Practices in 2011, taking definitive steps to be “cat friendlier.”
The idea has caught on; 500 veterinary clinics have been certified as Cat Friendly and another 600 are in the pipeline. “If the cat is totally freaking out, do you think that cat owner is going to come back, or even should come back?” Colleran asks. “We’re determined to make a veterinary visit at least tolerable experience for cats, and maybe even a pleasant experience.”
The cost of prevention
Still, veterinary costs are a significant issue for many pet owners. Pets often get the same cancers as people and in many cases undergo similar treatment. Surgery, medications and a 10-day hospital stay for a person will likely exceed hundreds of thousands; for a pet, it’s somewhere around $5,000.
But some people just don’t have $5,000. And even annual checkups cost something — maybe more than some can afford.
“True,” concedes Felsted. “After all, the government doesn’t offer a financial safety net to pet owners. But pet insurance can be a lifesaving (investment), preventing economic euthanasia” — euthanizing a pet when the owner can’t or won’t pay for treatment.
“I know preventive care makes a difference,” says Bobbi Ann Fulk, a stay-at-home mom in Des Plaines, Ill., whose household includes five cats. “Not only can we catch problems early, potentially we can save money. People must understand that — for me, it’s common sense. I think the biggest hang-up is that some people don’t trust their veterinarian. I say, then it’s on you to find someone else who suits you better.”