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Preventive Pet Medicine Can Help Reduce Major Health Problems

Audio

Aired 11/3/09

What can pet owners do to help prevent their cat or dog from getting a major disease, or expensive medical procedure? We speak to local veterinarian Dr. Katy Allen about the importance of preventive pet medicine.

Preventive Pet Medicine Can Help Reduce Major Health Problems

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In a world where the number of people who can afford going to the doctor keeps shrinking, it may seem odd to talk about preventive healthcare for pets. But keeping an eye on the health of your pet and interver – intervening, that is, early if an issue pops up, can actually end up saving you money in the long run. Pet healthcare can be pricey, but then again, a happy, healthy pet is priceless. Here with expert advice on how to keep your pet well for the longest time possible is my guest, Dr. Katy Allen, veterinarian and owner of Canterbury Tails Veterinary Services. Dr. Allen, Katy, welcome.

DR. KATY ALLEN (Veterinarian): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. How are you keeping your pet healthy? Do you have questions about what you think could be a health problem you’re seeing in your pet? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Katy, what do we mean when we talk about preventive healthcare for pets? What does that involve?

DR. ALLEN: It’s pretty much the same as would be involved for your or I. I mean, certainly these days wellness for your pet is more important to a lot of people. It used to be, when I was a young veterinarian, that people were happy to have a dog in the yard or a cat on the couch, and they didn’t particularly mind which dog or cat it was. Now, pets are very much part of the family and they don’t just want a cat on the couch, they want Fluffy and they want Fluffy there for as long as is humanly possible. And…

CAVANAUGH: Or cattily possible.

DR. ALLEN: Okay, there you go, cattily possible. Felinely possible.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

DR. ALLEN: And so you – that doesn’t just happen. They have to – People need to be proactive about their pet’s wellness. Some of it is very much common sense like it is for us. Easier said than done sometimes, but healthy diet, exercise, you know, keeping a proper weight. Keeping your pet at its proper weight will add about two years of good quality life to them and you can’t argue with that. It is easier said than done, and sometimes people need help with exercise or diet and other advice with that but that’s very important. Catching diseases early, huge in our pets. They age much faster than we do. Sort of on average, about seven years for every year of our life, that’s very rough. But, so, you know, we wouldn’t want to wait 7 or 14 years before our visit to the doctor. We might want to but it wouldn’t be wise.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

DR. ALLEN: And so for our pets, really, we’re recommending every six months getting an exam. And so, yes, people go, oh, my goodness that’s, you know, that’s $40 or $50 right there. But there are plenty of examples I can give you where that not only improves your pet’s quality of life, it saves them some years and it saves you a lot of money in the long run.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go back, if I can, about this issue of weight and diet for pets because I think that is a really big issue, so to speak among pets and their owners these days because the fact is it’s very difficult if a, let’s say a cat, doesn’t go outside or a dog doesn’t get much exercise, largely a house dog. It’s hard to keep that weight off.

DR. ALLEN: It is. It’s very hard. Actually, it’s not so hard to stop it from coming on but once it’s on, it’s harder to get off, and I think we find that, too. Part of the problem often starts when – once we get our pets spayed and neutered, which we all are going to do, right? Get our pets spayed and neutered. Their metabolic needs go – drop down precipitously, at about 50% and so when you read on the back of the bag that you need to feed your 50-pound dog 3 cups of food, well, that’s for a dog that hasn’t been spayed or neutered, and for one that is active. And active by the pet food manufacturer’s standard is someone that does – a dog that does field trials. You know, they’re working all day. So for, you know, for Rover that’s out in the backyard and just kind of, you know, is just hanging out and is eating his three cups of food, they get fat very easily. So if you feed them the appropriate amount initially then you’re not behind the game. Once they are overweight, there are things you can do. You can exercise them more. Of course, if they’re fat, sorry, plump, that’s harder. There are diets that you can use. There’s actually a medication out, a weight loss drug for dogs, don’t laugh.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.

DR. ALLEN: I know. I know, when I first heard about it, I thought it was ridiculous but actually it works very well. And by keeping a low weight, just like with people, you can prevent or mitigate arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, all the things that we get and that are made worse by being medically overweight; the same things happen to our pets. And so actually keeping them at their proper weight is important. It’s not a ‘California have to be thin’ sort of a thing, it’s not cosmetic, it really is a medical necessity.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Katy Allen. We’re talking about preventive pet healthcare and preventive pet medicine. We’re inviting your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call from Susan in Solana Beach. Good morning, Susan, and welcome to These Days.

SUSAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

SUSAN: Okay, my question to Dr. Katy is, I have a little, very happy, almost to be ten-year-old border terrier and she’s a real beach dog. And this—it happens every summer and then it takes a long time to recover—fleas.

CAVANAUGH: Ohh…

SUSAN: Giving the dog a healthy diet, she gets lots of exercise, she gets—I won’t mention the name of the company—she gets vitamin support and dermal support and fleas are still an issue even with Spot On monthly treatments and daily combing, flea combing. Any suggestions to get some kind of better control?

DR. ALLEN: It is very difficult if you live in the beach community and your dog is a beach bum, it’s very, very difficult to control the fleas. There are some really wonderful flea control products out there and sometimes you have to actually piggyback them. They are very, very safe, a lot of them, so that there are different flea products that you can put on. It sounds like you’re doing a topical flea product once a month, you put it on the back of their neck and that will help keep fleas down. You can also piggyback that with some of the oral flea control products that are around. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say names or not but if you go, you know, if you go to your veterinarian, there’s – there are a couple of different pills that you can give that you can – And then I have people – and sort of give everything monthly but offset it by two weeks, so you give your – the topical one and then two weeks later the oral one and then two weeks later the topical, and so on and so forth. And often during the summer and on the beach, you have to piggyback two different products.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Susan, for that call. I want to talk to you, Katy, about vaccinations because I know that there’s sort of a controversy that pets can be over-vaccinated. They can have too much of this stuff going around in their system and it really doesn’t do them much good. Tell us what your feeling is on getting pets their vaccinations and how often they should have them.

DR. ALLEN: Okay, this is quite the can of worms and there’s been a lot of debate in the veterinary community over the past probably ten years or so. But, yes, one can over-vaccinate and just like we don’t vaccinate ourselves for everything there is a vaccine for, we just look at our risk or a doctor helps us look at our risk. If you go abroad, somewhere where they’ve got yellow fever, you’ll get a yellow fever vaccine but you don’t if you stay in San Diego, and the same applies to our pets. So, in general, we – there are not very many vaccinations that we recommend annually. We used to say every year for almost all of them, well, now we know we’re overdoing it. And by over-vaccinating, we’re overstimulating the immune system and there are some immune-mediated diseases we’re suspicious that we actually are causing without meaning to.

CAVANAUGH: And what would that be?

DR. ALLEN: Possibly in golden retrievers they have a thyroiditis. They’ll get an underactive thyroid and we think vaccinating is contributing to that. Cats are very prone to kidney disease and there’s some research going on now about how over-vaccinating can contribute to that. So there are certainly some problems that we can cause. There are vaccines that have been known to cause cancers at the site of the vaccine, incurable, you know, have to be surgically removed and even then it might not even be a cure. So there are some major side effects to vaccinations. And now I don’t want to put people off getting their vaccines. What I want to encourage them to do is go to their veterinarian and discuss their pet’s lifestyle, what they’re at risk for. Are they in contact with wild animals? Are there wild animals going through the backyard? Are they on the beach where they might be meeting up with a lot of animals that might not have been vaccinated? So what are their relative risks for these different diseases for which we have vaccines, and then it’s a cost benefit analysis, and I’m not talking about necessarily financial cost but the medical downside to a vaccine and what we’re protecting against. And you’ll often find – I mean, there might be a dozen different vaccines for cats that we can give; you may find your cat only needs two or three of them and maybe only ever three years rather than every year. So it’s really important to get proper advice and not just go to a vaccine clinic and get everything that’s going.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. So getting the pets their shots once a year may be – you might want to rethink that and talk that over with your vet.

DR. ALLEN: Absolutely. We still want to get our hands on them every year. And…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah.

DR. ALLEN: …for reasons that we can talk about for this wellness exam but just showing up and getting shots might be a waste of your money and a waste of your time and maybe be detrimental to your pet’s health. And instead of spending fifty bucks on annual shots they don’t need, spend that on getting an examination.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Cheryl is on the line from Encinitas. Good morning, Cheryl. Welcome to These Days.

CHERYL (Caller, Encinitas): Hi, thank you. I have an older cat. He is thin and diabetic and on a high dose of insulin right now. And I’m trying to get his diet under control and I was wondering if your veterinarian might have some recommendations?

DR. ALLEN: Well, certainly. Diet is huge in managing diabetes in cats. And, in fact, what kitties need is sort of like the cat equivalent of an Atkins diet. They need a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. There are some prescription diets out there and I think Hills makes one called MD but there are – I believe there are some others out there. But if you can get them to accept that diet, which is a whole different thing, but if you can get them to accept a high protein, carbohydrate diet, and they’re on the correct insulin—and there is a form of insulin available called Glargine—and often a combination of that insulin plus the high protein diet, there’s about a 50% reoccurrence of remission of diabetes in cats. In other words, they’re no longer diabetic. So diet is huge. But cats, as you know, you can often put a food down and they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and they’re waiting for something a little better. And so it’s a lot easier said than done, but diet is huge. And diabetes in cats is really difficult to control. Much easier in dogs, easier in people, but in cats it really is a challenge. So, you know, I do feel for you but I would – if you don’t have your kitty on the MD diet, if you’ve not yet tried it, I would talk to your veterinarian and if that’s not working, home cooked diets that are high protein and low carbohydrate are also another alternative.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Cheryl. I wanted to ask you, Katy, Dr. Katy Allen, whether or not – a little bit more about this wellness exam that you were telling us about and what that entails.

DR. ALLEN: Okay, what it entails is a really thorough, you know, nose to tail exam and we, you know, we get our hands on. We’re looking at teeth, looking for broken teeth or cavities in cats. We’re looking at eyes, you know, do we have a cataract coming on, is that an old age change or maybe there’s diabetes. Listening to the heart. We can – we find heart murmurs that will often be not clinical. In other words, your dog’s still bouncing around like a madman but they’ve actually got a heart murmur and so that’s our first clue to there’s something going on. We can catch that early. You might notice your veterinarian kind of squeezing your dog or cat’s belly and wonder what the heck we’re up to. We’re trying to feel liver size, kidney size, intestines, do we find – is there a mass in there, you know, is there a tumor in there that you won’t see? I had a dog come in not so long ago that the owner thought it was just getting fat. Actually, it was a big, old tumor in the belly. It was a benign one and we removed it and that was the end of the story. Had they ignored it and not come in, that would – could easily have been a tumor that bled out and they would’ve had to come home to find their dog on the floor dead. And the dog had no signs. I keep going back – we check joints. We’re looking for arthritis, we’re looking for back pain, checking their temperature, checking other unmentionable things like urine and stool samples. We often will draw blood. Drawing a blood panel, again, the other day I got an apparently healthy dog on the outside, drew his annual blood panel, liver enzymes were up, took some x-rays, did a bit more work, and he had a gallbladder problem and that was on its way to actually bursting. So, again, they are often asymptomatic but they have diseases going on and we can catch those for you.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Let’s go to the phones again. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We are talking about preventive pet medicine. My guest is Dr. Katy Allen. And we’re right now taking a phone call from Tracy in Del Mar. Good morning, Tracy. Welcome to These Days.

TRACY (Caller, Del Mar): Thank you. I just wanted to make some comments and tell you my experience with my own dog. He was a golden retriever. He had a growth under his chin that was supplied by blood from the carotid artery so it was inoperable and it became cancerous. And I managed his diet very, very carefully, avoiding anything acidic in his diet and I also began feeding him alkaline water to drink instead of regular tap water or bottled water. And cancer cannot survive in an alkaline environment, it only survives in an acidic environment, and his prognosis had been about two or three months. And he lived very happily and healthily for an additional two and a half years.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. That’s a sort of amazing story.

DR. ALLEN: That’s a great story. And I do find that the best way to have an animal live a long time is to pronounce them dead by Christmas and then they just keep living for a long time just to spite me. I would actually, though, put a warning out that changing the pH of your animal’s water and food can actually have detrimental effects on the bladder and the kidneys so, again, get advice from your veterinarian before you do anything like that.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Sara is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Sara, and welcome to These Days.

SARA (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, Sara, I think you have your radio on, and if you could turn that off we could hear your question.

SARA: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let me just ask you a question, Katy. I want to ask you about pet health insurance because as you said, you know, you’re recommending that people go in to have these wellness exams with their pets twice a year. Now I must admit to you that’s the first time I’ve heard twice a year but I understand your rationale since pets live a shorter time than humans and that six months is actually a longer time for their bodies than it is for ours. How does – how might pet health insurance factor into the equation to allow people to bring their pets in more often and yet it not be a financial burden?

DR. ALLEN: Pet health insurance, there’s good and bad to pet health insurance. If you have a good company and you get it when your animal is younger and so there are no excluding conditions, it makes people less scared to come in, first of all, because they know they’re going to have some help with the payment. Some pet insurances will cover a wellness exam and vaccinations, heartworm prevention because they know that will save them money also down the line. So if you get yourself a good company—and I do stress that because there are some bad companies out there—if you read the fine print and get yourself a good policy, they will cover a lot of that wellness stuff for you.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s good to do that when your pet is very young, though.

DR. ALLEN: Exactly, when they’ve not already got something wrong with them because then that’s excluded just like with people.

CAVANAUGH: Sara is on the line now.

DR. ALLEN: Oh, hi, Sara.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning, Sara.

SARA: Hi, sorry about that.

CAVANAUGH: That’s okay.

SARA: I wanted to know, Dr. Katy, I have a three-year-old, almost four-year-old German Shepherd, a female, who has chronic ear infections and I know they’re prone to them but I’ve had her allergies tested so she’s on the right food. I’ve, you know, cleaned them once a week. I have used normal, traditional medicines, I’ve used non-traditional medicines. Do you have any suggestions? They still bother here and I just feel so horrible for her when she’s always rubbing her ears.

DR. ALLEN: Oh, no, I do feel sorry for you. That’s one of the few things that are really, really hard to control. And you’re right, often food allergy is underlying. If they get wet, that can also make them flare up. And those are the two major causes for ear infections that won’t go away. If you’ve actually had food allergy diagnosed and they’re on a high pro-allergenic food and are cleaning, you might have to clean more often. Your only other option occasionally is actually to have surgery to open up the ear canal. It’s pretty unusual actually in a, what we call, a prick eared dog like a shepherd, usually it’s the ones with the floppy ears. But sometimes there’s – a surgical option is your last resort. So, yeah, so I’m sorry. I guess the short answer is it sounds like you’re doing everything that you should be without going that final, extra step.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Dr. Katy Allen, we’re going to be wrapping up this particular part of our pet segment but we’re – when we return, we’re going to be switching gears and we’re going to be adding a guest to talk about pets who needed to be saved. And we’ll still be taking your phone calls, not so much about pet diagnoses but rather about your experience with rescued animals. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. And we will return to These Days in just a few moments here on KPBS.

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