Preventative Healthcare for Dogs and Cats

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Preventative Healthcare for Dogs and Cats


Once each year at minimum, all pet owners should take their dog and cat family members to see their veterinarian for a preventive examination and update on their vaccinations. It is important to schedule these preventive examinations to provide the best in healthcare and well-being for your pets. Many of you have heard the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment.” No place is it more relevant than with the family pets. Veterinarians recommend regular wellness examinations for the same reason your physician and dentist recommend them. If you can detect a problem in its early stages, it is more likely to be treated and resolved with less difficulty, better success and less expensive. Vaccinations, heartworm prevention and routine deworming are important components of wellness care and can prevent diseases that are not life-threatening at that stage; but, can become much more complex and much more expensive to treat and cure, if that is even possible.

The value in scheduling an annual health check for your dog or cat with a veterinarian is so he or she can recognize potential health issues early on and put a plan in place to overcome, or at least mitigate, the effects of the looming problem. Veterinarians will conduct a thorough examination of your pet using highly technical and sophisticated equipment and techniques. Following is a list of the body systems that a veterinarian may check on a routine physical examination:

+Mouth - Signs of periodontal disease, broken teeth, abscesses, and oral tumors

+Eyes - Signs of disease, discharge, tearing of the cornea, or conjunctivitis

+Ears - Signs of infection, ear mites, scratching, redness, or discharge

+Lymph Nodes - Palpate to note any changes in size or irregularities

+Heart - Check heart rate to see if it is too fast or too slow, leaky valves, irregular beats

+Abdomen - Check for a mass, tumors, optimal weight for the breed, palpate abdominal organs

+Lungs - Check lung sounds, wheezing or crackling sounds

+Base of Tail - Anal glands, abscesses, fecal mats, parasites such as tape worms and flea dirt

+Legs - Range of motion in all limbs, grinding sounds in joints, any signs of pain or discomfort

+Skin, Coat, and Nails - Areas of hair loss or scaling, rashes, saliva-stained fur, fleas, ticks, callouses, lumps and bumps, overgrown or ingrown toe nails and dehydration

+Temperament - Does dog exhibit anxiety or aggressiveness, do cats tend to hide or cower


These exams can deliver important information to the veterinarian and staff regarding impending disease or health conditions. We owe it to our four-legged family members to get an annual checkup to determine if any conditions exist that may be detrimental to our pet’s health, and take remedial actions to overcome those concerns. It may be appropriate for your pet to see a veterinarian more frequently than once per year depending on its lifestyle. The need for scheduling veterinary visits should be made based on the individual needs of that specific pet, and can be determined by a veterinarian. For instance, a dog that spends much of its time out-of-doors playing with the neighbor’s dog, or playing in the woods where they may encounter wild animals must be considered when looking for danger areas or preventive protections; such as, parasite and insect repellents, vaccinations, and permanent identification measures, such as microchips implanted beneath the skin. Your veterinarian should be informed if your dog visits the dog park as certain precautions can be taken to protect it against various diseases and conditions it may encounter at the park.

Annual examinations create an opportunity to check the overall health and fitness of your pets. Spay/neuter recommendations can be discussed with your veterinary professionals. There is no need for your pet to be an intact male or female unless you intend to breed the pet for commercial or show purposes. There is no truth to the “old wives’ tale” that a female dog or cat should have at least one season or heat period. It has no positive impact on the animal; however, it can cause problems in later life by contributing to medical problems such as mammary and testicular tumors and uterine infections. Both male and female dogs and cats will usually roam less when spayed or neutered, thus preventing abscesses and cuts from fights with other animals while roaming the neighborhood. Male dogs and cats tend to be more aggressive if not neutered. Spay and neuter surgeries can be safely performed as early as 8-12 weeks of age.

Probably the most important reasons for annual examinations by your veterinarian are vaccination boosters and parasite control. Many parents are reticent to have their children vaccinated against controllable diseases because they are afraid the vaccine may cause devastating side effects. Unfortunately, this same anti-vaccination philosophy in humans’ spills over to the pets in the household, and cats and dogs are exposed to viral infections that can and should be prevented through vaccination. There is a growing concern among veterinarians and veterinary educators that people are choosing not to have their pets vaccinated or boosted because of these concerns about the vaccine’s safety and the cost of vaccinations. These are misguided concepts because protecting your best friend is one of the most important things you can do to give them a long, healthy, and vibrant life. Puppies should be vaccinated at six weeks of age and repeated every 2 to 4 weeks until the puppy is 16 weeks of age. After this initial vaccination series, your pet should be vaccinated at regular intervals for the rest of its life. Your veterinarian will determine what those intervals are and when booster vaccinations are necessary depending upon the lifestyle you and your pets keep. For instance, if your dog is a hunter or you live in a wooded area where wildlife and stray dogs abound, your veterinarian may advise annual boosters to keep the dog’s immunity up to a level to protect the dog from contracting the disease if it meets these potential carriers. Or if you live in an area and partake of the many social activities that dogs and their owners frequent, such as dog parks, hiking trails, day spas, grooming parlors, or other public places, then your dog will require more frequent booster vaccine protection. There are some dogs that spend all their time in the home or in the enclosed yard. These dogs may not need to be booster vaccinated as frequently as those who lead a more social life. The vaccines your cat needs will depend on the cat’s health status, age, lifestyle, and what diseases are common in your neighboring geographical area. If you travel with your cat to boarding kennels, other family homes that have cats, bring another cat into the home or allow the cat outdoors at any time, it needs to be vaccinated and boosted on a continual basis. Just because your cat may be an indoor-only pet, it doesn’t mean it’s safe from disease! You may bring viruses and bacteria in on your clothing from visiting other homes, including your shoes after hiking or running through a park that contains feral cats that may be carrying disease. The risks from vaccinating your pet are much smaller than the risks posed by the diseases to which they may become exposed. So, whether you vaccinate should not be a question. Your veterinarian will be able to give you the best advice based on their education and experience in any given geographic area or disease prevalence circumstance.

Both internal and external parasites must be eliminated from your pets on an annual basis. If there are no parasites from a blood or stool sample examination, that is a wonderful position in which to be. However, annual checks are important to control such insect transmitted diseases as Lyme disease and heartworm disease. Not only can this protect your pets from these insect vector diseases; but, it may also protect the human family members from contracting certain diseases. It is important to rid your pets and the surrounding environment from these parasites for best health of your pets and the human family.

Weight management is another important function of the annual veterinary examination. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, veterinarians classify 53 % of adult dogs and 58% of adult cats as overweight or obese. Prevention is much easier to accomplish than treatment, so these visits to your veterinarian can help pets get on the right diet and exercise regimen to reach optimum weight. Commercial dog and cat foods make it easier to provide a nutritionally balanced and complete diet. Dog and cat foods contain all the different nutrients pets need in the appropriate quantities. It is very difficult to create a balanced and complete diet from home cooked people foods. As animals age, their dietary requirement and their ability to digest certain food changes. When pets grow older, they lose some ability to concentrate urine so they need to produce more, and therefore need more water intake to maximize their kidney function. Pet owners can help by feeding pets better quality proteins and avoiding red meats like beef and beef by-products. Doing this will decrease the workload on the kidneys, and they will perform better as the pet ages.

No one knows your pet as well as you do, but veterinarians are trained to detect diseases before they become issues for both you and your pet. Make it a habit to schedule an annual checkup for your pet every year. There is no better gift you can give to your pet than a long, healthy life and annual checkups are an easy way to ensure your pet is receiving preventive care on a regular basis. It will be less expensive for you, and it will be better for your pet.


Bruce W. Little, DVM