It's only natural to stop and take stock of your own health at the start of the new year. Here's why — and how — to do the same for your pets. There's certainly no right or wrong time to reassess the care your pet needs to stay heathy and happy. But the beginning of the year — after the hustle and bustle of the holidays, when you're making resolutions to stick to good habits — is an opportune time to give your pet's well-being the attention it needs, too. We've put together a list of the main tasks to keep in mind.
1. Stay current on shots
Vaccines are a basic necessity, of course, but which ones — and how many — your pet needs change over her lifetime. "Talk to your vet about putting her on the right schedule, based on age, overall health, location, and lifestyle," says Alexis Freifeld, associate veterinarian at Vida Veterinary Care, in Denver. Then keep records of all your pets' shots (along with dates of birth and other relevant information) on separate index cards or on your smartphone, using notes or an app like Help2Pet, for quick reference.
Be aware that all dogs and, in many states, cats (even those that never go outside) are required to have rabies vaccines. The distemper combination, which includes parvovirus and adenovirus (hepatitis) for dogs, and rhinotracheitis and calicivirus for cats, is required in some states as well and is highly recommended by most vets. "Once your kitty or puppy has been appropriately vaccinated in the first year, she needs to get booster shots only every three years thereafter, in most cases," says Freifeld.
There are also secondary annual vaccines that vary by location and your particular situation. "I encourage most of my clients to get their dogs vaccinated against bordetella, since that cross-protects against other respiratory diseases," says Freifeld. "It's especially important for those that frequent dog runs or day-care centers." The vaccine won't prevent 100 percent of these diseases, but it will decrease the risk and severity of symptoms, much as the flu shot does for humans. If your pooch frequently drinks or splashes around in stagnant water, you might also want to consider the vaccine for leptospirosis, a bacterial infection.
Secondary-vaccine options for cats include chlamydophila (pneumonia) and leukemia, which is especially important for any feline that is allowed outdoors or is exposed to other cats that are.
If your pet has a microchip (which allows anyone who finds your lost animal to easily identify her for return with a quick scan at a vet office or shelter), use a vaccination appointment as a reminder to make sure it's functioning properly. "Have your vet scan it once a year," says Freifeld.
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2. Stock up on meds
Now is also a good time to replenish your supply of monthly preventive medications, since, contrary to popular opinion, they're essential all year long, not just during the warmer months. Heartworm disease, for instance, has been reported in all 50 states, even in places where it was once considered nonexistent, according to the American Heartworm Society. And while it's easy to prevent, it's costly and difficult to cure — so keeping up with the regular treatments is key.
Ideally, you should buy heartworm medicine directly from your vet. "We carry many products, because each differs in the secondary protection it offers," says Freifeld. (For example, most but not all oral and topical heartworm-protection drugs also protect against roundworm and hookworm.) "And every cat and dog has different needs depending on lifestyle. It's very individualized."
The same goes for protecting against flea- and tick-borne illnesses, though in this case your location is a variable. "There are some areas where it's not as much of a concern," says Freifeld. But if you live in a tick-prone area, your vet can recommend the best preventive treatment based on your pet's weight and your preference for oral or topical delivery.
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3. Get into good grooming habits
This includes clipping your pets' nails monthly and bathing them as needed. But you don’t have to shell out bucks for a professional — doing it yourself is a great bonding opportunity, says Honor S. Blume, owner of BowMeow Regency, a boarding, grooming, and training business in Sheffield, Massachusetts. It helps to start when they're young. "Make brushing your cat or dog a weekly event, using treats to make the process more enjoyable," she says. "Go in the same direction that their hair grows." She notes that even short-haired animals' coats need regular maintenance to help spread the oils that keep them shiny; you should also always use conditioner for these breeds after shampooing, since their skin can be especially dry.
You can clean your cat's or dog's ears yourself, preferably at least once a month, and more often if you have a dog that is an avid swimmer or is prone to ear infections. Squirt a generous amount of a pet ear-cleaning solution, such as Zymox Ear Cleanser ($8 for 4 oz., chewy.com) in one ear, then gently massage around the base of the ear, on the outside. Stand back and let your pet shake her head — she will! — to help bring up any softened wax or dirt from the ear canal. Repeat with the other ear, then wipe away the wax and any excess solution with a clean cotton ball or pad. (Never use cotton swabs, like Q-tips.) For regular weekly cleaning, gently wipe over the canal and inside the flap with an ear-cleaning pad, such as Doctors Foster and Smith Ear Clens (from $7, drsfostersmith.com).
"But only clean the visible part of the ear, and avoid pushing wax down into the canal," Blume says. Call your vet if you notice excessive wax or odor, or if your pet seems to be tilting her head, shaking it frequently, or scratching her ears a lot; these could be symptoms of an ear infection.
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4. Keep an eye out
Make a point of thoroughly examining your cat or dog each month. Look for any unusual lumps on her face and body, skin sores, a dull or scaly coat, or discharge from her nose, ears, or eyes, along with unexpected weight loss or gain or, in cats, a decrease in grooming habits.
Two other issues to watch for: Excessive drooling and very bad breath in both dogs and cats. You shouldn't ignore either symptom, since it may indicate periodontal disease, which, as in humans, can affect overall health. Other red flags for this condition in dogs include dropping food while chewing, chewing on only one side, and eating only soft food instead of hard kibble. And if your cat is hiding or seems more needy (or vocal) than usual, she may not be feeling well. Should you spot any of these warning signs, call your vet. "Pets sometimes wait until they're really sick before they show any signs of illness, so pay attention," says Freifeld. "It's much easier for us to handle issues in the early stages."
Looking for more expert advice on pet health? Martha has a few personal pointers: