Gotta Get those Annual Exams

Not to stress anyone out, but they could save your pet's life

Published: February 16, 2015

A few weeks ago I learned I have a wee bit of breast cancer. It was caught incredibly early: Stage 0, noninvasive, and non-life threatening.

How do I know I'm bouncing around with a malignancy the size of one half of one BB? Because I always have a preventive screening as part of my annual physical. While I can't say it has saved my life - let's keep the drama to a minimum, for heaven's sake - I know it is far easier to beat back the beast of any disease when it's still a mewling newborn and immature in the ways of attempting to kill its host.

Ditto for our beloved animals - dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, narwhals, and birds. Catch it early, save money, save pain, save a life - and save yourself a broken heart.

Animals can’t say “Hey, Doc, this thing over my elbow has been bugging me,” or “My mouth hurts when I eat my kibble," so it’s important to have your animals checked out by someone who is trained to find those early sprouts of disease.

For an annual examination, work with a veterinarian who does a complete physical examination and doesn't just whap in a quick vaccine. If your animal doesn't get the vet's hands all over him, you won’t get your money’s worth, so that quickie shot clinic might not be a great investment even if it seems cheap at the time.

Prey animals that they are, cats hide pain well, much better than most dogs. Sneaky, those felines, as evolution taught them to be sneaky to save their lives from the wandering eye of a predator looking for fast food. While some dogs are stoic about pain or illness , most are like your basic husband, who whinily takes to bed with a fever of 100.00F, a box of tissues and the TV remote. (Sorry, guys. Just my experience.)

Dental disease apparently occurs while you're not looking ("His teeth were fine when I got him five years ago"). It's not just bad breath that we should be concerned about, either, although dog breath can be a real drag for friends who like to plant loud kisses on dog heads. Dental disease can be over-the-top painful and have far-reaching health consequences. Even when I pry open the reluctant jaws of my tiny lion or my dog, whose mouth is open while she is awake unless I want to look at her teeth, I can't see what my veterinarian sees because I don't have a clue what I'm looking for. Of course I know that scary red blotches translate to "Houston, we have a problem," but I don't know what early stages look like. By the time dental disease takes such root that even I can see it, a mouth may be full of infection, inflammation, and a hunk 'o burning pain. Plus, you could be throwing food away because it hurts too much to eat it.

Sometimes, weight loss is the only warning you will see of cancer, and sometimes you may not even see that. For cats, even a loss of four ounces can be a concern. By the time my last cat went in for exploratory surgery to see what was up, her kidneys were so full of cancer that we euthanized her on the table. She'd lost about a third of her body weight in six weeks.

Older pets are susceptible to many diseases that loiter around, waiting to strike at an opportunity to infect: heart disease, metabolic stuff, herpes, high blood pressure, and so on. It's a lot easier to regulate a diabetic pet before the blood glucose is off the map. Regular bloodwork is a big deal! It can check for anemia, infection, and function of the immune system, liver, and kidneys. Blood tests also check for thyroid levels, which is particularly important if your dog is overweight or your cat is newly skinny. Your vet may decide that it would be a good idea to get a urine sample from your pet to help rule out kidney or bladder problems.

A heartworm test is in order if you live in an area in which this snotty little parasite takes up residence. Prevention costs far, far less than treatment. That treatment is not only expensive, but can be expensive and potentially fatal. If you're looking to save money, keep your pet on preventive and get a blood test to check for heartworm when your veterinarian recommends it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a stitch in time really does saves nine. The early bird catches the worm. Procrastination is the thief of time. Catch that mewling beast of a disease when it's premature, so that it doesn't cost much to treat, doesn't cause preventable pain to your beloved, and just may save your animal's life.

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