With 67 percent of households in the United States providing a home to a pet, it is no wonder that we have a month to commemorate pet ownership. May is National Pet Month, and what better time to assess the care of companion animals in the home? These animals are so dear to us that Americans paid a collective 99 billion to the pet industry in 2020, three billion more than the 96 billion spent in 2019.
While pet demographics can be as diverse as their owners, most homes have one or more of the most popular animals. Not surprisingly, dogs are the number one companion animal in the U.S. Cats are second, followed by birds and horses. Fish and pet poultry lead the specialty and exotic pet group with ownership of reptiles, “other mammals,” and rabbits much less common.
Care of domestic animals varies from general day-to-day maintenance to acute care in times of illness and injury. Common sense in attending to pets’ needs goes a long way. We feed, walk, pet, and groom our animal charges with love and devotion. However, important aspects of our animals’ wellbeing can go unnoticed, and therefore unattended to, simply for lack of knowledge.
Let’s take a look at what animal welfare is, what aspects of pet health are often ignored, and what we can do to better care for the animals in our lives.
What is Animal Welfare?
The Association of American Medical Veterinary Association (AMVA) describes animal welfare as providing for an animal’s physical and mental needs. They further define the concept as:
“A human responsibility that includes consideration for all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia.”
The AMVA explains that perspectives on animal welfare are varied and influenced by an individual’s values and experiences. Animal welfare can be measured in part by a pet’s health, behavior, productivity, and physiological responses.
The AVMA also offers eight principles for developing and evaluating animal welfare policies, resolutions, and actions. These principles address:
- Responsible use of animals for human purposes
- Decisions regarding animal care, use, and welfare
- Providing for animal needs with consideration for their species
- Care that minimizes fear, pain, stress, and suffering
- Evaluation of procedures related to animal housing, management, care, and use
- Humane conservation and management of animal populations
- Respect and dignified treatment in life and at the end-of-life
- Improvement of animal health and welfare through scientific research, education, collaboration, and advocacy, and supported by legislative and regulatory action
How to ensure that your pet’s needs are being fully met? Dr. Steven Kochis, Chief Medical Officer of the Oregon Humane Society generously lent his expertise on the lesser-known aspects of pet care that, when tended to by pet owners, can greatly reduce pet maladies and enhance the wellbeing (and longevity) of our beloved animal friends.
Expert Interview with Steven Kochis, DVM – Chief Medical Officer of the Oregon Humane Society
Dr. Steven Kochis is a doctor of veterinary medicine specializing in emergency medicine, infectious diseases, and immunology. Along with his 25 years of service to the field, Dr. Kochis is on the executive board of the Portland Veterinary Association, where he formerly served as president.
Prior to joining the Oregon Humane Society (OHS), Dr. Kochis was a member of the OHS board of directors. He attended Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences and went on to complete his DVM. He is the owner of two Border Terriers, one of whom is pictured here.
What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Pet
The most common health issue overlooked by pet owners, Dr. Kochis explained, is dental disease. Makes sense, right? It’s not so easy to look into an animal’s mouth.
However, this often neglected aspect of pet healthcare is vital to animal wellbeing. The AVMA explains:
“Dental health is a very important part of your pet’s overall health, and dental problems can cause, or be caused by, other health problems. Your pet’s teeth and gums should be checked at least once a year by your veterinarian to check for early signs of a problem and to keep your pet’s mouth healthy.”
In fact, periodontal disease is the number one dental condition in dogs and cats. Left untreated, this can lead to severe pain. “We don’t really appreciate how painful advanced dental disease can be for our pets,” Dr. Kochis shared. Periodontal disease has also been found in association with changes in heart, liver, and kidney function, so it’s important for your veterinary professional to be aware of your pet’s dental health.
In addition to getting your pet’s mouth and teeth checked at least once a year, a trip to the vet is in order if problems are observed, such as bad breath; broken, lose, or discolored teeth; changes in appetite; abnormal chewing, drooling, or dropping food; and bleeding from or swelling around the mouth.
Fortunately, preventative dentistry can go a long way in helping to avoid dental disease as well as the discomfort and expensive procedures involved in treatment. Kochis said, “Most people don’t realize the benefit of brushing their pet’s teeth—you don’t need to do it every day to get the benefits.” For those new to the practice of brushing your pet’s teeth, this resource may be helpful.
Tips for New and Experienced Pet Owners Alike
Dr. Kochis advised new pet owners to do three things:
- Establish a relationship with a vet.
- Educate yourself about the breed and/or medical history of the pet.
- Be aware of weight control.
As in the case of human health, it’s important that your pet have a medical home with a veterinary professional familiar with your pet’s health profile. Dr. Kochis emphasized the importance of talking with a vet about what to expect as a new pet owner, especially in the case of younger animals.
Additionally, certain breeds of animals are prone to certain health issues. Vets can guide pet owners in the care of such animals as well as preventative measures to take. In the case of purebred dogs, in particular, Dr. Kochis explained, “It’s important to be aware of the most common and/or congenital issues.”
Dr. Kochis also cautioned new pet owners to pay attention to their animal’s weight: “There are diseases that are more likely to affect obese pets,” he shared. Hence, attention to diet can mitigate long-term effects of obesity such as osteoarthritis, compromised respiratory function, hypertension, and diabetes, among others. The Pet Nutrition Alliance, made up of a variety of veterinary organizations including the AVMA, has a wealth of resources on understanding pet food and nutritional needs.
Finally, Dr. Kochis cited another important aspect of pet care often overlooked by new and experienced pet owners alike: the annual wellness/physical exam. “Identifying problems early can be very helpful,” he said. “Even indoor cats can benefit from an annual check-up.” However, annual exams are especially necessary for senior pets, which need more attention than their younger counterparts. “Annual blood work is important to identify any issues with senior pets as early as possible,” Dr. Kochis emphasized.
All of this can add up to some hefty bills for animal healthcare. However, investing in annual wellness exams and preventative measures such as attention to your pet’s weight and teeth can save a lot down the road, both in your pet’s unnecessary suffering as well as the dent in your pocketbook. For individuals concerned about the cost of pet healthcare, it may be helpful to look into a pet insurance policy.
Pet Activism: How to get involved
Supporting pet wellbeing can take many forms. Those with time or money to spare can volunteer or donate to an animal advocacy group. Individuals and families wishing to add a pet to their homes can counteract the effects of animal homelessness by adopting from an animal shelter or rescue organization or fostering an animal in need. And everyone can contribute by spreading the word on the humane treatment of animals and how to tend to the health and wellbeing of pets.
- Volunteer – Find an opportunity close to home, or combine your love for animals and travel and go abroad. Opportunities abound for individuals interested in contributing to animal welfare in a hands-on capacity.
- Donate to an Animal Rescue Organization – International animal rescue organizations, including Humane Society International (HSI) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) have U.S. chapters: ASPCA and HSUS.
- Support Animal Welfare and Veterinary Professionals through Legislation – The AVMA supports legislation on issues related to animal welfare and veterinary professional and educational issues. Have a friend or family member that’s a vet? Encourage them to join the AVMA political action committee!