My resolution for 2013 will be to play whatever role I can in reversing this alarming trend.
Flea infestation and heartworm are far more expensive to treat than to prevent, and prevention is less expensive. Avoiding either is easy enough. Still, as flea infestations have risen, so have reports of flea allergy. (Fleas can also spread disease to people.) The treatment for heartworm -- which can be fatal -- is grueling. Obviously, if pets had a choice, they'd clearly pick prevention over crazily itching from flea allergies or suffering the effects of heartworm.
According to a study conducted by Bayer Animal Health, a quarter of all pet owners don't understand the importance of preventive care for pets. The percent of households making no trip at all to a veterinarian in the course of a year increased by 8 percent for dogs and a confounding 24 percent for cats compared to five years ago, according to the 2012 American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.
One viable explanation is that many pet owners have never been educated about the value of preventive pet care, as well as what veterinarians do doing during annual exams. Sure, when the stethoscope comes out, people realize the vet is listening to their pet's heart. However, I'm not sure how many people realize that heart disease is prevalent and early diagnosis can matter.
Even less clear is all that goes into a routine exam. Most pet owners don't know that the exam begins as the pet walks into a clinician's room. The veterinarian checks the pet's gait for arthritis, even neurological problems. By simply petting a dog or cat, the veterinarian is feeling for lumps, even noting coat quality, an indicator for all sorts of issues. The answers to seemingly benign questions, like "how much does your pet drink?" offer clues to potential kidney disease or diabetes.
Some pet owners believe they would know if their pet was sick. However, this is often false, especially for cats, masters at masking illness. A veterinarian may detect problems an owner can't, unless the owner has learned to run blood work in their home. Others (as many as 15 percent, according to one survey) feel they can "Google" anything their veterinarian can do.
I don't deny that in some cases veterinarians are to blame for not communicating the value of visits, pushing clients away with exorbitant fees, or "nickel and diming" them on treatment. Overall, however, veterinary medicine remains a relative bargain. The cost of similar care and identical testing and drugs for pets is far less than the cost of the same for people.
Regardless of the explanations, the decline in veterinary visits is entirely contradictory to what's in the best interest of our pets.
I welcome your comments and ideas on all sides of the fence on this issue. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Not only will I be writing about the necessity of preventive veterinary care in 2013, but I'll also offer your perspectives on the topic as I write for professional publications and speak at veterinary conferences. I hope to be a part of the solution.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)