How to Control the Costs of Pet Health Care

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Pet owners can prevent many forms of illness—and their associated costs—through simple preventive measures.

After performing a series of tests, a veterinarian determines that your family cat has severe kidney disease. The cat will die within six months without immediate treatment, the veterinarian explains. One of the treatments he suggests is a kidney transplant, a procedure once available only to human patients.

By 1999, almost every medical treatment available to humans was also available to pets. Veterinarians had the tools and the training to perform complicated procedures and surgeries, such as cardiovascular surgery, organ transplant, and joint replacement.

They also had a wide array of drugs, including chemotherapy, to treat disease, and improved methods to diagnose illness. For example, veterinarians had access to the same sophisticated imaging devices as those found in hospitals.

These advances in veterinary care come at a price, however. Pet owners spent more than $10 billion annually on health care for their pets in 1998, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). A large portion of that money was spent on treating serious illness and emergency care.

In 1998, dog owners spent an average of $130 per dog on veterinary care, according to the AVMA. Cat owners spent about $80 per pet. But costs can skyrocket if a pet is treated for a serious medical condition.

For example, a kidney transplant for a cat in 1999 cost between $3,500 and $4,500, according to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital of the University of California, Davis. The cat would also need to be given drugs for the rest of its life to ensure that the new kidney functioned properly. These drugs cost between $30 and $60 per month.

Pet owners can prevent many forms of illness—and their associated costs—through simple preventive measures, such as taking their pets to veterinarians for routine checkups and vaccinations and providing a healthy diet and regular exercise.

The Cost of Treatment of Pets

Pets are susceptible to many of the same illnesses as humans. For example, cancer accounts for almost half the deaths of cats and dogs over ten years of age. Dogs, in fact, get cancer at approximately the same rate as humans. Two of the most deadly cancers in dogs and cats are breast and bone cancer. Pets rarely develop lung and colon cancer, which are associated with such risk factors as smoking and a low-fibre diet.

Skin tumours are a common condition in older dogs and a somewhat less common condition in cats. These tumours, which appear as unusual lumps or sores under the animal’s coat, are often benign (not dangerous) in dogs. Cats, however, are at greater risk of malignant (threatening to health) tumours.

Cancers produce varied symptoms depending upon the type of tumour. In general, appetite loss, weight loss, fatigue, behaviour changes, breathing difficulty, or any persistent change in normal body habits might be symptoms of cancer, according to the AVMA. Lameness in older, large-breed dogs may be a symptom of bone cancer.

Medical treatments for dogs and cats with cancer vary depending on the type and severity of cancer. By the late 1990s, chemotherapy had become a widely available cancer treatment for pets. Chemotherapy is the treatment of disease through the use of medications that destroy malignant cells.

Chemotherapy often causes severe side effects in humans. Animals suffer fewer side effects than humans, according to the AVMA. Chemotherapy can be an expensive treatment. Costs range from $50 to $4,000 or more depending on the type of drug, the animal’s size, and the number of treatments.

Other cancer treatments available to dogs and cats include surgery, radiotherapy (the use of radiation to destroy cancer cells), and cryosurgery (the freezing of a tumour). These treatments can cost several hundred dollars, according to the AVMA.

Heart Disease: a Growing Problem in Pets

Cardiovascular disease is a growing problem among pets, and among dogs in particular. The increase in heart problems can be attributed to longer life span and diets that include more fatty table scraps, according to the AVMA.

Cardiovascular disease is a growing problem among pets, and among dogs in particular. The increase in heart problems can be attributed to longer life span and diets that include more fatty table scraps, according to the AVMA.

Heart valve problems are the most common cause of heart disease in dogs. This condition occurs when heart valves thicken and leak blood. Another common heart condition in pets is myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. This may result from one of several infections that affect the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease, the major cause of heart disease in humans, is not common in pets.

Cats and dogs with heart disease may experience labored breathing, frequent coughing, fainting, and abdominal swelling. Veterinarians may treat heart disease with drugs or surgery.

In some cases, a veterinarian may recommend a pacemaker, an electronic device that produces an electrical current to stimulate the heart muscle’s regular contractions. The pacemaker’s generator and batteries are placed under the skin, and wires are passed to the heart. In 1998, approximately 200 animals in the United States received pacemakers. This procedure can cost as much as $2,500, but the use of recycled pacemakers can reduce that cost.

Most Common Illnesses in Pets

Diabetes is another condition common in dogs and cats. Diabetes is a disorder in which the body cannot use sugars and starches in a normal way. A key element in the proper use of sugar and starches is the hormone insulin, which is secreted by cells within the pancreas.

Diabetes results from either a lack of insulin or an inability of the body to use the insulin properly. In pets, as in humans, one cause of diabetes is poor diet. Symptoms of diabetes include increased frequency of urination and persistent thirst, accompanied by increased appetite.

In some cases, diabetes can be controlled through diet alone. In more severe cases, however, a veterinarian might recommend daily insulin injections. The cost of this medication ranges from $500 to $1,000 per year, according to the AVMA.

Dogs are more prone to bone and joint disorders than cats. For example, hip dysplasia (abnormal development of the hip) is a genetic disorder that commonly affects dogs. Dogs with this condition often develop arthritis and related joint pain as they age. The condition mainly affects large-breed dogs. In severe cases, dogs with hip dysplasia may be lame by age 2. In most cases, however, a dog will not experience symptoms until age six or older.

This condition can be treated only by surgery. Veterinarians can improve the hip joints in young dogs by changing the shape of the thighbone or pelvis. Another option for dogs is hip-replacement surgery. In this procedure, the joint is replaced with a stainless steel ball-and-socket joint. In 1999, hip- replacement surgery cost approximately $3,000, according to the AVMA.

Cats are particularly susceptible to infections of the urinary tract. Feline urological syndrome (FUS), a common ailment among cats, is a group of disorders that can result in uremia, a life-threatening accumulation of toxic wastes in the kidney and bloodstream. Infections of the bladder and blockage of the urethra (the tube that conducts urine out of the body from the bladder) are the most common FUS disorders. Veterinarians treat these infections with medications, which costs approximately $50, according to the AVMA.

Trauma and Emergency Care For Pets

Every year, thousands of pets are struck by automobiles, poisoned by pesticides, or attacked by sick or unfriendly animals. These conditions are often treated in an emergency room. Visits to an emergency room start at $50 or more, with costs mounting depending on the treatment, according to the AVMA.

Poisoning is one of the most common reasons owners seek emergency care for their pets. Many substances in the home are toxic to animals. Animals may be attracted to certain poisons because they smell or taste good. For example, dogs are particularly attracted to antifreeze, which tastes sweet. Certain houseplants, such as ivy and philodendron, are poisonous to cats.

Choking is another common emergency among pets. Bones in food—particularly chicken and fish—that lodge in a pet’s throat are most often the cause of choking—treatments for a choking emergency range from manual retrieval of the bone to surgery.

Bloat is a life-threatening condition that lands hundreds of dogs in an emergency room every year. Bloat is a twist or kink in an intestine that can become fatal within hours—or even minutes—of the first symptoms’ appearance. It typically occurs in large dogs that have swallowed an excessive amount of water or exercised strenuously after a meal. Symptoms include a distended (swollen) abdomen, belching, dry heaves, increased salivation, restlessness, and whimpering. The only treatment for bloat is emergency abdominal surgery.

Alternative Therapies for Pets

In addition to conventional treatments, pet health-care specialists in 1999 frequently turned to alternative methods to treat disease and injury. For example, many veterinarians regard acupuncture as an integral part of veterinary medicine. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that uses tiny needles inserted into the skin at specific places on the body in order to relieve pain and disease.

In addition to conventional treatments, pet health-care specialists in 1999 frequently turned to alternative methods to treat disease and injury. For example, many veterinarians regard acupuncture as an integral part of veterinary medicine. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that uses tiny needles inserted into the skin at specific places on the body in order to relieve pain and disease.

Researchers have determined that acupuncture somehow boosts the production of chemicals that lower the brain’s ability to perceive pain. Veterinarians use acupuncture to relieve pain in pets with chronic arthritis, for example. Another use of acupuncture is in post-operative recovery. Cost ranges from about $45 to $65 per session.

Health Insurance of Pets

In response to the growing cost of pet health care, many insurance companies offer plans to cover pets. By 1999, only 1 percent of the U.S. population carried health insurance on pets, but insurance experts expected that number to grow rapidly.

Pet health insurance typically covers the cost of accidents and injuries. Most policies also cover diagnostic procedures. Policies typically do not cover the costs of routine procedures such as vaccinations, checkups, and elective surgeries. The plans rarely cover preexisting or genetic conditions. Yearly premiums range from approximately $100 to more than $300.

How pet Owners can Control Costs

The best way to control costs, however, is to practice preventive care. Pet owners who maintain their pet’s health protect the animal against catastrophic illness and protect themselves against enormous veterinary bills.

A routine physical examination is an essential step in preventing illness and controlling pet health care costs. A physical examination allows a veterinarian to monitor a pet’s health and treat health problems before they become serious—and costly. Adult dogs and cats under age ten should get a checkup once a year, according to the AVMA.

Pets age ten and older should visit a veterinarian twice a year. Veterinarians recommend that puppies and kittens receive their first physical examination a few weeks after birth.

A physical exam typically includes measures of body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and body weight. Blood and stool samples are also typically part of the exam. A veterinarian will also check the animal for lumps or other abnormalities.

Physical exams can cost between $40 and $45, according to the AVMA. Physical checkups also include an examination of the animal’s teeth and gums. According to pet health care experts, many veterinarians offer complete dental exams and teeth cleaning, which cost between $50 and $100.

A dog’s annual checkup should include examinations for parasitic worms. Heartworm may cause serious illness or even death. Adult heartworms live in the dog’s heart, but young forms of the worm are found in the blood. Mosquitoes transmit the infection after feeding on the blood of an infected dog. All dogs should receive medicine to prevent heartworm.

Many puppies are born with roundworms. A dog may acquire tapeworms by swallowing an infected flea or by eating raw fish or meat. To prevent spreading the parasites to other dogs and people, veterinarians recommend deworming pups with medication every two to three weeks until they are 3 to 4 months old.

Vaccinations of Pets: an Important Tool in Prevention

A veterinarian will also make sure a pet’s vaccinations are up to date during a regular checkup. Pets, like humans, are susceptible to a variety of highly contagious diseases. Many of these diseases can be prevented through immunization. Vaccinations cost between $15 and $20.

All dogs, cats, and other mammals should be vaccinated against rabies, a viral infection of the nervous system. Rabies primarily affects animals, but it can be transmitted from a rabid animal to a human by a bite or by a lick over a break in the skin.

The United States requires that all dogs be vaccinated against rabies. Puppies and kittens should receive their first rabies shot at about three months of age, followed by another shot in one year. Dogs and cats should receive a booster shot every three years thereafter, according to the AVMA.

Another important vaccination for dogs is the DHLP-P vaccine. This vaccine immunizes dogs against several diseases, including distemper (a viral disease characterized by fever, reddened eyes, loss of appetite, and discharges containing pus from the nose and eyes); two forms of hepatitis (a viral disease that causes inflammation of the liver); parainfluenza (a respiratory illness similar to influenza); parvovirus (a gastrointestinal disease caused by a virus); and leptospirosis (a bacterial infection that damages the kidneys and liver).

A puppy should receive its first DHLP-P vaccine at about six weeks old. It will then need several more doses three to four weeks apart. Adult dogs require a booster shot annually.

Some veterinarians recommend the vaccine against Lyme disease for dogs living in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. By 1999, however, research had not yet established whether the vaccine protected dogs against the disease. Lyme disease is caused by bacteria and spread to animals by ticks. The disease is characterized by joint inflammation.

A panel of feline veterinarians recommended in 1998 that all cats receive three vaccinations in addition to a rabies shot. These include vaccines against feline panleukopenia (a viral gastrointestinal disease, also called feline distemper); feline viral rhinotracheitis (a viral upper-respiratory disease); and feline calicivirus (a viral upper-respiratory disease). According to the panel, cats should be vaccinated against these diseases as kittens and then receive boosters at three-year intervals.

The panel also recommended that cats allowed to roam outside be vaccinated against three additional diseases: chlamydiosis, a bacterial upper-respiratory disease; feline leukaemia, a viral infection that affects the feline immune system and causes tumors; and feline infectious peritonitis, a viral disease that causes either fluid build-up or dry deposits in body organs. Cats should be vaccinated as kittens and then receive booster shots annually, according to the panel.

Spaying or neutering (the surgical removal of sex organs) cats and dogs is another essential step in preventive health care, according to the AVMA. In addition to reducing the overpopulation of cats and dogs, spaying or neutering reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer.

For example, studies have shown that spaying a female dog before its first heat cycle (reproductive cycle) reduces its risk of breast cancer. Spaying or neutering costs between $100 and $150 for dogs and $50 to $75 for cats, according to the AVMA.

Good Grooming of Pets for Health

Pet owners can also adopt healthful practices at home to prevent illness in animals. For example, the AVMA recommends that owners groom their pets regularly. Grooming prevents skin problems by keeping a pet’s coat clean and free from fleas and ticks.

The kind and amount of grooming a dog’s needs is determined by the animal’s fur type and length and the animal’s lifestyle. In general, dogs with longer fur need more frequent combing and brushing than those with short coats.

Dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors usually need more frequent grooming than those who live mostly indoors. Dogs also need regular ear inspection and cleaning, toenail trimming, and tooth inspection and cleaning.

Owners should brush or comb a cat’s fur daily to clean it and to remove loose hairs. In the case of long-haired cats, such care is essential to prevent the coat from tangling and matting. Daily brushing or combing also reduces the amount of loose hairs that cats swallow when they clean themselves.

Swallowed hair may wad up and form a hairball in the cat’s stomach. Hairballs can cause gagging, vomiting, and loss of appetite. If a cat cannot spit up a hairball, surgery may be required to remove it. Owners may feed their cat a small amount of petroleum jelly or a commercial preparation once a week to prevent hairball formation.

A veterinarian can suggest safe methods of using such products. If necessary, owners may clean their cat’s ears with a soft cloth and brush their teeth with a cotton-tipped swab or a small toothbrush. Owners may also trim the tips of a cat’s claws.

Cats instinctively clean themselves. They do so by licking their fur with their tongue. They also rub and scratch their fur with their paws. At least once a day, a cat licks a paw and washes its face and head with the wet paw.

But not all cats groom themselves well. Some cats—especially those allowed outdoors—become so filthy that they need a bath. Most cats dislike bathing. But if cats are bathed about once a month when they are kittens, they will become accustomed to the water. Kittens should also be brushed or combed to be easier to care for when they grow older.

Many pet owners mistakenly believe that a dog should be bathed as seldom as possible. In fact, pet owners may wash their dogs often—in many cases, once a week, according to the AVMA. Owners must, however, use a special shampoo that does not strip the oils from the dog’s coat.

When bathing a dog, carefully pour warm—not hot—water over the pet. The temperature of the water should feel comfortable to your own skin. Apply a gentle shampoo and lather well. Be careful not to get any shampoo in the dog’s eyes. Rinse thoroughly because any soap that remains on the skin may cause itching. After the bath, apply a flea dip, spray, or powder as recommended by your veterinarian.

Like human beings, pets need exercise to remain physically fit and mentally healthy. Excess weight and a sedentary (inactive) lifestyle in dogs and cats may lead to many health problems, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and joint deterioration, among other conditions.

The easiest way to exercise a dog is to release it in an enclosed space with another friendly dog. Dogs left alone may not remain active long enough to stay in shape. A dog will also benefit from daily brisk walks or jogs with its owner. Owners should confine their dog to a leash if they walk or jog where there is traffic or if the city they live in has a leash requirement.

Choose a Healthy Diet for Your Pet

A balanced diet is necessary for a pet’s health. Owners can buy prepared food for most kinds of pets. Scientists plan these foods to contain the right amounts of vitamins, minerals, and proteins for each type of animal. By using these foods, owners can be sure that their pets receive the proper nourishment.

Dogs require different kinds of foods during the various stages of their lives. At about 3 to 4 weeks of age, puppies need to supplement their mother’s milk with solid food. Provide a good-quality commercial product, either dry or canned that is labeled as food for puppies.

Soften dry food by moistening it with water or a puppy milk-replacement formula or mixing it with canned food, to make it easier for young pups to chew. Owners may also give a puppy cooked eggs and cottage cheese, but these foods should make up no more than 10 to 20 percent of the dry weight of the puppy’s diet, according to the AVMA.

A puppy should be fed four times a day until it is about three months old. The pup should then eat three times a day until it is six months old, and then twice a day until it is fully grown. Adult dogs need only one meal a day, but many dogs prefer two smaller meals, one in the morning and one at night, according to the AVMA.

Avoid feeding large amounts of meat and table scraps to dogs. Dogs who are given these foods quickly develop a preference for them and may develop dietary imbalances and deficiencies. Vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary for healthy dogs who eat a complete, balanced diet.

Bone chewing is natural for dogs, but it can cause broken teeth, and bone splinters may cause digestive upsets or internal injuries. For these reasons, many veterinarians recommend offering rawhide strips or special chew toys instead of bones. Old dogs and dogs with certain medical conditions such as heart or kidney disease may require special diets. A veterinarian can advise you when a special food is needed.

Cats are not naturally picky eaters. But owners should give them a variety of commercial foods to prevent them from developing fussy appetites. Cats may occasionally be fed small amounts of such cooked foods like beef liver, eggs, fish, and vegetables, according to the AVMA. Many cats also enjoy milk, cheese, and other dairy products. However, such foods cause diarrhoea in some cats.

Kittens that have been weaned (taken off mother’s milk) should be fed small amounts of food four times a day until they are three months old. They should eat three times daily until they are six months old, and then twice a day until they are full grown.

Adult cats require only one meal a day, but many seem happier with two smaller meals. Food may be kept available at all times for a healthy cat that does not overeat. Sick cats, pregnant and nursing cats, and old cats often need special diets, according to the AVMA.

Hygiene and its Role in Health Care of Pets

Proper hygiene is an essential part of preventive health care. Keep animal’s food dishes clean and provide pets with a warm, clean sleeping area. Indoor cats should learn to use a litter box. Cats instinctively bury their body wastes, so training them to use a litter box is easy. Kittens raised with a mother who uses a litter box will usually begin to use it themselves before 5 or 6 weeks old.

Any smooth-surfaced plastic or enamel pan can be used as a litter box. Put the pan in a quiet spot. Place a layer of commercial clay litter, sand, sawdust, or sterilized soil in the bottom. Sift the litter clean with a strainer each day. Clean the pan and change the litter whenever a third of the litter is damp or, at least, every fourth day.

Most pets will enjoy good health with proper food, housing, and grooming. If a pet gets hurt, swallows something harmful, or otherwise becomes ill, it should be taken to a veterinarian. Don’t try to treat your pet’s illness yourself, unless you know exactly what is wrong and what to do. Home treatment may seriously delay finding out what is wrong with your pet, and may even harm the animal.

Common signs of illness in dogs include a change in behaviour, a change in appetite, and fever. Most animals become less active when they are sick or injured. Any change of appetite that lasts for more than a few days calls for a veterinary examination. If there are other signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhoea, sneezing, or coughing, take your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Many pet illnesses—and their associated costs—can be prevented through good pet care. By providing pets with healthful diets, plenty of exercise, and regular visits to the veterinarian, owners will protect their pets as well as their pocketbooks.

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