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Pet health: Why regular veterinary visits matter

Today’s technology allows veterinarians to work what sometimes seems like magic. The reality, however, is that even the most brilliant veterinarian at a hospital accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), who is using the most up-to-date, cutting-edge medicine can’t detect problems in pets he or she is not seeing.  

No doubt most pet owners care; research indicates the overwhelming majority consider their pets members of the family. Still, veterinary visits have been on the decline.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), dog visits to the vet have slipped 21 percent since 2001 and cats have taken a free fall, dropping 30 percent. As a result, at a time when veterinary medicine is better than ever, our pets are getting sick with often-preventable diseases.

In response to what AVMA President Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA called a “crisis,” AAHA and AVMA partnered in 2011 with dozens of veterinary industry groups to create what ultimately became known as the Partners for Healthy Pets.

The Partners for Healthy Pets aims to increase regular, preventive veterinary visits and improve the health of the nation’s pets.

Why the decline in veterinary visits?

The economy. When finances are tight, going to the veterinarian for a checkup with a seemingly healthy pet is an understandably tough sell. Although, catching illness early can save pet owners dollars in the long term. Still, the decline in veterinary visits began before the economic downturn, and it continues despite the road to economic recovery.

Dr. Google. In an effort to save time and money, pet owners are seeking advice online. Internet pet sites enjoy tons of traffic, and 39 percent of pet owners will go there before speaking with their veterinarians, but websites can’t reach out from computers to hear pets’ heartbeats or check blood work.

One example of how online advice might fail: Think about a happy family dog that begins to growl when he’s being petted. The response online may be all sorts of behavioral guidance, but what if the dog is growling because of pain caused by an ear infection or arthritis?

Pet owner beliefs. According to a recent study, about 30 percent of pet owners don’t understand that their pets are more likely to get sick if they don’t visit a veterinarian at least annually. Early detection matters, and may be life-saving, but if pet owners don’t believe that, they won’t be as likely to make regular veterinary visits a priority.

A part of the problem is how the veterinary profession has historically marketed itself. DeHaven notes that, in the past, veterinarians used vaccine boosters to encourage veterinary visits, sending vaccine reminder post cards in the mail. The physical exam—which is the real value—was underplayed, often not even mentioned. So today, with vaccines required less frequently, pet owners often see no need to visit the veterinarian until a pet becomes sick or injured.

Sticker shock. Just over half of pet owners say the price of a visit to the veterinarian is often higher than expected. Others feel veterinarians focus on making money and will push unnecessary vaccines or procedures.

Relative to other health-care costs, veterinary medicine remains a huge bargain. Many medical procedures are actually identical, whether performed on people, dogs, or cats, yet the cost may be 50 times more for the human procedure.

Pet insurance can be the economic safety net many pet owners are looking for.

Feline resistance. Cats account for 55 percent of the nation’s pets, yet they make up only 41 percent of the patients at small animal veterinary hospitals.

In response, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has created a certification process for veterinary practices to be designated as Cat Friendly. These Cat Friendly practices have taken definitive steps to help cats and cat owners feel more comfortable while visiting the veterinarian.

While pet owners may know their pets best, they need the help of veterinary professionals to see what’s truly going on with the health of their pets. Even something as simple as a middle-age cat gaining or losing a few pounds can be significant. This is just one example of many health care issues your veterinarian can detect before you may even realize there is a problem.

Our pets age faster than we do. An animal skipping one annual veterinary visit is similar to a human not visiting the doctor for more than 5 years.

Look at it this way: A preventive checkup is as essential as food and love.

Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, DABVP (C/F), CEO of AAHA says, “It’s really very simple: If we can get people to see veterinarians once or twice a year pets would be healthier and live longer, and overall pet owners could actually save money.”

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant, author of a syndicated newspaper column (Tribune Content Agency), and the host of two national radio shows, including Steve Dale’s Pet World on WGN radio in Chicago, Ill. 


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