A little knowledge and a few proactive measures can help prevent—or at least minimize—some of the most common medical conditions in cats and dogs. Emmy Pointer, a veterinarian at the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital of the ASPCA, in New York City, and Ann E. Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center, in New York City, share simple steps pet owners can take to reduce the strain and pain these conditions cause our four-legged friends.
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What it is: As in humans, food particles and bacteria accumulate on and between an animal’s teeth and gum line over time. The progressive buildup of food particles and bacteria form plaque and can lead to gingivitis and infections, causing discomfort and possible loss of teeth.
Whom it affects: Cats and dogs.
Possible symptoms: If your pet’s breath is so bad it has you turning down his kisses, there could be an underlying dental problem. Frequent drooling, reluctance to eat, pawing at the mouth, and traces of blood on chew toys should also raise a red flag.
Treatment: The good news is that a good cleaning, dental X-rays, extraction of infected teeth, and antibiotics can relieve most signs of dental disease. The bad news is that treatment can cost thousands of dollars.
Prevention: It’s important to brush your pet’s teeth daily. All you need is a washcloth or a baby toothbrush and pet toothpaste. (Warning: The fluoride in human toothpaste can be harmful.) Consult this list of veterinarian-approved oral-hygiene products recommended by the Veterinary Oral Health Council for more information.
In addition to at-home cleanings, keep potential dental problems at bay by taking your pet for annual checkups. Your cat or dog will need general anesthesia for routine cleanings, but the process is much easier and less expensive than a dental emergency.
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What it is: A blockage in the urethra, which prevents your pet from relieving himself.
Whom it affects: Dogs and cats, and especially male cats.
Possible symptoms: Consult a veterinarian if your cat is going in and out of the litter box, straining to use the litter box, crying or vocalizing in the box, urinating outside the box, or has blood in his urine. What may look like constipation could be a urinary-tract obstruction.
Treatment: If a blockage is left untreated, toxins normally released in the urine can build up in the animal’s body and cause fatal poisoning and kidney failure, so the pet must see a veterinarian immediately. The animal will be anesthetized, and a urinary catheter will be put in place to relieve the obstruction. After two to three nights, the pet can return home.
Prevention: A stress-free environment and a diet that increases water consumption, which encourages more frequent urination, may help keep urinary problems at bay. For multiple-cat families, each cat should have his or her own litter box, and there should be one extra box.
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What it is: The uterus in a female pet becomes infected.
Who it affects: Adult cats and more often dogs.
Possible symptoms: Pets suffering from an infection may have vaginal discharge and an insatiable thirst, and as a result they may have to be let out more often. As the illness progresses, your pet may have a loss of appetite and vomit frequently.
Treatment: Your veterinarian will surgically remove the animal’s ovaries and uterus and prescribe antibiotics to prevent subsequent infection.
Prevention: Because a spayed dog or cat has her uterus removed, she cannot develop the disease.
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Gastrointestinal Foreign Body
What it is: An inedible object, such as a fruit pit or a toy, becomes lodged in some portion of the stomach or intestines and disrupts digestion.
Whom it affects: Cats and dogs.
Possible symptoms: If your pet got hold of something and swallowed it, he’ll probably have trouble keeping food down. Your pet may vomit, may refuse to eat, and could become lethargic.
Treatment: If a foreign body is suspected, a veterinarian will probably take X-rays or perform a sonogram to confirm that a foreign object has been ingested. If the foreign object is in the stomach and easy to grab, it can sometimes be removed with an endoscopy. But many cases require surgery.
Prevention: The best way avoid the vet’s office is to be cautious about what’s lying around the house and to keep an eye on animals while they play. Cats are often attracted to linear foreign objects, like string and hair ties, while dogs may accidently swallow toys and harmful food items, such as corncobs, fruit pits, and bones.
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What it is: The cool breeze is pleasant, but that open window (or terrace or fire escape) can pose a real threat to pets, and cats in particular. When enjoying the balmy weather, they can fall off unscreened window sills and be seriously injured.
Whom it affects: Cats primarily.
Possible effects: Falls can result in a broken jaw and teeth, broken limbs, punctured and bruised lungs, a ruptured bladder, and even death.
Treatment: Immediate medical attention is crucial. There is a 90 percent survival rate for cats who receive prompt and proper care, which may include surgery to fix internal injuries and broken bones.
Prevention: Install snug and sturdy screens on all windows, and note that window guards don’t always provide adequate protection. Cats can easily slip through the cracks. Play it safe and keep your cat off any high outdoor space, especially without supervision.
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What it is: Excess body weight, as with humans, can have serious and long-term effects on a pet’s health, including orthopedic problems, like joint pain.
Whom it affects: Cats and dogs. Certain breeds of dogs, such as Labradors, are especially prone to obesity.
Things to look for: You should be able to feel, but not see, the backbone and the ribs of a healthy animal. (If you see the backbone and the ribs, the animal might be underweight.) Your pet should also appear wider through the chest than the abdomen when looked at from above. When observed from the side, the chest should be deeper than the abdomen.
Treatment: Talk to your vet about caloric requirements and food that is appropriate for the animal’s lifestyle, age, and body condition. Adopt a new feeding plan and increase exercise.
Prevention: Consider your pet’s diet as important as your own. Be sure he gets plenty of exercise and eats healthy, balanced meals. Don’t dole out snacks or table food.
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What it is: A parasitic infection transmitted through a mosquito bite. Adult worms lodge in the lung’s pulmonary arteries and sometimes chambers of the heart.
Whom it affects: Dogs and, less commonly, cats.
Possible symptoms: Pets are often asymptomatic in the early stages of infection. If the disease is left untreated, dogs can develop a mild, persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue, a reduced appetite, and weight loss. Cats may experience vomiting, signs mimicking asthma, and even death.
Treatment: Curing heartworm in a dog is a complicated and expensive process, in which activity is restricted for up to two months and a series of three injections is administered by a veterinarian. Unfortunately there is no approved treatment for cats.
Prevention: Heartworm prevention is safe, easy, and inexpensive. Pet owners can give animals a monthly tablet, and there is a topical liquid treatment for cats that is very effective when administered properly. (Note: It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for administration.)
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Fleas and Ticks
What it is: These tiny insects cause major itching and discomfort that may give your pet skin problems, including hair loss. But the serious problem is the infectious diseases the insects carry and can pass to pet and humans.
Whom it affects: Cats and dogs.
Possible symptoms: If your pet has fleas, she may be scratching more than usual or biting at her coat. Ticks, on the other hand, attach themselves to the animal’s skin, where they suck blood. Always check dogs and cats after playing outside, particularly in warmer temperatures and in wooded, rural environments.
Treatment: Although problems caused by fleas and ticks vary in severity, both can typically be treated with topical products and treating or replacing carpets, bedding, and other surfaces your pet comes into contact with. If you do spot a tick on your pet, carefully remove it with tweezers while wearing gloves, and consult your veterinarian to rule out potentially dangerous infections.
Prevention: No flea or tick product is 100 percent preventative, but you can proactively treat your pet with a monthly flea-and-tick medication that prevents infestations. Keep grass, hedges, and underbrush on your property trimmed, and always check your pet’s skin and coat after playing outdoors to help minimize the chance of a tick infestation.
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What it is: Parvovirus, one of the most common preventable infectious diseases in dogs, is a virus spread from animal to animal through contact with fecal matter.
Who it affects: Dogs, especially puppies that have not been vaccinated.
Possible symptoms: If Spot has been exposed to the virus, he may experience vomiting and bloody diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration. The virus can also cause a diminished white-blood-cell count, which increases the risk of infection.
Treatment: A dog who has contracted parvovirus will probably have to be hospitalized. There he will be given medicine to help the symptoms subside and an IV to rehydrate and replace lost fluids. A veterinarian will also prescribe antibiotics to prevent a secondary infection and combat bacterial infections.
Prevention: A simple, inexpensive vaccine will help protect a pup from contracting parvovirus. Puppies should be vaccinated every three to four weeks until they are 14 to 16 weeks old. Adult dogs need a booster shot at one year and every three years after that.
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What it is: A bacterial infection spread through contact with infected animal urine.
Whom it affects: Dogs.
Possible symptoms: Your dog may be lapping up water and running to the door to be let out at an alarming rate. Subsequent diarrhea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and yellowing of the skin may indicate an escalating infection in the liver.
Treatment: A veterinarian may need to hospitalize your pet to administer antibiotics and replace fluids through an IV, and in extreme cases through dialysis.
Prevention: There is a vaccination for leptospirosis, but it is not part of the list of core vaccinations recommended for all dogs. Talk to your veterinarian about getting the vaccine for your pet, regardless of whether he lives in an urban, suburban, or rural environment.