Didn’t we used to only bring our pet to the vet yearly for a rabies vaccination?
I have been around animals for most of my life. I grew up in a house where dogs were kept outdoors, and they came inside only when the weather was poor. What did those animal feel? What conditions and issues were missed because we weren’t with them all the time? Why did they die? That one is easy. “They just were old.”
I have learned a lot since my childhood. The world has turned many times, and I am now older and different than when I was a child. For instance, I know now that age is not a disease. Age is a marker of time. Things happen over time. The role of animals in our lives has changed dramatically since I was a child. I am fond of saying that dogs and cats have moved out of the backyard, into the house, and onto the bed. This simple change has altered veterinary medicine dramatically. Now we see our animals much more often and in a much closer role. We are better at recognizing pain and discomfort. Now we know when our pets are itchy from allergies long before they are bald and bleeding from allergic dermatitis-induced self-mutilation. Now we recognize when they have upset stomachs and diarrhea long before they collapse from dehydration and get maggots in their skin and hair.
No, in today’s world there are far fewer backyard animals and many more furry members of our family. What animals offer to our world is incredible. They can soothe the soul. I have seen it. I have seen the man with dementia who doesn’t know his wife and children, smile when he sees his cat. I have watched the soldier with PTSD who can’t deal with the stresses of a society find comfort and relaxation in the eyes of his dog. What animals do for us is definitely a treasure in this world. Because of what they bring to us, we want them to never suffer or be in pain.
And so veterinary medicine has changed. Yes, we treat all the same diseases that our human counter parts do. From repairing the ACL, to managing diabetes, to battling IBD, or fighting cancer with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It is an interesting time to be a part of the medical team for our four-legged family members.
Yet veterinary medicine has flaws. Everyone knows that when you catch a problem early, you have a better chance of managing it. Your furry friend’s healthcare team consists of you and your veterinary team. Only half of this team is trained to recognize clinical signs of disease early in your friend. Our four-legged friends are masters of disguise and rarely show signs of having a problem until late in the course of disease. Finally, our friends age far faster than you and I ever will. These facts have led to an extremely reactive form of medicine. They have also led to many unfortunate euthanasias.
Over the years I have practiced, my perspective has changed. It has become very clear to me that if we want to offer outstanding medical care to our friends who age faster than us and hide their problems from us, then we must have the part of their health care team that is trained to examine them in the picture more often. We must also look for signs of illness that are not easily visible. This includes semi-annual physical examinations and regular blood monitoring. This means we must truly develop health maintenance protocols to include dental care, nutritional management, parasite prevention, and age specific health recommendations. The key to truly helping our friends that can’t speak for themselves is to have them monitored closely by those trained to do so. We don’t want to wait seven years of their lives between visits to the vet.