Up-to-date shots? Check. Toys and treats? Check. Lots of TLC? Check. No one takes better care of her pet than you do, right? Not so fast. There are a bunch of things you could be doing better — just ask your vet. That's what we did. And the vets we talked to have quite a lot they want to tell you — from dos and don'ts pet owners should know, to common pet myths, to new ways to care for your furry friend.
1. Yearly exams are crucial. Hands down, vets agree: The worst thing many pet owners do is skip the annual exam. If you're like most owners, you take your pet to the vet to update his vaccines. Other than that, you don't bring him in. Bad idea. "Remember, in one year a pet ages about the equivalent of seven human years, and tremendous changes can happen in those 12 months," says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, a veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods, Calif., and host ofPetCARE TV. For instance, the minor dental staining your cat had last year may have turned into a nasty case of gingivitis this year. Or the mild heart murmur that wasn't problematic for your dog before may have progressed to the early stages of heart failure. The bottom line: Bring your pet in for a wellness exam every year until he turns 7, after which he may need to see the vet more frequently depending on his health.
2. No pet is nonallergenic. You got a poodle specifically because your daughter is allergic to dogs. So why is she still sneezing? Because no pet is nonallergenic, despite the hype you may have heard. "The claim that certain dogs don't trigger allergies is often used as a marketing tool to entice people to buy those breeds," says Marty Becker, DVM, coauthor of "Your Dog: The Owner's Manual." "But the truth is, nonallergenic pets don't exist." Even hairless breeds, like the Chinese Crested, can cause a reaction. Here's why: It's the dander (old skin cells that flake off and become airborne) and a protein in your pet's saliva that trigger allergies—not the fur. Some breeds, like the Portuguese water dog and the bichon frise, do produce less dander, and while some allergy sufferers find them easier to live with, there's no guarantee that everyone will. The only thing you can do to make your dog less allergenic is to reduce the dander as much as possible. "Weekly baths are your best bet," says Dr. Becker.
3. Mutts may be healthier than pure breeds. Thinking of getting another dog or cat? Before you pass over a mixed breed because you think pure breeds are healthier, consider this: A mutt may cost you less in vet bills in the long run. "Veterinarians have long suspected that mixed breeds have a leg up when it comes to health," Dr. Becker says. "When you breed for certain physical characteristics, it often increases the weaknesses of that breed." Saint Bernards, for instance, are known for their giant heads and small back ends. But those traits actually set them up for severe hip dysplasia. "However, when a dog or cat has a more varied genetic makeup, it's less likely to develop health problems that commonly affect those breeds," says Dr. Becker.
4. Meal time can help boost your pet's brain power. For some vets, food bowls are old school. The new thinking? Feed your pet with a food puzzle. Here's how it works: Put the kibble in a specially designed toy that's made to hold full meals so your pet has to work to get the food out. "Making him work for his food provides mental and physical stimulation, which helps prevent boredom and obesity," Dr. Becker says. You can find large food puzzles for meals (as well as smaller ones for snacks) at pet stores nationwide. Start with an easy puzzle, like the Kong Wobbler ($19.99; PetSmart.com), and graduate to harder ones, rotating them regularly to keep your pet interested. The one caveat? If you have a sick or debilitated pet, feed him from a bowl.
5. Ibuprofen, along with other common human meds, are poisonous. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), human medications are the most common pet poisons, with ibuprofen, acetaminophen and antidepressants topping the list. "Animals often lick spilled medications, or grab pill bottles from counters and nightstands and manage to undo the caps or chew right through," says Cindy Otto, DVM, PhD, associate professor of critical care at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Some well-meaning owners even give their ailing pets OTC meds, which can be deadly. "In one case, a woman thought her dog was in pain after a long walk, so she gave it a store-bought painkiller to make it feel better," recalls Dr. Otto. "Within 24 hours, the dog was vomiting blood and required surgery for a bleeding ulcer. This dog survived, but most don't."
Make sure to quickly and thoroughly clean up spilled medications and to keep all meds, both prescription and OTC, in a secure place beyond your pet's reach. If you suspect your pet has ingested your medicine — signs of poisoning may include vomiting, bleeding, agitation, depression or lethargy — call an emergency animal clinic or animal poison control center immediately. To reach the 24-hour ASP CA Animal Poison Control Center hotline, call 888-426-4435.
6. Veterinarians can assist with more than you think. You rely on your vet for checkups and serious medical issues. But he can do a lot more for you than that. All you have to do is pick up the phone.
Karen Asp, a Woman's Day contributing editor, shares her home with two cats and a golden retriever who is training to be a therapy dog.
This article originally appeared on WomansDay.com and is republished here with permission.