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Americans love pets – to the tune of 62 percent of all households with at least one pet in residence, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Statistics show that 72.9 million homes accommodate approximately 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats.
With so many four-legged friends among us, pet health is a concern from coast to coast. To help you protect your pet’s health and well-being, Dr. George Banta, department chair of the Veterinary Technology program at Brown Mackie College – Akron, offers professional advice.
“Many owners commonly overlook the weight of their pets,” says Banta. “It is much more common for a household pet to be overweight than underweight.” Veterinarians judge weight according to the body condition score. This scale assesses an animal’s age, weight, height and proportions of muscle and fat. Pets with lean bodies attain a more ideal body condition score. “It’s not so much the number of pounds, but how each animal carries the weight,” says Dr. Banta. “If the animal looks like it swallowed a watermelon, that’s an issue. On other hand, if looks like hasn’t eaten in two weeks, that’s also an issue.”
A study conducted by scientists at the Purina Pet Nutrition Research Department and specialists from universities around the United States shows that leaner pets live about two years longer than overweight pets. These eye-opening results prompt many people to take a second look at the food they provide for their pets. “I see pet food in four categories: great, good, I don’t know and not for a dead animal,” Banta says. “I like Hill Science Diet, Eukanuba, Iams, and Royal Canin. I would argue big name brands like Purina are fine. Even with quality food, good weight management still depends on the amount of food your pet eats.”
Banta recommends feeding pets two small meals a day rather than one large meal. Some owners fill the bowl and let the pet self-feed, or graze. “Some animals will eat the correct amount,” notes Banta. “Others will keep eating when food is always available. If a pet is overweight, it is best to oversee the portions of each meal.”
What about treats? Many of us offer a treat as positive reinforcement in training or housebreaking our pets. Banta advises giving a kibble of food instead of a pet cookie. When it comes to table scraps, Banta says, “Almost never. Table scraps can upset a pet’s stomach and cause diarrhea. In addition, many foods are toxic to pets. Garlic, onions, grapes, raisins and chocolate can be deadly toxic.” Table scraps with high fat content, such as roast trimmings or a ham bone, can cause vomiting and diarrhea. “There is association with sudden high fat content and pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas which can lead to life-threatening complications,” he says.
Exercise goes hand in hand with a good diet. “Exercise helps strengthen the body and is good for their minds,” Banta says. Similar to children, it is best to give your pet time to digest after eating before tossing his favorite ball around. “Older dogs and cats have a tendency to develop arthritis. Large dogs, such as German shepherds, labradors and golden retrievers, are prone to hip dysplasia. Keeping them lean and providing regular exercise can make pets of any size more comfortable as they age,” he continues.
Banta recommends regular check-ups for pets and annual vaccines. “It is easier to keep a pet healthy and prevent disease than it is to diagnose and treat an illness,” he says. Regular visits to the veterinarian provide the doctor with baseline blood work for your pet, making it easier to diagnose any problems that may develop. For older pets, he advises two exams a year. “Things can happen quickly. The earlier a problem is detected, the sooner treatment can begin. It’s all about quality of life.”
One important pet safety precaution to keep in mind involves household poisons. Antifreeze and rat poison are two of the most common poisons regularly found in homes. “It doesn’t take much time for antifreeze to become lethal,” Banta says. “On the other hand, many rat poisons can be very insidious, taking as much as a week after exposure to show clinical signs. Most animal poisoning can be treated if caught early.” The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) offers an animal poison control hotline for pet owners: (888) 426-4435. There is a fee to place the call. In return, you get unlimited consultations with emergency veterinarians, who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Ask any pet owner about the benefits of having a dog or cat. Many describe their pet as part of the family. “Every client tells me their pet is the best pet on the planet,” says Banta. “That’s how it should be.”