Preventive Health Care Guidelines for Dogs

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Remember the old adage, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?' Those wise words directly relate to the health care of our pets. Avoiding illness is always better than treating it, so let’s explore ways to prevent diseases rather than cure them.

How often should my dog see my veterinarian?

dog_at_vetSince dogs age at a faster rate than humans, they should see their doctor more often than we see ours. Sometimes people equate one year of a dog’s life to 7 human years, but this is an oversimplification. In fact, one calendar year for a dog may equal anywhere between 4-15 human years due to the way dogs mature and depending on the breed.

"The bottom line is this: dogs age faster than we do."

Pups mature very fast during the first year of life and are considered to be teenagers (15 years old) after only 12 months! By their second birthday, they are actually about 25 years old. After that, the aging rate slows down so a dog ages about 4-5 years for each calendar year with large breeds aging more quickly than smaller breeds.

The bottom line is this: dogs age faster than we do. If we get a physical exam and blood tests annually, that’s like our dogs taking the same preventive health measures every 4-5 years if only visiting the veterinarian once a year. The rapid aging process of dogs makes preventive health care even more important.

What are the preventative health care guidelines?

A preventive health plan revolves around regularly scheduled exams of an apparently healthy dog in order to maintain optimum health. To standardize wellness plans, the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) gathered medical information from various specialty groups (American Heartworm Society, American Association of Feline Practitioners, Companion Animal Parasite Council to name a few) and devised guidelines focused on preventive health care for cats and dogs.

What are these recommendations and why are they important?

An overview of some of the AAHA/AVMA recommendations for preventive care and why they are important to your dog is provided below:

History. A discussion of your dog’s home life will give your veterinarian an overall idea of his health status. Changes in your dog’s demeanor may occur so gradually that you are not aware of them until you are asked specific questions. Does your dog have a good appetite and regular bowel movements? Does he strain to urinate? Does he limp? Is he slow to rise when lying down? Does he ever cough, sneeze, or seem short of breath? Is he itchy? Does he drink a lot? Your answers will guide the veterinarian along a diagnostic path that will end with your dog feeling better.

Examinations. Even healthy dogs should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, preferably twice a year. If your dog is older or has medical problems, more frequent visits may be necessary. Physical exams can detect heart murmurs or skipped heart beats; enlarged lymph nodes; skin tumors; abdominal tumors; and enlarged or shrunken kidneys, liver, or spleen that may mean systemic disease. A look at the eyes can determine a dog’s visual capacity. An orthopedic evaluation can tell if a dog is arthritic and in need of pain medication. A dermatologic evaluation of the hair coat will determine the need for flea and tick control or diagnose skin infections (bacterial, fungal, or parasitic). Hair loss may indicate systemic disease or hormonal imbalances.

Testing. Although heartworms are more prevalent in warmer climates where mosquitoes thrive, infected dogs live in every state and in some parts of Canada. Even dogs in cold environments can get heartworms, so The American Heartworm Society advises annual heartworm blood testing. Intestinal parasites can affect both dogs and humans, so a stool sample should be analyzed at least once (preferably twice) a year. To diagnose organ malfunctions in the early stages, blood tests (complete blood count, chemistry panel, and thyroid screen) and urinalysis should be performed annually. If problems are diagnosed, more frequent testing may be necessary. For dogs in areas where ticks are prevalent, screening for vector borne diseases like Lyme disease or ehrlichiosis may be advised.

Dental Care. It is a well-known fact that oral health impacts a dog’s general health. Simply put, dogs with clean mouths live longer. The bacteria involved in periodontal disease do not just stay in the mouth. These organisms invade the blood stream and travel to major organs like the kidneys, liver, and heart where they cause significant health issues. Dogs may need their teeth cleaned every 1-2 years, but this frequency can vary more or less depending on a number of factors including preventive care. Dental radiographs (X-rays) will help determine the status of oral disease. Regular dental cleanings will also allow your dog to keep his pearly whites in good condition.

Parasite Prevention. Dogs should be given medication to prevent heartworms all year long in endemic areas. Many heartworm medications also prevent or treat intestinal parasites, and some may also treat fleas and ticks. A parasite prevention protocol can be tailored to a dog’s specific needs within his personal environment.

Immunizations. Vaccinations are divided into two groups: core vaccines and non-core or optional vaccines. All dogs (without medical problems that prevent immunization) should receive vaccinations for rabies, distemper, canine parvovirus, and canine adenovirus-2 (hepatitis) (usually offered as a combined DAP vaccination). Vaccination for kennel cough, Lyme disease, leptospirosis, and canine influenza may be recommended for dogs with potential exposure to these diseases.

Weight Maintenance. Research has shown that leaner dogs live longer and have fewer health problems. Your veterinarian will assign a body condition score to your dog and give you dietary and exercise recommendations to help your dog maintain a healthy body mass index.

Spaying or Neutering. Spaying or neutering can have numerous health or behavior benefits. Having this surgery done can prevent infections and some types of cancer. Your veterinarian will discuss these benefits and the timing of the surgery for your dog.

Diagnosing dog disease

Since dogs cannot talk, veterinarians cannot ask them how they are feeling or what is bothering them. Plus, innate survival instincts make dogs hide illnesses so they do not appear weak or vulnerable to predators. That means thorough physical exams are crucial to keep dogs healthy. And since your veterinarian cannot see what is going on inside a dog’s body, blood and urine tests are needed to complete the health picture. These preventive medicine steps will diagnose problems earlier making treatment more successful and less costly and, more importantly, will help your dog live a longer, healthier life.

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