New from the USA: well-being programmes for pets
One of the interesting aspects of summertime work as a vet is that we sometimes have visitors from overseas. In the past twenty years, it has become easier than ever to travel with pets, so these days, we regularly encounter owners - and animals - from continental Europe and North America.
Last week, I met a man from California called Chuck, and his Golden Labrador, named Thor. The dog had cut his pad while out on a hill walk, so a simple stitch up was needed.
As Chuck settled his bill, I mentioned that many people in Ireland had pet insurance to cover such eventualities, and I asked him if Thor was insured back home.
"No, he isn't insured, but he does have a well-being plan". And when I asked Chuck more about this, he explained the details.
Well-being, is one of those contemporary buzz-words that's used for humans. More than just physical health, it includes mental and social well-being, and personal fulfilment. It's a broad, slightly fluffy term that oozes positivity and goodness.
So what might a well-being plan for a dog look like?
Chuck told me that the plan was suggested by his veterinarian, and just as in the human field, well-being covers all aspects of Thor's life.
Physical health is the first area, and that's the main focus of vets. We are trained to know about health and disease of animals, so we can guide people towards making sure that their pets are physically well.
The foundation of Thor's well-being plan is a once yearly examination by his vet. Everything is checked: his body weight, his heart and lungs, his limbs and joints, his teeth, eyes and ears, the condition of his skin, coat and nails. Every minor discrepancy is noted, and photographs of any physical issues are taken and stored in his clinical record.
The vet felt that Thor's coat smelled fusty, suspecting a mild yeast infection, and he recommended twice monthly washed in a medicated shampoo. And his nails were slightly overgrown: the vet clipped them.
At Thor's last visit, the vet had noted that the early signs of dental tartar accumulation were visible: he took photos, and told Chuck to improve the home dental care that he was giving (so he's moved to from twice weekly to daily toothbrushing, plus dental chews). Next year, he'll review progress.
Next, Thor's vaccination protocol was checked: he had been given puppy shots, then every year the vet looked at what was due. Some vaccines last just one year, while others last three or four years. Thor's needs are reviewed every year to ensure that he was up to date with protection against viruses and infectious bacteria.
After the physical check up, the vet carried out a "nutrition audit": he asked Chuck precisely what Thor was eating. He looked up the brand of kibble on the company website, and explained the ingredients to Chuck: this was a good quality food, with no need for change. He also asked about all other treats, stressing that no more than 10% of Thor's diet should be tidbits from the human table.
Importantly, Thor's body weight was exactly the same as the previous year: the early detection of excessive weight is the best way to prevent obesity. There was no need to adjust Thor's food intake, but with many dogs, a reduction in daily calories is a key recommendation.
Next, it was time for the parasite prevention programme. Fleas, ticks and heartworm are common in that part of the world, and Thor has to be on monthly medication to keep him clear. This is done on an individual basis. An "apartment dog" faces different risks to a meadow-loving, forest-roaming dog like Thor.
So far, I was impressed with the vet's thoroughness, but there was nothing new here: when Irish dogs go to the vet, it's normal for all of the above to be discussed, even if not in such a systematic way. But it was the next bit that surprised me.
The vet went on to carry out a mental and social well-being review. He asked how Thor spends his days, what exercise he has, and what dog-dog and dog-human encounters he enjoyed..
Chuck had to itemise who lived in his home, where he took Thor for walks (terrain, distance, games played etc), and he had to mention any dogs Thor met on the way. The vet had a computer programme that allowed him to record all of these details. He also had to describe what Thor loved doing the most: as a Labrador, he's a real ball-chaser, and Chuck uses a special ball launcher to maximise the fun. Thor also loves swimming in a local river.
Finally, the vet asked about Thor's home routine. Sleeping: where, when, and how long? Any bad habits? (Thor sometimes barks at 6am to go outside).
Chuck was given a printed sheet with simple recommendations to improve Thor's life. (Leaving a night light on near his bed may stop the night time waking).
It's no wonder that this annual check lasts for a full hour. It's impossible to fault its thoroughness, nor to question the fact that it's the best way to optimise a dog's well-being. But would Irish pet owners be prepared to pay the hefty vet fee needed to cover the cost? Chuck is happy, and Thor is very happy and well. Perhaps Irish vets should try stepping up to this mark?