10 things you need to know about the AAHA/AVMA Preventive Healthcare Guidelines
Most physicians, dentists, and veterinarians agree that regular checkups are vital in keeping clients healthy. After all, early detection and treatment of disease can mean the difference between comfort and pain—even life and death. Yet, too many pet owners aren’t concerned with preventive care; instead, they only take their cat or dog to the animal hospital when they are visibly sick or overdue for a vaccination.
That’s why AAHA and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) commissioned a task force to create preventive healthcare guidelines for dogs and cats. There’s truth to the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” since annual veterinary exams can catch manageable conditions like diabetes and dental disease, prevent issues with internal and external parasites, and slow the progression of common problems like osteoarthritis and kidney disease. Preventive healthcare enables veterinarians to provide high-quality care and ultimately promote a long, rewarding relationship between you and your pet.
Top 10 things you need to know about these guidelines
- Get your dog or cat a veterinary checkup at least once a year. It’s the key to helping them live as long as possible. Don’t assume an indoor cat doesn’t need an annual exam or that a seemingly healthy pet can sit a year out—animals can be very good at hiding pain and disease. Additionally, since time seems to speed up in our aging senior dogs and cats, they benefit from exams every six months to help keep pep in their step.
- Start a dialogue with your veterinarian. Use the annual exam as a chance to discuss your pet’s wellbeing. Talk about their lifestyle—hunter or couch potato? How much time is spent indoors versus outdoors? Do they interact with other pets or wildlife? Your veterinarian will also tailor a preventive care plan based on your pet’s life stage—there’s a big difference in how to care for a puppy or kitten versus an adult or a senior, for instance.
- Bring up any behavior issues. Some people save questions about behavior for trainers (or, unfortunately, “Dr. Google”), but your veterinarian can help determine if there is an underlying medical cause. They can also offer solutions you might not have considered for common issues like inappropriate urination, aggression, or separation anxiety.
- Test annually for dangerous diseases. Every dog and cat should have an annual test for heartworm and internal parasites (the dreaded worms!), and cats should be tested at least once for feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus, which can shorten their lifespans and be transmitted to other cats. Parasite infections can cause vomiting and diarrhea and be transmitted to humans. In older pets, your veterinarian may recommend monitoring organ function and overall health with blood and urine testing, blood pressure monitoring, radiographs (X-rays), and ultrasound.
- Watch their weight. Pet obesity is reaching epidemic proportions—an estimated one out of every two pets is overweight or obese1. Being a fat cat or plump pup can have disastrous health effects, such as increasing the risk of diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, cancer, and arthritis. A slight adjustment to your pet’s diet or exercise regimen can make a huge difference, so ask your veterinarian for your pet’s target weight.
- Keep those whites pearly. By the time they turn three years old, 70%–80% of dogs and cats have signs of dental disease.2 Left untreated, dental problems can cause pain, infection, and inflammation, and take years off your pet’s life. So, smile when your veterinarian checks your dog or cat’s teeth and gums—it’s a vital part of their care.
- Battle the bloodsuckers. Every dog and cat should receive year-round parasite control to prevent against heartworms, intestinal parasites, fleas, and when appropriate, ticks. Even if your pet spends most of his time indoors, he can still pick up diseases from these sneaky pests that can fly, crawl, or hitchhike on you to get inside your house. These bugs spread serious (even fatal, in the case of heartworms) diseases that are easily preventable with monthly medications.
- Tailor vaccination protocols to your pet. While some vaccines, like rabies, are required by law because of the risk to humans, others may be necessary for your pet’s lifestyle. In some scenarios, a titer to previous vaccines can be measured to help decide if a booster vaccination is necessary. Your veterinarian will know what’s best for your pet.
- Check the chip. Every dog and cat should be microchipped—even indoor cats and fenced-in dogs can escape and get lost. Make sure your contact information is current with the microchip manufacturer, and ask your veterinarian during your pet’s annual exam to “check the chip” by scanning it to make sure it is still reading properly.
- Discuss when to spay or neuter. Spaying and neutering provides several health and behavior benefits. If it hasn’t already been done, talk to your veterinarian about the best time to perform this procedure. It could save your pet’s life by decreasing the risk of life-threatening diseases like pyometra (a uterine infection) and mammary, uterine, and testicular cancer. Plus, it will prevent unwanted litters of puppies and kittens from entering animal shelters.
What to ask your veterinarian about your pet’s preventive care
- How is my pet’s weight? What should my pet’s ideal weight be?
- Is there anything special I should do to help my pet in his current life stage?
- How do my pet’s teeth and gums look?
- I’ve noticed some unusual behavior in my pet. What can I do about it?
- What’s the best way to protect my pet from parasites year round?
- What vaccinations do you recommend to keep my pet healthy?
- Would a titer test be an appropriate way to assess my pet’s immunity to a specific disease?
- Can you please scan my pet’s microchip to make sure it’s still reading properly? Is it written in his medical record?
- Is it safe to spay/neuter my pet now?
- Is there anything else you suggest I do to help keep my pet healthy and happy?
Grove, TK. 1985. “Periodontal disease.” In: Harvey C, ed. Veterinary Dentistry. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: WB Saunders. 59–78.
Harvey, C. E., P. P. Emily. 1993. Small Animal Dentistry. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Year Book. 89–144.
Hennet, P. R., C. E. Harvey. 1992. “Natural development of periodontal disease in the dog: a review of clinical, anatomical and histological features.” Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, 9 (3):13–19.
Harvey, C. E., F. S. Shofer, L. Laster. 1994. “Association of age and body weight with periodontal disease in North American dogs.” Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, 11 (3):94–105