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8 Weeks to a Healthy Pet

by Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M.


Excerpted from 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Cat.
Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M., Keats publishing, May 1998.

Shawn MessonnierThe current state of affairs in veterinary medicine does not promote preventive health care as it should. In human medicine, there is a big thrust to prevent serious diseases through the use of regular (usually annual) examinations and laboratory tests (blood analysis, urinalysis, etc.) Unfortunately, this preventive approach is quite rare in veterinary medicine. Instead, most doctors prefer to treat problems as they arise, rather than prevent diseases. As a result, pets live shorter lives than they should, they are treated with a number of harmful medications including antibiotics and corticosteroids, and owners spend money unnecessarily. By following a preventive health care program, pets can live longer, use fewer drugs for existence, and owners can often save considerable amounts of money.

Many pet owners are surprised to find that a healthy looking dog or cat is in fact unhealthy. In my practice, while most of my patients do in fact "look healthy," simple investigative work points out the sad reality that many pets do in fact harbor some type of problem.

Some pets which "look healthy" do visit their doctor annually. Sadly, their doctors do not believe in total health care. These veterinarians instead stress annual vaccinations rather than preventive health care. While many pets do need annual immunizations, some do not. For those that do not, we are now beginning to suspect that repeated, unnecessary immunizations may possibly contribute to early illness and death in some pets.

There are doctors who do recommend and perform an annual physical examination. The importance of the annual examination will soon become apparent. Early diagnosis of potentially serious healthy problems is important; early detection and treatment not only saves owners on unnecessary veterinary expenses, but can be lifesaving for many pets. However, despite discovering various reasons health problems such as periodontal disease, heart disease, and skin tumors, some owners choose not to treat the problems until they worsen.

Many pets, even those housed indoors are infested with a number of parasites. Because of the life cycles of some of these parasites, owners and doctors are often unaware of their existence. However, your cat's body is certainly aware of them: These parasites prevent your pet from experiencing true "health" and proper function of his body systems. By depriving your cat of vital nutrients and an adequate blood supply, he does not function as nature intended him.

A number of pets are fed premium foods. Sadly, the only thing "premium" about many of these highly priced diets is the price! Owners must learn how to read the labels on pet foods to determine which diets are best for their pets, and which diets might be harmful.

Lack of annual veterinary care, feeding inadequate food without supplementation, substituting low cost vaccinations that may not be necessary and may in fact be harmful is the state of veterinary medicine today. Sadly, many pets suffer and do not live to their life potential because of inadequate health care.

What I'm proposing is different from what many people experience. In our practice, we follow an "8 Week to a Healthy Pet" Program. The program is quite simple, inexpensive and healthy for the pet. I find that many owners who subscribe to the program are rewarded with healthier pets that live a long lifestyle. Additionally, many owners find they are able to save anywhere from 10-50% on the cost of annual veterinary care over the life of their pets by preventing illness. It's time for all of us, owners and doctors, to look at health and health care for our dogs and cats differently.

It is no longer acceptable to assume that health is equal to the obvious "lack of disease." No, health is much more than that. We demand "health" for ourselves, and we should demand it for our pets and from their doctors. Accepting any less is not acceptable; doctors who refuse to concentrate on health and instead prefer to wait for diseases to happen are not acting in the best interests of our pets

We must realize that we have a choice. Having a choice and exercising it is what our program, 8 Weeks To a Healthy Dog or Cat is all about.

Yes, it really is possible to have a truly "healthy" pet in just 8 short weeks. It's not hard nor expensive, and in fact many of the things you will need to do you're probably doing right now. The program will involve a determined effort on your part. And it may involve you finding the right doctor for your pet. I believe that most doctors want their patients to be healthy. Yet, for a number of reasons, they may not encourage true health in their patients.

It's really hard to believe that doctors wouldn't act in their patients' best interests and encourage disease prevention. One of my colleagues told me, when discussing the obvious need for an annual blood profile to allow early detection of serious diseases, "my clients won't go for that." Why not?! My clients go for "it" and even demand "it" for their pets. An annual examination and blood profile are accepted standards of care for people. When we go to the doctor, this is a normal part of our health care visit; we don't "go" for anything, we just accept this as the minimum standard of health care. Why do we accept less for our pets, when veterinary medicine can easily (and less expensively) provide this same high level of care that is typical of our human health care system?

I know that some doctors just seem too busy to concentrate on health. Instead they spend most of their time putting out fires, treating the sick and dying. Certainly investigating the cause of serious illnesses can be exciting and challenging, and I enjoy the challenge of diagnosing a difficult illness as much as any of my colleagues. However, wouldn't it be better for your cat if your doctor could prevent most of these problems and instead deal with the pet who occasionally becomes ill? Isn't it more exciting to try and outwit Mother Nature, and prevent many of the problems she allows?

In veterinary school, we spend so much time learning to diagnose and treat illness. Sadly, we spent little time preventing problems. We spent no time formulating a health plan to prevent illness. Because of our training, doctors are almost better equipped to treat, rather than prevent, problems. Yet, while disease diagnosis and treatment are important when your pet is ill, this approach does nothing to help your pet live a long healthy life. Only by focusing on a preventive health care plan can we help your pet live a long, healthy life and help save you on the cost of veterinary care.

Who would you rather have as your pet's primary health care provider? Doctor A, who can fix any problem your pet develops? Or would you have Dr. B. as your pet's health care provider, who will work with you to try and prevent as many problems as possible, extending your pet's life and doing it at a lower cost than you would incur for treatment? Is disease treatment most important to you, or would you prefer to prevent problems before they develop? Would you like to spend a lot of money on running numerous laboratory tests and multiple periods of hospitalization, or would you rather spend a little on regular veterinary visits? The choice is yours. I made the choice for the kind of health care I choose to provide to my patients. My clients, by choosing me, have made their choices on the kind of health car they want for their pets. You too, whether intentionally or accidentally, make a choice every time you take your cat to the veterinarian. I encourage you to consider what you truly want, and what's in the best interest of your pet. Make a conscious, deliberate choice for disease prevention and true health for your pet.

I've heard that some studies show the average lifespan for pets is about 8-10 years of age. Yet, for pets that are truly "healthy," many cats live to their genetic potential of more than 15 years. Many pets in my practice are quite healthy and spry at 15 years of age, and most live to be 18-20 years old. Are you willing to accept early death for your pet, or would you rather extend his life?

That is what our program, 8 Weeks to a Healthy Pet is all about.

I've divided the necessary care your pet will need into 8 week segments. While you certainly could do everything at once, I think doing the steps over the course of 8 weeks makes sense. First, it's much easier for all of us to make changes slowly, in small bites. Also, establishing true health takes time and can't be rushed overnight. During the program you'll be asked to make improvements in your cat's diet to minimize adverse effects from harmful chemicals and preservatives, and maximize the nutritive value of the food. Supplements will be recommended to make up for any deficiencies in the diet, as well as minimize oxidative stress to your pet's body.

Many cats will be found to have some sort of disease during the veterinary visit at the start of the program. Your doctor will recommend treating any diseases that are present. Finally, many changes, such as those that come about by improving the diet and adding supplements, take four to eight weeks to see changes. Therefore, the 8 week program makes it easy for owners to implement and allows time to begin to see results.

During Week 1, we start off with a full thorough physical examination and necessary laboratory testing, usually involving blood and/or urine tests. I'm amazed just how many pets have not received an adequate physical examination within the past 6-12 months. While many cats may have seen a veterinarian (usually for immunizations) within the past year, few have had what I consider to be adequate preventive health care. Owners often ask how old a cat is in terms of "people" years. As a guideline, every year of your pet's life is equivalent to about 7-10 human years. This means that minimally, your pet must be examined annually (although I try to do this to my patients at least twice each year). It's just amazing how many health problems can pop up in a 6-12 month period. I've had a number of pets check out fine and then as early as four to six months later develop a medical problem, some of which are quite serious. Don't discount the extreme importance of regular veterinary health check-ups!

Because no one can "see" inside the pet's body, and because a pet is not necessarily "healthy" just because he "looks healthy", it's essential to perform some laboratory testing. Usually this means drawing blood for evaluation of the body organs. As needed, your doctor can recommend other tests such as a urinalysis, EKG, or radiographs.

In Week 2, we'll do our best to control a common problem in pets, internal and external parasites. Many pets are harboring internal or external parasites, yet these may not be noticed by the owner. And when you consider that many parasites can be transmitted by your cat to the family, parasite control takes on even greater importance! Even though they may not always be readily visible to owners, parasites can cause numerous problems that interfere with your pet's health such as digestive upsets, decreased absorption of nutrients, and even anemia. Therefore, treating and preventing parasites is critical to getting your pet on its way to optimum health.

In Week 3, we'll match the correct diet to your pet's needs. There are numerous diets available to the pet owner; a few are quite good, many are average, and some generic diets are downright terrible. Pets that have special medical problems discovered during the examination and laboratory testing in Week 1 will have the proper diet especially prescribed for them. For example, if your pet is diagnosed with heart disease, a "heart-friendly" diet that contains reduced amounts of sodium may be prescribed.

In Week 4, we'll begin supplementing your pet's diet. There are a number of supplements which can improve the quality of your pet's health. Regardless of his diet, supplementation will provide the extra nutrients to ensure optimum health. Even the best processed diet is not perfect, and supplementation with good nutritional products and antioxidants will improve your pet's health and may help control certain diseases.

In Week 5, we're going to treat any diseases discovered during the physical examination and laboratory testing. Most owners don't realize it, but the majority of "healthy" pets I see have at least one if not more disease conditions which may cause pain to the pet, as well as a general overall state of unhealthiness. Most commonly your doctor will detect problems involving the skin, teeth, heart, or various skin tumors. This way, we can end the 8 week program with a truly healthy pet.

In Week 6, we'll get your pet on a good sound healthy program of exercise. Exercise and a regular daily routine will improve your pet's physical and mental health. This week of the program is often really enjoyed by many pet owners, as it allows increased cat-owner bonding.

In Week 7, we'll try to wean your pet off of potentially harmful drugs including antibiotics and corticosteroids. I am convinced that many pets have a decreased state of health as a result of excessive and inappropriate use of drugs. While drug therapy is necessary and can save the life of a pet, when medications are used incorrectly they can cause harm. Why are so many pets treated inappropriately with unnecessary and harmful drugs? There are several reasons. First, it's easy to treat pets symptomatically with a quick shot of something and hope the pet gets better. And since many pet will improve with that quick shot, owners come to accept this as quality health care. However, the shot eventually wears off and another shot is needed. With time, these shots (and oral drugs) cease to be effective. Owners find they have spent considerable amounts of money for shots and pills and liquids that have really done nothing for their pets. Many times a diagnosis was never reached, so large sums of money were spent and we still don't know what is wrong with the pet!

Also, sadly many doctors are "too busy" to take time to properly diagnose and treat their patients! It's so quick and easy to give a shot or send home some pills. As I've already mentioned, these quick-fix solutions don't work, and owners go elsewhere to have the problem properly solved.

A very important part of our 8 Week program will be making an attempt to reduce or eliminate unnecessary and harmful drugs from your pet's treatment regimen.

Finally in Week 8, your pet will be placed on a regular grooming program designed to minimize future problems with the ears, skin, hair, and teeth.

While there are goals for you to meet each week, nothing takes place in a vacuum. For example, during Week 1 your pet will be diagnostically evaluated for underlying diseases. Later in the program, we'll talk about having those diseases corrected. There is nothing to stop you from having a problem fixed earlier, and you should not let our program tie your hands when it comes to common sense and good health care. By dividing up topics on a weekly basis, I've found it much easier for owners to manage.

Use this program in conjunction with sound veterinary advice. Work with your pet's health care provider to maximize the program. Some owners report that their doctors disagree with some of the advice I have given. That's unfortunate but not totally unexpected. Remember that doctors have been trained to diagnose and treat problems rather than taking a preventive, holistic approach to health care. Keep in mind that in order to correctly implement the 8 Week program, your doctor must spend quite a bit of time with you and your cat. Busy doctors do not want to slow down and this program forces them to do something different from their regular routine.

If your veterinarian is opposed to some of the ideas in the program, find someone who will work with you to allow your pet to receive the health care he's entitled too. Nothing in this program is 'far out" or "wacky." Rather, the 8 Week program follows logic, common sense and good sound medical advice. There are certainly options for you to consider, and by tailoring the program to meet your needs as well as the needs of your pet, you and your doctor can truly provide personalized pet care (personalized pet care is something I introduced several years ago. Rather than follow a generic recommendation for every pet, I sought to use a generic program and adapt it to the needs of my clients and their pets.)

You can find more information on the 8 Week to a Healthy Pet program in the guides, 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Cat, Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M., Keats publishing, available at local bookstores and pet stores in May of 1998.


Dr. Messonnier is the owner of Paws and Claws Animal Hospital in Plano, TX. He may be reached at 972-867-8800.

Reprinted with permission. ©1997, 1998 by Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M. All Rights Reserved.