Pre-anesthetic blood testing: this is why your pet needs it.

In a previous article, “The importance of blood work for your pet”, I discussed how routine blood work could be used to create wellness profiles and watch for trends in your pet.

I want to now turn to the importance of having blood work before any surgery your pet may be having. We call that pre-anesthetic blood work.

Veterinarians administer anesthetics for elective surgeries and non-elective surgeries. Elective surgeries are planned and often are done on pets with no apparent health problems. The classic example is your puppy or kitten coming in for a spay or neuter.

Emergency surgeries may need quick reaction time, but blood work before the surgery is still vital.

The main reason is to do pre-anesthetic bloodwork to ensure everything is all right with the animal before surgery. The results can be shocking! I've seen animals that look completely fine and show no signs of illness, but their blood work reveals something completely different.

A REAL-LIFE CAUTIONARY TALE

I want to share an example of a situation early on in my career as a veterinarian which solidified how important pre-anesthetic blood work is. Now, I recommend it for every pet going under an anesthetic.

The story begins with a beautiful six-month-old male cat who came in to be neutered. Neutering a male cat is one of the most straightforward surgeries veterinarians perform. Those experienced at it can get it done in very little time, so it is not a considerable anesthetic risk. In this procedure, animals are not under the anesthetic for very long.

Nevertheless, all anesthetics carry a risk, and so does the surgery. You will definitely see what I mean in this example. The first thing we did was take blood from the cat, put him in the back of the clinic, and let him relax while we ran the blood results. This only took about an hour because we had an in-house blood machine. For those of you who listened to my first podcast where I talked about being an early adopter, I invested in an in-house blood machine for my practice because I knew that I could get blood results back faster than anything I could send out to the lab.

We got the blood results back, and I was in shock! This cat's platelet count was one, and the normal reference range is 100 to 500. I will say that I've never seen a platelet count that low. For those of you who are not familiar with what platelets do, they are involved in clotting our blood. Even a minor cut can turn into a significant bleeding episode without platelets. As my story continues, I will tell you that I didn't panic yet because I have seen low platelet counts in many situations when I’ve taken blood. Sometimes the blood accidentally clots within the tube. To explain, when we take blood to run platelets, we take it in a tube where the blood is not allowed to clot. When the blood accidentally clots, the platelets get used up, which gives you a low platelet count and an inaccurate reading.

So, we purposely put it in a tube that doesn't allow it to clot to measure the total number of platelets. Clear as mud? Don’t worry; I’ll get on with my story! When I saw the results from this little kitten, I was a little bit nervous. I needed to double-check the numbers. The first thing involved was taking a drop of the blood and putting it on a microscope slide to see if I could see any platelets.

If I could see them on the slide, I would probably attribute the low platelet count to a machine error. But when I looked at the slide under the microscope, I couldn't find a single platelet. I'm not going to lie; I was a little nervous at this point. My next move was to cancel the surgery and to take another blood sample and send it off to the lab, where we would get a result in 12 to 24 hours.

When they brought the cat back to the table to take some more blood, I noticed something shocking. There was a huge blood blister right where we had previously taken the blood. After we take blood from any pet, we usually put pressure on that area for a significant period so that they don't develop blood blisters. It's no different than when we go to the lab and have our blood taken, and the medical technician or nurse asks us to apply pressure to that area. So, finding a blood blister after taking blood is very uncommon in a normal pet.

It turns out this little cutie was far from normal! We got the blood results back the next day, and the platelet count was two. Although this is double, it sure was far from the norm, which, to remind you, is 100 to 500.

To make a long story short, this cat was born with a congenital disease where he couldn't make platelets. I chose this story to illustrate how important it was that we ran pre-anesthetic blood work. We were doing an elective surgery on a kitten that seemed very healthy but wasn’t.

If we had just done the surgery without knowing, he could have bled uncontrollably during the procedure and possibly died. It makes me shudder every time I think of this story.

Unfortunately, this cute little kitty didn't live past two years because he had other complications from his bleeding disorder later in life. This condition is extremely rare, and I've diagnosed it only once in my entire career.

While this might seem like an extreme case, I can cite many examples of times when I've delayed or even cancelled surgery because of abnormal results on a pre-anesthetic blood profile.

CHOOSE TO OPT-INTO PRE-ANESTHETIC BLOOD WORK. HERE’S WHY.

When I first started offering pre-anesthetic blood work to my clients, it was an option so they could choose whether to do it or not.

After a few more cases with atypical results, I solidified my conviction of how vital blood work is. I started to make pre-anesthetic testing mandatory. Many veterinarians today still offer pre-anesthetic blood testing as an option.

I encourage everyone to understand the risks when you have an elective or non-elective procedure done on your pet. Please consider how crucial pre-anesthetic blood testing is to help give your veterinarian all the information they need to perform the procedure.

It’s an excellent way to play a role in providing the best care you can for your pet.

Don’t forget to check the full podcast episode in which Dr. Mike provides detailed content about this subject by clicking here.

My cat is very finicky. Is there anything I can do to make mealtime more appetizing?

Before discussing the strategies behind improving our feline friends' appetite, let's unravel the science regarding cats' uniqueness and why they are "picky" eaters compared to dogs who appear to anything – even if it isn't food!

Part 1: The science behind the uniqueness of cats and their appetites

Cats were domesticated more recently than dogs, about 9000 years ago. 

Today, dogs are considered omnivores  (can eat plants and meat), whereas cats have always been and will continue to be obligate or strict carnivores.

The  features of cats that make them strict carnivores include:

  1. Anatomical features

Cats have long, sharp canine teeth with small incisors and molars and very short gastrointestinal tracts making them ideal for hunting prey, stripping meat from bones and digesting meat much faster than veggies.

  1. Nutritional features

Cats are used to hunting small prey often during the day, reflecting their preferences for eating frequent small meals.

Cats have much higher dietary protein requirements and amino acid requirements. 

  1. Physiological features

Cats lack certain enzymes that allow for specific nutrients and must acquire them through dietary animal sources.  These include Vitamin A, niacin, taurine and arachidonic acid.

How palatable or appetizing a diet is, is extremely important to the appetite of cats.  Studies have shown that cats will eat a less balanced diet over a complete and balanced one if the diet has high palatability, much like how people favour fatty foods that taste great but aren't always nutritious and healthy.

Five reasons why do cats choose a particular food?

1) Taste of food

Cats have a relatively small number of taste buds (<500) compared to dogs (about 1,700) and humans (about 10,000), so they are less sensitive to taste compared to other species. Of the classic five basic tastes, cats lack sweet taste receptors and so show no sweets preference.  They also respond negatively to bitter tastes, which is opposite to dogs' preferences.  Fascinatingly, cats do not find water tasteless and can be quite picky about their water source.

2) Odour of food

To compensate for their weak sense of taste, cats use their heightened sense of smell to determine particular food preferences.  A cat's sense of smell is 14 times that of humans.  So the odour of food seems to be the most crucial factor for them when choosing food.

Cats have a unique organ called the Vomeronasal Organ (VNO) located at the roof of their mouth.  The VNO connects to both the nose and mouth.

A cats' decision to taste food comes from the collective use of the mouth, nose and VNO.

The next  three factors are very individual but play a role in food intake preferences:

3) Shape of food – many cats like star-shaped kibbles, but some cats prefer round kibbles, and to some cats, the shape of the kibble is irrelevant.

4)Texture of food – the preference for dry food versus wet food often comes down to texture preferences. Some kitties like the crunch factor, and others don't care.

5) Mouthfeel – mouthfeel isn't just about how the food feels in the cat's mouth, though that is a factor.  Older cats with dental disease that are used to eat dry food can often appreciate having warm water added to their dry to improve the mouthfeel on their sensitive teeth.

  Getting to know which shape, texture and mouthfeel your cat prefers is simply a matter of trial and error.

Part 2:  What can we do to help influence our cats to make their food more palatable?

We can gain a much better understanding of how to make our cat's food more palatable by doing three things:

1) Understand the animal-related factors affecting food palatability

A cat's way of life and prior dietary experiences play a role in its food preferences.   For example, cats fed a lot of dry food from 7 months of age to 23 months of age have a reduced acceptance of canned food later in life.

Taking a cat's age into consideration is also crucial as the receptors for smell and taste decline with age. Therefore older cats may need some encouragement to make their foods more palatable as they age.

Finally, cats will either prefer a novel food ("neophilia") when they have been fed a single food for a long time or reject it ("neophobia”).   Rejection is most commonly seen when the cat is under stress (emotional, environmental or physiological).  Introducing new foods under favourable circumstances is a good idea.

A fascinating fact that I have seen in my practice is the concept of "learned food taste aversion." If I say the word "tequila," many of you may already understand what I am referring to.  Cats, if introduced to a new food when feeling ill may try it on day one and then never taste it again.  They associate the taste of the novel food with how ill they feel at that moment, and that aversion can be long-term.   I made this mistake myself once in practice after offering a cat that I had just diagnosed with a prescription renal diet with chronic kidney disease.  I knew the diet would help their kidneys but forgot that I introduced a new food to them when uncomfortable with their surroundings and not feeling a hundred percent.  It is no wonder why he wouldn't accept the new diet.  Only introduce new diets or treats when cats are comfortable in their environment and feeling fine.

2)  Watching your cat just before eating and during eating

Touching the food with their paws and biting at the food are good signs that your cat likes the food.  During consumption, cats who are eating something they enjoy will have "half-closed eyes" and may lick their nose, protrude their dog or smack their lips.   Signs of disliking a food include moving the tail to the left and right and grooming.

3) Understand the dietary-related factors affecting food palatability

  1. Moisture – cats prefer wet or canned food over dry food. Adding warm water (without diluting) to food will increase its acceptance (especially in older kitties).
  2. Protein source and amount – as cats are strict carnivores, it should be no surprise that they prefer their proteins from animal sources over plant sources (e.g. soybean). Diets that are higher in protein levels and lower in carbohydrate levels are also more palatable to cats.
  3. Amino Acids – Cats respond positively to several amino acids in the diet, including proline, cysteine, lysine, leucine and histidine. Some, however, are bitter and less preferred, like phenylalanine and tryptophan. Unfortunately, these aren't things that you can add to your cat's food, but most food companies add them.
  4. Fats – Increasing fat content increases the palatability of any diet.  Additives like salmon oil promote food intake in cats and can be added to wet or dry food to encourage finicky cats to eat.
  5. Sugar and salt – as mentioned earlier, cats are insensitive to sugar as well as salt.  Unlike humans, adding salt or sweet to your cat's food will either do nothing or potentially discourage your cat from tasting the food if they are neophobic.
  6. Fibre – higher dietary crude fibre with additions such as cellulose tends to affect cats' food preference negatively.  However, in saying that, choosing food from the shelf with lower crude fibre may be more palatable but not necessarily better for your kitty.  Fibre has many benefits for cats, and sometimes more crude fibre is necessary.  Never choose a diet based on the amount of crude fibre alone.
  7. Other additives – Some additives can increase food's palatability, including yeast extract products, choline and some prebiotics.

However, these should not be routinely added to a food until you have discussed them with your veterinarian. 

Perhaps my biggest tip for feeding your cats is to remember that they aren't omnivores like us and have many different preferences and needs regarding diet.  Finally, if your cat goes a full day without eating, this is something that I wouldn't ignore and reach out to your veterinarian immediately.  Plus, your veterinarian can help you choose which foods and additives are best for your cat's particular situation. 

If you’re interested in diving deeper into all things related to pet wellness and behaviour, make sure you subscribe to my podcast!

Training the Good in Your Pet with Proper Reinforcement

Proper training is a critical part of pet ownership. In Podcast #13, I outlined why punishment doesn’t work in most situations and can harm the human-animal bond. Encouraging good behaviour with reinforcement is effective and a much better option. And it’s easy to do once you understand how it works. 

Before we talk about reinforcement, we should review a common and dangerous trap that we all fall into called anthropomorphism. It’s when we place human behaviours and characteristics on our pets (like dressing them when it’s cold). I will cover that topic in more detail in a future podcast. 

Treating your pet like a person is not always bad, but there are times when it can cause harm to your companion animal. For instance, when you are unhappy and raise your voice, you may think your pet understands at least some of what you are saying because they “look guilty.” But our pets’ forebrains are not developed enough to make them feel guilty. We experience guilt; they don’t. What you see is more likely fear and confusion about why you are upset with them.

Another mistake many pet owners make is believing their pets can make the same associations humans can. Our well-developed forebrains allow us to make very complex associations that even include imagining different possible future consequences of our actions. With dogs and cats, associations are not complex at all. They’re extremely simple.

With pets, associations are instant, and any connection needs to occur immediately following the behaviour. Even a few seconds after is too long for them to make the connection. If your pet jumps up on someone and you don’t notice for three or four seconds, then raising your voice will not help them to resist in the future because they will have no idea why you are angry or what they did wrong. To stop an unwanted behaviour (or reinforce a good one), you need to think like a dog or cat, not as a person.

Punishment versus Reinforcement

Punishment does not refer specifically to yelling or time outs or other adverse action. It is a term in psychology defined as ‘anything done after a behaviour that reduces the probability it will reoccur.’ There are three keys to effective punishment: perfect timing, perfect intensity, and follow-up reinforcement. Punishment will only work successfully when all three keys are executed… well … perfectly. It is the reason that method is not a good option.

Using reinforcement, on the other hand, relies on just two principles: timing and intensity. To illustrate, let’s say you are house training your puppy and let her out for a pee. She sniffs around the yard, does her business, and then proceeds to come back inside. As you let her in, you tell her, “Good girl.” You think you’ve helped establish in her mind that peeing outside is good, but really all you’ve done is offer weak praise for walking into the house. It was too late to connect your words to her act of urination, and the less-than-enthusiastic comment would likely not have even registered as praise. Perfect timing for your pet means ‘during the act,’ and perfect intensity means feeling the excitement and joy in your voice and body language. The best way to do that is by animating your voice and ‘making a fuss.’ If you want your young pet to get it, you’ll need to dump the ‘too cool for school ‘tude’ and get all gooey and gushy with Puppy!

I love the timing and intensity part of reinforcement when training for a specific behavior because it’s so easy to get right. When you ask your pet to sit or roll over or ‘high 5,’ you expect it to happen, so you are there waiting. When it happens, you should be happy. After all, you asked for it! The immediate excitement should be pretty easy to verbalize and is a big reason reinforcement is more often effective than punishment.

A quick tip for fear-free housetraining where incorporating punishment and reinforcement works even better is when you catch little Spot in the act of peeing or pooping where he shouldn’t. Approach him (don’t scare him!), and get his attention with a cue like a grunt or gentle ‘hey’ so he stops what he is doing. That is the punishment part. Timing and intensity are paramount here because you want to act during the behaviour and make it clear that you are displeased with his actions at that location without instilling fear. That’s when you can pick him up, take him outside and let him finish, giving him lots of praise or a treat for using the outdoor facilities. Make it fun because that’s the reward part. You’ll be amazed at how quickly he learns the right and wrong places to relieve himself.

Types of Reinforcement.

There are two major types of reinforcement. The first is continuous reinforcement, where you reward your pet every time they do something you ask. The fastest way to teach your puppy or kitten is by using continuous reinforcement; however, once you stop doling out rewards, the behaviour might stop. To maintain the behaviour, you will need to employ the second type of reinforcement, intermittent or partial reinforcement. Once you’ve taught your pet the behaviour using continuous reinforcement, you will need to move to a partial or intermittent reinforcement schedule. You should do that as soon as possible because continuous reinforcement can’t maintain the frequency or quality of behaviour.

There are different kinds of partial or intermittent reinforcement schedules, but the one that works best is the variable schedule. Because using a variable schedule makes the rewards unpredictable, it helps maintain motivation levels and makes it easy to phase out food rewards eventually.

There are two types of variable schedules. The first is variable interval schedule, and the second is variable ratio schedule. Variable interval schedule is where you reward your pet for performing a behaviour after a random amount of time has passed. This method involves rewarding your dog intermittently for staying or being calm or quiet and then increasing the time between rewards. You can use this type of schedule for time or duration-dependent behaviours like teaching your dog to stay, heal, or wait, or for problems like separation anxiety or noisy dogs.

A variable ratio schedule is where you reward your dog or cat for performing a behaviour a random number of times rather than after a certain duration. This type of schedule helps maintain high frequencies of the target behaviour for fewer and fewer rewards and makes it easier to phase out food rewards. Your pet will get used to performing the behaviour many times without a reward, but will continue doing it in anticipation of a possible payoff—very similar to when you’re pumping coins into a slot machine. You keep dropping coins without a payoff because the next might be ‘winner-winner, chicken dinner!’

Variable ratio schedules work even better if you vary the rewards. One time you might give them a treat, another time just praise, and another time you may choose to give them nothing. You can then begin to alter the quality of the behaviour by rewarding above-average responses with high-value rewards and the mediocre responses with ‘good job’ or with nothing.

Training should be fun and rewarding for both you and your pet. The more engaged you are in the process, the faster your pet will learn and the happier you both will be. After all, our pets deserve our best.

If you liked this blog, you’ll love the podcast. Check it out for a more detailed explanation of this topic and some interesting anecdotes.

Pet Insurance 101 with Dr. Chip Coombs

The Pet Wellness Podcast recently welcomed its first guest, Dr. Chip Coombs, to discuss pet insurance.

Dr. Coombs has been an expert in pet health insurance for more than 30 years. As a prestigious member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, he has authored many articles for veterinary journals, pet magazines and newspapers, and his own syndicated column.

Dr. Coombs and I share a similar philosophy regarding practicing veterinary medicine and how we tend to animals. Providing the best care possible for our animal companions is foremost in our minds, which is why we strongly believe in pet health insurance and have always had our own pets insured.

You may be thinking, “Wow, you guys are veterinarians! Why do you have your pets on insurance?”

In today’s article, you’ll learn the answer to that and many other questions you may have about pet insurance.

Q&A: Understanding the basics of Pet Insurance

Dr. Mike: Why should an owner even contemplate buying pet health insurance?

Dr. Coombs: The days of a dog and a cat simply being a dog or cat are long gone.  These guys are now our family members, and the human-animal bond has solidified that position. There’s an interesting figure I always marvel at that 84% of us refer to ourselves as either a pet’s mom or dad.  So why would we want pet health insurance?  Simply because we want the very best for these guys.  The problem is that veterinary medicine has reached the stage where almost anything you would have done to yourself as a human can be done to your pet.  The only difference is we have to pay for it, and some of these expenses can be very high.  So, from the owner’s perspective, it offers them the ability to afford the appropriate veterinary care for their pet.  And from the pet’s perspective, they will be delivered the highest quality veterinary medicine available.

Dr. Mike: Why would an owner not want to buy pet health insurance?

Dr. Coombs: There are lots of owners that don’t have pet health insurance.  One of the reasons is just simple awareness.  They don’t know that pet health insurance exists.  There is a high cost of providing good quality veterinary medicine. I think most owners, particularly new pet owners, are justifiably naive about how much veterinary medicine costs, as we live in a world of socialized medicine. I think the other reason is that there are undoubtedly pet owners out there who have had an experience with pet health insurance that was not positive.  So even though there are many players in the market, they assume that all companies are the same when they’re not.

Dr. Mike: There are four major pet health companies in Canada.  Are they all the same, or do you think they are different?

Dr. Coombs: From my personal experience, because I’ve done consulting in this pet health insurance world for probably 35 years, the answer is no.  It can be very challenging to compare one company to another, and one of the main reasons is that no two companies have exactly the same product.  Of course, the overall concepts are basically the same: most policies in Canada and the US are so-called accident and illness.  Whatever happens to your pet, it will be eligible for coverage on the assumption that you meet the terms and conditions of the policy.  There are also different deductibles and different premium levels.  The best way to find out what those differences are is to ask the company precise questions.  If you’re not sure they’re giving you the straight answer, call them back and ask them again.

Dr. Mike: Can you explain some of the standard terms used by pet health insurance companies in their policies?

Dr. Coombs: The first one that’s going to hit you, of course, is the word premium, which means, “How much is this policy going to cost me?”  How companies determine that does vary from company to company.  All companies are concerned about where you live, as the cost of veterinary medicine across this country varies greatly. They’ll also ask you about your pet’s breed.  They want to know because many breeds will have predispositions to certain illnesses, so the company knows they will have to pay the owner out on a claim for this particular breed.  That’s going to be worked into the premium.  The third qualifier for premium is age.  As the pet gets older, the premium very often goes up.  Another commonly used term in pet health insurance, which actually applies to our medical insurance, is the concept of “pre-existing,” which is something the pet already has.  The whole concept of insurance is to pay for the unknown, the unexpected, and the unforeseen.  So, if you have a diabetic cat and decide to get pet health insurance, that’s an excellent thing to do.  But don’t expect it to pay for diabetes because the diabetes was already there.  However, if the cat fell from the balcony, or something got hurt, or got poked in the eye because another cat scratched him, the insurance will cover these things.  But to walk into an insurance policy and expect something that already existed to be covered, that’s not going to happen.

Dr. Mike: In your experience, which of the three you mentioned are you fondest of paying: the deductible yearly versus per condition?

Dr. Coombs: The fairest, I think, is one deductible once a year, and once it’s satisfied, that’s it for the rest of the year.  I would seek an annual deductible that only applies once, and some companies offer that.  And the last term I’ll mention is the concept of underwriting, and all insurance companies use this term.  Basically, it refers to asking for and reviewing your pet’s medical records.  Traditionally, pet health insurance companies would wait anywhere from months to years before you made a claim, asking for the medical history. That’s not very owner-centric to do it that way because you could be diligently paying your premiums;  two years pass, and then you go to make a claim, and then they review your pet’s medical history, and they say, “Well, your pet had this problem two and a half years ago, so as far as we’re concerned, it’s pre-existing, and we’re not paying for this.”  Well, I cannot think of a faster way to irritate a pet owner than to tell them after the fact that something is not eligible!  A far better approach is to do the underwriting before issuing the policy.  All policies have a 30-day cancellation clause, no questions, no foul.  And so, if an owner is not happy with any exclusions, whether temporary or permanent, put on the policy, they can say, “Well, I’m not interested, thank you very much,” and cancel the policy. There’s no premium owing, and things are fine. It’s a much more transparent, open, fair approach.

Myths and Misconceptions About Pet Health Insurance

Dr. Coombs gives us the facts about pet health insurance and addresses common misbeliefs.

Myth: Pet health insurance is basically like government healthcare.

Fact: Pet insurance is private insurance!  It is not the same as provincial healthcare which is covered by the government.  So, try not to go into it thinking it will be the same as what you experience with your health insurance provided by whatever province you reside in. It’s private insurance, and it works the same way.  And the company has to make a profit, so bear that in mind when they talk to you about pre-existing conditions and exclusions.

Myth: It can be “too late” to insure a pet.  

Fact: It doesn’t matter what condition your pet has had.  That doesn’t preclude them from having pet health insurance.  It may create that particular condition as being pre-existing.  As you well know, there are hundreds of different problems that can affect dogs and cats.  So, the fact that the insurance might not cover one condition certainly doesn’t undermine the merits of having pet health insurance for all the other things that could happen.

Myth: Pet insurance is “an investment.”

Fact: Owners tend to view pet health insurance as an investment, and I don’t quite grasp that.  We don’t have car insurance, hoping we can collect on it for obvious reasons, but people look at it differently when we buy pet health insurance.  They think, “Well, I’m paying $100 a month in premium, and I only claim $500, so it wasn’t worth it”.  But that isn’t why we have it.  We don’t have it as an investment. It’s to cover those astronomical costs that can blindside us when we don’t have the budget to pay for them.

Myth: It’s better to have a savings account for your pet’s expenses

Fact: On paper, at first blush, that makes sense.  But there are two huge problems with that approach.  Problem number one is that after six months, you’ve got $500 saved.  And you notice that, unfortunately, you now have a roof starting to leak.  Well, you have to have the roof repaired.  I guarantee that it will be thousands upon thousands of dollars.  And again, back to the fact that most people couldn’t save and put aside thousands of dollars, we’re winging it because we can’t wait.  This roof has to be fixed because the longer we wait, the worse it will get, and the more damage will be done to the rest of the house.  So, you might be able to get a bank loan, but I guarantee your pet’s savings account will get hit because it’s a nice wad of cash.  And so, guess what? There’s nothing left in the account.  

The other scenario is that a year has passed. If we assume that you’re putting the amount you would pay for the premiums into a bank account,  You may have as much as $1,000 set aside.  This would be fantastic.  But the difficulty is that, let’s say, your petis a retriever playing ball in the park and does a power turn that ends up tearing the cruciate ligament in the dog’s knee.  After a whole year, you have thousands of dollars put aside, yet the surgery will probably cost you $7,000.  And what happens in those cases where the cruciate got torn maybe a month after you took out the policy?  Well, the policy is going to cover it almost immediately.  So, you’ve got the coverage you needed after one month of paying a single month’s premium instead of saving for a whole year, five years, or six years.

Myth: Indoor cats don’t need insurance.

Fact: Well, these guys get into trouble no matter what.  Imagine somebody bringing home some Easter lilies, and many cat owners have no idea that lilies are toxic to cats. But all it takes is one mouthful of lilies, and you now have a cat fighting for his life.  So, the only way it can be turned around is with aggressive medical treatment in a veterinary hospital over days.  And that is going to add up.  Here we have a classic example.  The indoor cat never gets outside, he decided to sample a plant, and now he’s fighting for his life.

Myth: Pets can be “too old” for pet health insurance.

Fact: Some people feel their pet is too old for pet health insurance.  The premiums will be too expensive and they won’t cover them well. There’s no harm in trying.  Seventy-five percent of cats, for example, when they go to the great beyond, do so from kidney disease.  So, it isn’t a given, but it’s a good bet that something will go wrong.  That is one more reason to get pet health insurance.

Pet Wellness Advocacy

The word “Advocate” in the “Pet Wellness Advocate” movement fits perfectly with the principle of pet insurance. You’re advocating for your pet, which means you’re putting money away to say, “Hey, if you ever have a problem, I’m here for you.”  We know you’ll be there for your pet emotionally, but it’s also essential for you to be there financially.

I hope Dr. Coombs' information on pet health insurance was enlightening.  If you have any questions for Dr. Coombs or me, you’re more than welcome to email us at podcast@petwellnessadvocate.com.  If you’re excited to hear more about how you can become a pet wellness advocate, be sure to subscribe to the podcast, so you’re notified about each new episode.

How Long Will My Dog Live? Understanding Dog Longevity with Dr. Mike

I get that question a lot from owners who have senior pets and new or soon-to-be owners who want to know the potential duration of their commitment (it's always best to go in with eyes wide open!).

I'm afraid the answer is not as simple as multiplying your dog's age by seven!

The best way to look at canine longevity is by using the three most influential factors that determine it: Environment, Biology, and Lifestyle.

The effect of environment on longevity

A 2020 study shows that our companion dogs share our risk factors by sharing the environment with us.

They are affected by many of the same age-related issues and receive similar care as human beings. Aging is the most critical factor for diseases that tend to shorten our average human lifespan.

And just as it is for humans, the older a dog gets, the more prone they are to contracting a terminal illness. Like us, the most significant cause of death in dogs is cancer or neoplasia. It follows that breeds prone to contracting cancer will have a shorter average lifespan.

We know that stress is a significant factor in our longevity but does it affect dogs in the same way?

In a 2015 Psychology Today article Dr. Stanley Coren discusses a University of Pennsylvania study on the effects of stress on a dog's lifespan.

He notes that an excellent indicator of stress and anxiety in a dog is how they react to strangers.

The study showed that "the more fearful and anxious the dog was found to be around strangers, the more likely the dog was going to have a reduced life span".

Stress is a killer – for us and our pets!

The effect of biology on longevity

There is a strong correlation between body size and lifespan. On average, large dogs don't live as long as small dogs.

For example, Yorkshire Terriers could live as long as 18 years, whereas a Boxer may only live 13 years.

Small dogs live the longest, followed by medium, then large, and finally giant breeds.

Genes come into play in other ways as well.

The lifespan of mountain breeds like the Bernese Mountain Dog or Saint Bernard is significantly less than other breeds, but it doesn't correlate to their size. Instead, they seem to be genetically coded to die of old age sooner than other same-sized breeds.

The Canine Medicine and Genetics study also noted a considerable difference between sexes, with female dogs living longer than male dogs. Unfortunately, this, too, is similar in humans!

And spayed females and neutered males live longer than those who are left to (or with) their own devices. Curiously, that fact may be less about biology and more about lifestyle.

It is generally the responsible pet owners who make sure to spay and neuter their pets. It follows that they carry that responsibility to take better care of their pets at home and through regular veterinary care. Healthy dogs live longer.

The jury is still out on the lifespan advantage of pure breeds versus mixed breeds versus hybrid dogs as there are conflicting findings.

However, it does appear that large or giant dogs seem to have an advantage as a mixed breed where some small and medium purebred dogs live longer than mixed breed dogs of similar size.

The effect of lifestyle on longevity

Research from the University of Liverpool has revealed that "the lifespan of dogs that were overweight was up to two and a half years shorter when compared to ideal-weight dogs".

If your dog is obese, it may not see its senior years.

The same goes for smoking. FrontiersIn.org cites a University of Glasgow study in which they show that "dogs living in smoking homes are more likely to suffer from DNA damage and show signs of premature ageing than those living in non-smoking homes".

The image of dogs playing poker and smoking fat stogies is not the lifestyle to which your dog should aspire if he is to reach his expected age (And that goes for you as well!).

According to the Canine Medicine and Genetics study, toy and terrier breeds live longer than herding, sporting, and working breeds.

It seems that lounging on the sofa watching Netflix may be an agreeable activity for our canine companions!

How long will your dog live?

The short answer is that they will most likely live to or beyond the breed average as long as you keep them healthy and happy.

And that's really not so hard for a pet wellness advocate like you, is it?

Helping Or Hurting? When Relieving A Pet's Pain Becomes Dangerous

Recently, I responded to a telehealth consultation from a woman calling from her cottage. It was a Saturday evening, and her regular vet’s office and the cottage vet were closed.

Her dog, a husky-cross, was clearly in pain after swimming in the lake. By the time she called the telehealth line, this person was distressed.

Like most pet owners, she sees her dog as an essential member of her family, and without knowing what was wrong, felt utterly helpless as her beloved pup’s pain was clearly intensifying. In my experience, I’ve found that it’s far worse for pet owners not to know how serious an issue is than to deal with a known or chronic problem.

We fear the unknown. And when we don’t know what’s wrong, our fear sends us down the path to worst-case scenarios. And as with most pet owners, this person’s fears were beginning to lead her to take matters into her own hands.

Thankfully, before she doled out the Naproxen (Aleve) she was about to administer to her dog, she had second thoughts and called the telehealth line.

The Dangers Of Giving Over-the-counter Or Prescription Drugs To Your Pet

As much as we think of our dogs as family members, treating them with human medications is always a bad idea.

In this case, it could have been deadly.

Aleve is very dangerous for dogs, not only because safe dosages are very different between humans and animals, but a drug like Aleve will stay in a dog’s body for days.

In medicine, we refer to a drug’s half-life as the time it takes for the concentration of a drug in the body to reduce by 50%. In humans, the half-life of Aleve is six hours. In dogs, the half-life is 74 hours!

That means that each additional dose would compound with the drugs already in his body, leading to the possibility of severe gastrointestinal and renal side effects or worse.

If this woman had given her dog another Naproxen when she was due to take one in 12 hours, that 50-pound Husky would have ten times the dose in his system!

Explaining those facts to her was a sobering conversation in what was a very near miss for her beloved animal.

As an alternative, I calculated a safe dose of Tylenol based on his weight to help diminish the pain he was experiencing. Tylenol is certainly not my first choice for pain management in dogs, but it was the only safe option in her circumstance. 

Tylenol is much safer for dogs in the proper strength, but cat owners take note: Tylenol is toxic to cats in any dose!

I also had her apply cold compresses to decrease swelling in the painful area and gave her some tips to help her pooch drink more by enticing him with ice cubes or adding bouillon to the water.

The final piece of advice I passed along was to monitor her dog, and if his condition didn’t improve by morning, take him to the nearest vet or an emergency clinic.

Armed with some tips on what to watch for, how to make him comfortable, and keep him hydrated, the woman ended the call feeling relieved, grateful, and in control of the situation.

Her dog soon fully recovered.

For her, just knowing that the issue was not serious or urgent enough to require hours of stressful driving back to the city in frantic search of an after-hours emergency clinic was well worth the telehealth call.

For me, saving an animal friend from the devastating effects of an overdose was a reminder of why I became a veterinarian in the first place.