Modern Medicine

How to increase a pet’s life span without breaking the bank

Joe D'Allegro, special to
Isa Foltin | Getty Images

Americans love their pets. Cutesy statistics abound to measure this attachment. Fifty percent of dog owners and 65 percent of cat owners sleep with their pets. Both boomers and millennials consider pets family. Fifty-seven percent of millennials say pets make them happier than anyone else — it's 50 percent for boomers.

But pet affection can also be measured in economic and stock market data. Since 1960, spending on pets has grown faster than consumer spending overall. Spending on veterinary diagnostics has grown at an even faster clip. IDEXX Laboratories, a publicly traded veterinary health company, has had a 10 percent compound annual growth rate from 2005 to 2015. It is currently trading at an all-time high.

So how to maximize all this spending that Americans do on their pets? One way is by maximizing the pets' life spans through simple, everyday changes — habits that don't have to break the bank.

Almost 37 percent of U.S. households own one or more dogs, and more than 30 percent have at least one cat, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Owners need to educate themselves in order to ensure their pets live long and healthy lives.

Pets are what they eat

The best things that dog owners can do to keep their pets healthy is go back to the basics — eat less and exercise more, said Kate Creevy, the lead veterinary officer for the University of Washington's Dog Aging Project, a nationwide study of canine life and health.

"Owners should choose a balanced, proven diet and then feed it in measured amounts that maintain a leaner-than-average body weight," said Creevy. "And they should exercise their dogs daily, which is also a good way for folks to exercise themselves."

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Lean dogs live longer than dogs who are fat or of average weight, Creevy said. For most dogs, "ideal weight" means the owner can't see the dog's ribs but can feel them easily. A veterinarian can help by assigning a more specific body condition score, using a chart.

Don't forget doctor visits

Vaccinations are also very important, especially for puppies that are being newly exposed to the environment and other dogs. Vaccinations are divided into "core" and "non-core." Core vaccinations are those that every puppy or dog should receive, based on the following criteria:

  1. The disease is serious or life-threatening.
  2. Most dogs are at risk of being exposed to the disease.
  3. An effective vaccine exists.

The core vaccines currently recommended for all dogs are parvovirus, distemper virus, adenovirus and rabies.

Non-core vaccines are those that are used for dogs or puppies with certain lifestyle risks, and these risks can be determined by a discussion between each dog's owner and veterinarian. Vaccines may be considered non-core because:

  1. The disease is usually mild but might be more dangerous in certain dogs.
  2. Only certain dogs are at risk of exposure, based on region of the country or lifestyle factors.
  3. Available vaccines are only moderately effective, only effective for short periods or have undesirable side effects.

Experts recommend annual checkups for young, healthy dogs and twice-yearly visits for those that are older.

Disease prevention

Veterinarians can now treat conditions that used to be life-ending.

"Diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, inflammatory arthritis and meningitis and severe joint disease have become chronically managed diseases of dogs in recent decades, rather than diagnoses that forced a euthanasia decision," Creevy said.

In fact, IDEXX claims more biomarkers have been found for pets than for humans in the past five years. This is a huge breakthrough in pet medicine for a simple reason: "You can't talk to a dog or cat, and cats are genetically designed to hide symptoms," said IDEXX CEO Jonathan Ayers at a conference appearance late last year.

What are the leading causes of death for dogs?

For younger ones, it's infection, trauma and congenital disease, said Jerry Klein, the chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club. "As dogs age, they are more likely to die of cancer, but other diseases also take their toll," he said. Interestingly, the risk of dying from cancer starts to decrease for dogs after age 10. Heart disease, kidney failure, gastrointestinal problems and neurological problems are among the other primary causes of death in older dogs.

"Kidney disease is like the heart disease of pets. Most succumb to it slowly, silently," Ayers said.

Pot for pets
Pot for pets

Cats may be independent, but they still need our help.

Experts recommended keeping them indoors all the time. Indoor cats may succumb to diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism or cancer in their old age, but outdoor cats have it worse and often die younger, said Shelby Neely, director of clinical operations and co-founder of whiskerDocs, a pet help and information service. Cats let outside are at risk from cars, wild animals, other cats and neighborhood children. Plus, Neely said that they face increased risk of feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus — both diseases are spread through physical contact with other cats.

Owners should choose a balanced, proven diet and then feed it in measured amounts that maintain a leaner-than-average body weight, and they should exercise their dogs daily, which is also a good way for folks to exercise themselves.
Kate Creevy
lead veterinary officer for the University of Washington's Dog Aging Project

"While a cat may indeed enjoy being outside, it is so dangerous that I personally feel it is cruel to let them be outside unless they are walked on a harness and leash or allowed to play in an enclosure," Neely said. "Outdoor cats, in general, live half as long as indoor cats. ... If a cat parent enhances the indoor environment of a cat properly, their cat can be very happy, stay healthier and live longer."

Carrie Hume, a veterinarian specializing in oncology at WestVet in Garden City, Idaho, said that cat owners should always stay observant, and not just for cute behavior to film for YouTube.

Monitor for weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in thirst and urination, she said. "Pay attention to any lumps and bumps they develop, and have them evaluated by their primary veterinarian."

Of course, even healthy-seeming cats should see the vet regularly.

Bruce Kornreich, associate director of Cornell University's Feline Health Center, said that kittens need a vet visit every three or four weeks until they have had their full round of vaccinations. From then to age 10, he said once-yearly visits should suffice, while older cats should be taken twice a year to monitor for disease.

Finally, much like people, cats need to watch their weight and avoid carbs. "Cats are true carnivores," Neely said. "They need a diet that is high in protein, low in carbohydrates and moderate in fat. Unfortunately, almost all commercial dry food and a large number of canned foods are high in carbohydrates." She also explained that moisture-rich canned food is better than dry food. "Cats do not have the same thirst sensors that dogs and people do, so many will walk around dehydrated when fed a dry-food diet."

Are you insured?

IDEXX touts data points, such as the 87 percent of millennials who say they are willing to make financial trade-offs for pets.

An emergency visit to the vet can exceed $2,000, which might make pet insurance a good option for owners open to cutting-edge treatments to extend their pet's lives. "Many cancers that would not have been treated in the past can now be managed where dogs and cats can maintain a good quality of life and potentially even cured," Hume said.

Klein said that having medical insurance to help reimburse the cost of care may make the difference in what course of action owners choose for their pet, but it can also lead to decisions that may not be in the pet's best interest. Before investing in any treatment, pet owners should ask themselves about the outcome.

"Animals relish a consistent pattern in their lives," Klein said. "Medical care for any illness or injury should allow them to return to the routine that has been their life. If not, you may be pursuing the treatment for your own benefit rather than your pet's benefit."

By Joe D'Allegro, special to