P.J. the beagle might have died if Beverly Molak of Amherst, NY didn't visit her vet twice a year. Six months earlier, the 11-year old pooch checked out just fine.
P.J. was losing a little hair, and acting sluggish but Molak just chalked it up to old age. Most people might not see a vet for these seemingly minor issues, Molak included. But it happened to be time for P.J.'s bi-annual exam. Veterinarian, Dr. Teresa Ruth of Grand Island, NY diagnosed P.J. with Cushing's Disease, caused by an excess production of hormones, particularly corticosteroids or cortisol.
P.J. was immediately put on medication. Still, only weeks later, she crashed, becoming exceedingly ill. Molak recalls, "They were able to save P.J.'s life because they knew exactly what they were dealing with."
Ruth confirms, "If Cushing's Disease had not just been identified, I'm not sure if we could have saved him." Today, just over two years later, Molak says, "P.J.'s coat is as healthy as dogs' much younger, and on Monday mornings she follows me around like, ‘mom, I want my pill.' Seeing the vet twice a year has given P.J. more than two additional years of quality life."
It's no surprise her two other dogs, a four-year old collie/shepherd mix, named Griffin, and Chili dog, a 6-year old Chihuahua also see the vet twice a year.
October is National Pet Wellness Month; an initiative of Fort Dodge Animal Health, an Overland Park, KS based pharmaceutical company and the American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, IL. The campaign encourages pet owners to see their vet biannually.
Ruth says she hopes all pet owners visit their vet at least once a year, but twice is truly better. About half her clients visit twice annually. However, the sad truth is that too many pet owners only see a vet when their pet seems sick, and might go several years between visits. As a result, their pets lose out.
Ruth adds that P.J.'s story isn't as unusual. Twice a year visits really may save lives. Chicago feline veterinarian Dr. Michele Gaspar agrees. "Sometimes the signs of illness are very subtle or even non existent, it's impossible for the owners to know what's going on. But, of course, it's impossible to diagnose a pet we can't see."
Dogs and cats age faster than people, which is why it's exceedingly important for at least senior pets, in particular, to visit the vet twice a year. A ten-year old great Dane ages about ten times as fast as a person. Therefore, taking your ten year old great Dane to the vet once a year – which seems acceptable to most, is like taking your 80-year old mother to see a doctor once every ten years.
However, it's not only senior pets that benefit from biannual vet checks. Kristy Le of Manhattan Beach, CA lost her little Yorkshire terrier, Mini, when she was only five years old. "We did the best we could, and really loved our dog," says Le. "We learned the hard way that twice a year exams aren't only for sick dogs. The idea is to prevent illness, and not wait until a pet gets really sick. And blood work isn't only for a pre-surgical work up, it's important for all pets."
Because she had seen the vet only once annually and never had base line blood work, Le had no way to know her relatively young dog had advancing liver disease until it was too late.
In July, Le started a business selling t-shirts (for dogs) to raise money for the Poochtee Love Foundation (www.poochtee.com), ultimately proceeds will fund blood work for families unable to afford it.
There's no question, quality veterinary care doesn't come cheap once a year, naturally twice a year is more expensive – vets don't offer two-fer deals. "In truth, I save my clients money all the time with twice a year exams," maintains Gaspar. "Just as in human medicine catching diseases early does matter, likely minimizing the required treatment. In cats, one example is just determining a cats' blood pressure is elevated, which might be a sign of impending kidney disease. Or if we're given the opportunity, we can now intervene to pick up on hyperthyroidism early, thereby minimizing or even forestalling changes to the heart, kidneys and blood pressure."
Donna Suarez brings in her six cats to see Gaspar twice a year. Buster, who is 15, basically seemed just fine. Well, that's until Gaspar began to probe. It turns out Buster was drinking and also eating just a little more than usual. Of course, most pet owners wouldn't even think a healthy appetite in an elderly cat may be a clue for disease. When Gaspar weighed Buster, he had lost just a little weight. Further testing revealed Buster is now diabetic. "If it wasn't for that second visit (in a year), I guess we would have learned he was diabetic only after he got really sick," says Suarez. "Instead, we caught it early, and Buster never had to suffer."
Of course, catching diabetes or cancer early on may save a pet's life. Still, there's something to be said for using proactive preventative care to head off a disease process that isn't life threatening, such as arthritis. Gaspar says, "The owner may think, ‘well my older cat just doesn't want to jump up on that counter because he's old, or maybe that finally after 15 years he's suddenly caught on to my training to keep him off the counter.' Instead, I determine the cat has arthritis. It's not life and death, but anyone with arthritis can tell you about the pain. If I can alleviate that pain – it matters. These are members of our family. We don't want them to suffer."
Gaspar adds, "I know clients are strapped for time and money, but I really believe a twice annual visit is a benefit for them in the long-term, and I know it's best for their pets."
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