Preventing and Treating Diseases: Working with Your Vet

Preventing and Treating Diseases: Working with Your Vet

In This Chapter

  • Taking your dog for an annual checkup
  • Neutering your dog
  • Knowing what to look for when choosing a vet
  • Allaying your dog’s fears about trips to the vet’s office
  • Taking advantage of special payment and savings plans
Just a few decades ago, to make it to adulthood, puppies had to avoid or successfully battle deadly diseases such as distemper, rabies, hepatitis, and leptospirosis. And fleas were a part of every dog’s life — along with the scratching, infections, and allergies that accompany those irritating insects. But scientists and veterinarians have worked hard to develop vaccines that prevent canine infectious diseases and to design ways of keeping dogs healthy and prolonging their lives.
One of the most important things you can do to keep your dog healthy is to develop a relationship of mutual respect with a veterinarian. Knowing that you and your veterinarian are partners in maintaining your dog’s health and in caring for your canine companion when he has problems can be a tremendous relief. This chapter gives suggestions on establishing this kind of relationship — from choosing a vet to making your dog feel good about going there. You also get some great ideas for tackling the often-expensive costs involved with keeping your dog healthy.

In this chapter, you also find out what you can do to prevent disease, and that often involves taking the dog to the veterinarian. Following these suggestions gives your dog a better chance of living a long and healthy life, which means more time for you to play fetch, teach him tricks, run with him, let him lick your face, and more.

Knowing What to Expect from the Annual Checkup

Taking your canine companion for a thorough veterinary checkup once a year is one of the most important things you can do for her. Even though your dog may seem to be the picture of health, a veterinarian often can detect early signs of disease or organ malfunction before your furry friend shows any outward signs of problems. Your veterinarian also can help you prevent common canine conditions, treat new problems early when treatment is most effective, or institute measures to prevent a condition from becoming worse.


Before your annual veterinary appointment, make notes of any changes in your dog’s health or behavior. Jot down any questions you have about your dog’s care. These notes will help you provide a complete description of your dog’s health history so you can get answers to your questions — and so you’re not left saying, “I know there was something I was going to ask, but I can’t remember what it was.” Bring a pen and paper to the appointment to take brief notes about your veterinarian’s recommendations — they can be hard to remember later.


Take advantage of your veterinary appointments. Ask questions and be sure that you understand the answers. Use these meetings as an opportunity to work with your veterinarian to promote your dog’s health and longevity. If your dog is found to be healthy at the annual checkup, don’t feel you’ve wasted your time and money. Instead, count your blessings.

A thorough veterinary examination should contain all the components covered in the following sections.

Health history

The veterinarian should ask whether you have observed any changes in your dog’s overall health. Now is your opportunity to ask questions and express any concerns you may have with respect to your dog’s health or behavior. You may want to point out any skin lumps you’ve found, discuss changes in your dog’s food or water intake, or ask about his urination or bowel habits.


If a specific problem has prompted your visit, bring a written history of the problem. If your dog has been vomiting periodically, for example, record the date the vomiting first began; how often your dog has vomited; when (in relation to eating) he vomited; and the amount, color, and texture of the vomited material.

Physical examination

Your veterinarian has been trained to perform a detailed physical examination of your dog. As he performs the examination, he is thinking about the dog’s entire body and is trying to determine whether every organ system is functioning at its peak. The veterinarian should look in your dog’s mouth, eyes, and ears, and he should run his hands over your dog’s body, feeling for abnormalities in the size or shape of lymph nodes and abdominal organs. He should listen to your dog’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope, take your dog’s temperature, and weigh her.


Don’t talk to your veterinarian or rub your dog while he’s listening with his stethoscope. It makes it hard for the vet to hear your dog’s lung and heart sounds.

Heartworm check

Heartworms are parasites that live in dogs’ hearts and cause heart failure. Mosquitoes transmit larval heartworms from one dog to another by sucking the blood of an infected dog, and then regurgitating a little blood when they bite the next victim. Heartworm disease exists in most areas of the United States and in southernmost Canada. In some areas, such as the southeastern United States, a large percentage of dogs who do not regularly receive heartworm preventive medication are infected. Preventing this disease is critical because, when a dog becomes infected, treating adult worms in the heart requires intensive care and can be life threatening.
Several excellent products are available for preventing heartworm infection. Before a dog is placed on a heartworm preventive, however, a blood sample must be tested to make sure that the dog is not already infected. This simple test can be done in your veterinarian’s office while you wait. In northern areas, where temperatures reach freezing, dogs need to take a heartworm preventive only during the spring, summer, and fall — after the test shows they aren’t infected. Many vets recommend that dogs be given a heartworm preventive year-round.


Dogs on heartworm preventive should still be tested every year, just in case the medication was forgotten or was ineffective for some reason.

Most heartworm preventives are given monthly. The pills are so tasty that you can just drop one in your dog’s food bowl and he’ll gobble it up. A heartworm preventive can be given to a puppy with his first set of vaccinations. A heartworm test isn’t necessary for a puppy under 3 months of age.

Blood chemistry, urinalysis, and vaccinations

If your veterinarian notices anything abnormal during his physical examination of your dog, he may take a blood and/or urine sample to perform biochemical tests. These tests can detect infections and malfunctions of the liver, kidney, pancreas, muscle, thyroid, and other organ systems.
Many vaccinations are administered annually, so having your dog vaccinated during the annual checkup makes sense. See Chapter The Scoop on Dog Food for more on vaccinating your dog.

Choosing the Right Vet for You and Your Dog

Choose a vet for your dog in the same way you choose a doctor for yourself. Just as you probably wouldn’t have much luck choosing your physician from the Yellow Pages, you have better ways of finding a veterinarian than turning to the phone book.


Personal references from friends and acquaintances or your dog’s breeder, if she lives nearby, can be very helpful in making your selection. Ask your friends whether their veterinarians have been able to make a diagnosis when their dogs haven’t been well. If their dogs had surgery, find out whether the recovery was uneventful and complete. Also find out whether their veterinarians discussed the dogs’ illnesses and treatments, and whether they answered questions thoroughly.


When you’ve compiled a short list of possible veterinarians, call and make an appointment to see each of them without your dog. Tell them you want to meet them, tour their clinics, and discuss your dog’s care. Look for the following qualities when choosing a veterinarian for your dog:

Someone who can diagnose: Your veterinarian should usually be able to give you a diagnosis after she has examined your dog and performed the necessary tests. She may not always come up with a single diagnosis, but she should have a list of possibilities and a plan for how to differentiate between those possibilities. And if your veterinarian doesn’t know the diagnosis or can’t answer the questions you have, she should at least be able to offer you an explanation of her thought processes and plans for further evaluation.

Someone you can communicate with easily: Your veterinarian should be willing to answer your questions and should be able to explain, in terms you understand, both your dog’s diagnosis and her recommendations for treatment and follow-up care. Your veterinarian should be willing to listen to you and shouldn’t ignore your observations regarding your dog’s health. She should work with you as a partner, as someone who can help her work to improve your dog’s health.

Someone who works in a modern facility: Your veterinarian should have a modern, clean facility with capable veterinary assistants and access to a diagnostic lab that can provide the results of most tests within 24 hours. She should have staff on the premises 24 hours a day to care for seriously ill dogs, or she should be able to move seriously ill dogs to a 24-hour emergency facility for overnight care and observation. Your veterinarian should be available during emergency hours or should be able to refer you to an emergency clinic for problems that occur at night or on weekends.

Someone who is willing to make referrals: Your veterinarian should be willing to refer your dog to a specialist for further evaluation. She should not be threatened if you ask for a referral to obtain a second opinion about your dog’s condition.

Someone who has specific interests and specialty training: Every veterinary professional has areas of special interest. Perhaps your veterinarian is especially interested in working with dogs. Maybe she has a particular interest in your breed of dogs. Not all veterinarians enjoy or are equally talented at performing surgery. And that’s okay. But because many dogs need surgery at some time in their lives, you need to know how comfortable your veterinarian is with surgery — what surgical procedures she performs and what kinds of cases she refers to a specialist. Ask her about the surgeons she refers to. Do the surgeons work in the same practice? If not, do they visit the practice to perform surgery, or would you have to transfer your dog elsewhere?


Don’t wait until your dog is ill to find a vet; get the facts and start developing a working relationship with a veterinarian while your dog is healthy. When you visit a veterinary clinic, watch the staff. It always is a good sign when the receptionist and technical staff enjoy being with dogs and work well together.


Don’t choose a veterinarian on the basis of the prices she charges for her services. Veterinarians have a great deal of time and money invested in their education, clinic, and equipment. A veterinary clinic has very high overhead because of the cost of maintaining assets and equipment (the building, the surgical and anesthetic equipment, an X-ray machine, ultrasound equipment, and so on), and the cost of top-notch personnel to care for your dog and to assist with surgery. A veterinarian who consistently charges less for her services than other vets in the same area is probably cutting corners somehow, perhaps in a way that can affect your dog’s care. To get the best healthcare for your dog, expect to pay for it. 

Above all, when choosing a vet, trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable talking freely with a particular veterinarian, if you are concerned about the care your animal receives, or if for some reason your dog takes a strong dislike to a particular vet, search for another veterinary partner.

Neutering Your Dog

Every year in the United States, millions of unwanted dogs — both mixed breed and purebred — are put to death. The reason: supply and demand. More puppies are born than there are lifetime homes available. Some unwanted litters are produced by accident (many dog owners don’t realize their dogs can start having puppies by 5 or 6 months of age); some litters are just the result of well-intentioned but misinformed people. A common reason given by the people who fall into the latter category is that they want their children to see the “miracle of life” in person, by allowing their dog to have a litter of pups. But what they may not think about ahead of time is the fact that the birth of puppies is not always a beautiful experience, especially if a puppy or the bitch dies in the process.


If you want to teach your children a wonderful lesson about the animal population, teach them the importance of spaying and neutering pets, and take them to visit your local Humane Society or animal shelter so they can see firsthand how many dogs are in need of a good home.

Some people who buy purebred dogs believe they can recover the purchase price of their dog by breeding it — and maybe make a little pocket change at the same time. But this idea is a fallacy; the cost of providing for a litter of puppies until they find new homes can outweigh the purchase price of the dog. It often eats up most of the profit from the sale of a litter, too.


The bottom line? Having a litter consists of either weeks of intensity or a lifetime of responsibility. If you’re ready for this, be sure to join your local breed club, where you’ll find many other individuals who will be glad to help you with all the details of making puppies. If you aren’t ready for the work involved, get your dog spayed or neutered. If you are really interested in breeding, take a look at Chapter Dog Breeding 101.

The only way to be sure that your dog doesn’t produce puppies is to get your female dog spayed or your male dog castrated. Failing to do so can lead to . . . well, you know. Intact male dogs and bitches in heat have an uncanny way of finding each other, and a breeding can occur in a snap.

Technical Stuff

Spaying involves removing both the uterus and the ovaries. Castration refers to removing a male dog’s testicles. The term neutering is a general term to describe either spaying or castration (but you may hear the terms neutering and castrating used to mean the same thing — neutering certainly sounds less horrible).

In addition to preventing unwanted puppies, neutering your dog has many benefits:

– Female dogs who are spayed before their first heat cycle (which usually occurs between 6 and 9 months of age) have a significantly reduced chance of developing mammary (breast) cancer, compared to dogs who have had even one heat cycle.

– Spayed females can’t develop pyometra, an infection of the uterus that can be quite severe and can even result in death.

– Spayed females tend to have more even temperaments and do not go through the hormone-induced mood swings that intact bitches sometimes have.

– Neutered dogs often are better behaved than their intact counterparts. Not only are they less likely to roam (visiting neighborhood females is a major reason for roaming), but they are also less likely to mark their territory by urinating in the house (testosterone is one of the major drives for this dominance-related activity). In addition, neutered male dogs are much less likely to be aggressive toward other male dogs. These behavior benefits are particularly true if you castrate your dog between the ages of 9 and 12 months, before he becomes sexually mature and develops bad habits.

– Neutering reduces the incidence of prostate problems often seen in older dogs.

– A neutered dog won’t develop testicular cancer, a common cancer of older, intact male dogs.


Male dogs who lift their legs to urinate don’t leave urine burns in the middle of the lawn because they usually urinate on trees, fence posts, and other vertical objects around the perimeter of the yard. If you prefer that your male dog lift his leg rather than squat to urinate, wait until this habit is well established before getting him neutered.


Many people think their dogs will get fat if they are spayed or castrated, but this isn’t the case. Neutered dogs frequently don’t need as much food as their intact compatriots, but a simple solution is useful if yours does: Don’t feed him as much.

The gory details

Neutering a male dog involves surgically removing the testicles with a relatively simple operation. When you make an appointment to have your dog castrated, your veterinarian will ask you not to give your dog any food or water after 8 p.m. the night before the surgery. (Keeping your dog from eating or drinking decreases the likelihood of the dog regurgitating during surgery.) The veterinarian will anesthetize the dog and make a tiny incision in the skin just in front of the testicles. The testicles are then slid up under the skin and removed through this little slit. The skin is sutured with three to five sutures. Your dog is then allowed to wake from the anesthesia and to rest overnight — either at the veterinarian’s office or at your home — after the surgery.
Spaying a female is more involved than neutering a male because it involves opening the abdomen. As with any general anesthetic, the veterinarian will ask you not to give your dog food or water after 8 p.m. the night before the surgery. After your dog is anesthetized, the veterinarian will make an incision in the center of her abdomen. He will find the uterus and ovaries and cut them out, first making sure that all the blood vessels are clamped off so they don’t bleed. In a young dog, the blood vessels are tiny and are easy to clamp off. After a female has been through a heat cycle, however, the vessels are larger and require special attention so they don’t bleed. This is why spaying a dog after her first heat is usually more expensive. If a bitch is pregnant, the vessels are very large and are full of blood to feed the growing puppies; therefore, some veterinarians refuse to spay a pregnant bitch (sometimes requested to prevent the birth of puppies) because of the danger of postoperative bleeding. After removing the uterus and ovaries, the veterinarian sutures the abdominal incision and the dog wakes up. She then may stay overnight at the clinic to make sure that she rests and doesn’t stress the incision in the early stages of healing.
For the first couple days after surgery (whether for castration or spaying), your dog should rest and should go outside only for the bathroom. For the next week, mild exercise such as on-leash walking is all right. About ten days after surgery, the veterinarian will check to make sure that the incision is healing properly and will remove the sutures (or check on self-dissolving sutures).
Depending on your locale and the veterinarian you select, castrating a male dog can cost between $100 and $150, and spaying a female dog costs between $150 and $200. This cost is an incredible bargain, given that the bill for a woman’s hysterectomy costs upward of $10,000. For people on public assistance, people with lower incomes, and seniors on fixed incomes, spay/neuter clinics in most towns and cities can provide the service for a drastically reduced fee. These clinics usually are sponsored by animal shelters and veterinarians as part of an ongoing effort to control the local pet population. To find out when these clinics are held in your area, contact your local animal shelter. But costs can vary widely — always find out what services are included so you can compare apples to apples.

Helping Your Dog Enjoy His Trip to the Vet

You just love going to the doctor or dentist, don’t you? Well, many dogs hate visiting the vet. And it’s really not surprising, given the fact that their associations usually are negative.
Think how a routine veterinary checkup (see Figure 4-1) must appear to your dog. First, he has to wait in a small room full of dogs, cats, and other animals, most of whom are extremely fearful. Then he is led into a strange room and is placed on a cold, slippery table. Next, a stranger who smells like a mixture of soap, chemicals, and other animals touches him all over his body, looks in his mouth and ears, and sticks a cold glass thermometer up his rear end. To top it all off, the stranger usually pokes him with at least one needle, often more.
Figure 4-1: Visiting the vet can be difficult for many dogs, so find a vet who is kind and caring. (© Mary Bloom)
You can take some steps to ensure that your dog’s veterinary experiences are good ones. Consider these ways to prevent your dog from developing a fear of his trips to the vet:

Occasionally drop by the vet’s office with your dog when you don’t have an appointment. Bring your dog into the office and have the receptionist give him a cookie or two. Chat for a while and then leave. This way, your dog will learn to view the vet’s office as a fun place, instead of a place where he only gets poked and prodded.

Make sure that your dog gets experience riding in the car just for fun. If he rides in the car only when he has to see the veterinarian, he soon will become fearful as soon as he gets in the car.

Schedule your veterinary appointments for a time when there are fewer dogs in the office, if you can. This reduces the social stresses on your dog and reduces your time in the waiting room. If your dog is particularly worried while he’s in the waiting room, stay with your dog in the car until the veterinarian is ready to meet with you (you can run in and let the office staff know you’re in the parking lot and have them come get you when they’re ready).

Bring an ample supply of treats with you. Give your dog a treat for entering the door and another for sitting with you quietly. Train your dog in the basics of obedience — he’ll feel more secure if he is asked to do something familiar (like “sit” and “stay”) during this stressful period. During your office visit, ask the veterinarian to give your dog some treats periodically, especially just before she examines your dog or before she does something stressful such as inserting the thermometer.

Don’t mistakenly praise your dog for being stressed. Many people make the mistake of trying to comfort their dogs when they act fearful in the veterinary office. Your dog may interpret this attention as you praising him for his worry. You’re better off ignoring him when he acts worried, and praising him and giving him treats for even small acts of boldness.


Start these preventive measures from the very first visit. Don’t wait until your dog shows signs of fear.

Covering the Costs

If your dog gets sick, will you be able to pay the bill? Treating a simple infection can cost hundreds of dollars, and cancer treatment routinely costs thousands. Of course, you want to provide the best treatment possible for your furry friend, but top-notch veterinary care comes at a price. Before an accident or a sudden illness has you emptying your savings account or, even worse, opting for euthanasia because of a lack of funds, consider the alternatives in the following sections and see if one of these options is right for you.

Personal savings plans

The best way to make sure that you’ll always have funds available to pay veterinary bills is to set up a canine cash reserve. If you deposit $30 to $50 a month in a savings account in your pet’s name, you’ll be surprised by how much you can save. In a year or two, you’ll have enough to pay the bill for most serious illnesses. Save the spare change you collect at the end of the day, and you’ll have all your dog’s healthcare covered.
You can use your canine cash reserve to pay for all your veterinary bills, or you can set it aside for any expenses over a certain amount (such as $200). The money will continue to grow throughout your dog’s life, and you will have a substantial sum accumulated when your dog is older (when she’s more likely to require more expensive treatments).


The only disadvantage of this system is that you have to have the discipline to make it work.


Don’t wait until the last minute to come up with funds to pay your dog’s medical expenses. If you put $2 of change a day into a savings account, at the end of three years, you’ll have saved more than $2,000 — enough to pay for your average catastrophic illness.

Pet insurance

Obtaining pet insurance is one way to ease veterinary sticker shock. Insurance companies charge annual premiums of between $150 and $300 for a healthy adult dog. Basic coverage for puppies is slightly less, and when your dog reaches 8 years of age, the cost of coverage rises incrementally as your dog gets older. Basic plans usually don’t cover routine preventive care, although such coverage may be available for an extra charge. The basic plans are designed to cover a percentage of the veterinary charges for unexpected illnesses. They don’t cover preexisting conditions or hereditary diseases. So if your dog has hip dysplasia, for example, surgical or medical treatment to ease his pain would not be covered. But if your furry friend were hit by a car or decided to eat a dish towel (yes, dogs have done that), the costs of veterinary care would be covered (after paying a deductible) up to a maximum amount for that condition.


Making sense of the deductions, maximums, exclusions, and other insurance lingo can be tough, so be sure to read the insurance company’s literature carefully before signing on the dotted line. If you have any questions about what will and will not be covered, speak to an insurance company representative. Don’t hesitate to ask whatever questions you have about the coverage you’re considering. Think about some of the illnesses your dog (or one of your previous dogs) has suffered and ask what percentage of the charges would be covered. Using a real-life example will help you understand exactly how much you will be responsible for and determine whether the cost of the insurance is worth it.


If you keep good financial records, you can add up how much you spent on veterinary care during the last five years and calculate how much you typically spend on veterinary care every year. Take a look also at how much you have saved to deal with a catastrophic illness so that you can determine whether you may benefit from pet insurance.

Clinic-based HMOs

For a number of years, individual clinics have offered well-care plans, in which clients pay a monthly fee and receive discounts on routine care and preventive maintenance such as annual checkups, vaccinations, fecal exams, deworming, and heartworm checks. Some programs also offer member discounts on dental cleaning and surgical spaying or castrating.
Prepaid healthcare programs offer a way of spreading out (and perhaps reducing) the costs of routine veterinary care, but they generally do not cover hereditary diseases, preexisting conditions, or catastrophic illness. In addition, they cover your pet only for care provided in that specific practice. So if your pet gets ill while you’re on vacation, or if he requires the care of a specialist not in that practice, you’re on your own.


If you are considering taking advantage of a comprehensive preventive care program, do a little math to figure out whether it’s right for you. Make a list of all the preventive care services you would normally avail yourself of in a year, and add up the cost of those services. Then compare that number with the cost for the services offered by the clinic’s well-care plan. Clinic-based plans often provide a significant discount to clients who want to provide the most complete preventive care for their furry friends.

Pet-care credit companies

Several credit companies offer credit to cover unexpected veterinary fees. If your dog suddenly becomes ill or has an accident and you’re short on funds, this option can save your dog’s life. Unlike pet insurance, credit companies do not require you to sign up ahead of time (although your veterinarian must be registered with the company), and there are no exclusions or deductibles.
To take advantage of this service, you just fill out a credit application, which your veterinarian transmits to the lender. If the application is approved, your veterinarian is paid within 48 hours, and a payment schedule is established for repayment of your loan.


Of course, all this credit comes at a price. These companies generally charge 18 to 24 percent interest (similar to what you may pay in interest on a credit card debt), making them an expensive prospect if you have to make payments over a long period of time. Nonetheless, this option is available if the only other choice is euthanasia.


Another option, which gives you more power over the interest you pay, is to keep a major credit card with no balance, to ensure that you have enough money to pay for emergencies.

by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD