On the first day of Christmas, my true pet gave to me …

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

As the new year approaches, it’s time to think about your pet’s wellbeing. Like people, cats and dogs need a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and mental stimulation to be physically and mentally healthy.

Keep your pets safe over the holidays. By limiting table scraps and keeping toxic substances away from your pets, you’ll help them stay healthy.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Here are 12 ways to enhance your pet’s wellness (set to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas):

Microchip your pets. Collars and ID tags are easy to lose. A microchip is your pet’s permanent ID. Microchip companies (e.g., Home Again, Avid) use the ID to contact you and reunite you with your pet if s/he’s lost. Be sure to register the microchip and update your contact information when it changes. Yes, your cat should be microchipped. A recent study found that less than 2 percent of cats without microchips were returned home. However, if a cat is microchipped, the return-to-owner rate is 20 times higher than if the cat was not microchipped.

Vaccinate your pets. Rabies vaccination is required for cats and dogs by Texas law. Follow your vet’s recommendation for vaccinations for DAPP (Distemper, parvovirus, and leptospirosis) and bordetella (dogs) and FVRCP [Feline Rhinotracheitis Virus/Herpesvirus 1 (FVR/FHV-1), Feline Calicivirus (FCV), and Feline Panleukopenia (FPV)], Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and bordetella (for cats). 

Prevent heartworms. Heartworm disease is a serious, potentially fatal disease that affects dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) that are not protected. Heartworms are spread through mosquito bites. Heartworm larvae migrate to the heart and blood vessels in the lungs. Treatment is expensive and risky, so prevention is the way to go. Heartworm disease is preventable with monthly heartworm medication prescribed by your vet after a heartworm test. It costs about the same to prevent heartworms for a dog’s entire life as it does to treat the disease just once. 

Keep your cat indoors. The outside world poses many threats to cats, including being hit by a car or attacked by a predator. In my Dallas neighborhood, coyote sightings are fairly common. Buy or build an enclosed cat habitat so your cat can safely enjoy bird watching and fresh air.

Watch your pet’s weight. In 2018, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) classified obesity as a disease. About 50 percent of dogs in the U.S. are overweight, and 25-30 percent of dogs are obese. Obese dogs don’t live as long as lean dogs, and they suffer more heart and joint problems that decrease their quality of life. About 60 percent of cats are clinically overweight or obese. Overweight cats are much more likely to develop diabetes, urinary disease, arthritis and to have a decreased life expectancy. Many cat parents have a hard time evaluating their cat’s weight. One study showed that only 10 percent of people with an overweight cat knew that their cat was overweight. Consult your veterinarian to determine whether your dog or cat needs to lose or gain weight. 

Walk your dog most days. Walking your dog is good for your dog’s weight, joint health, and digestive and urinary health. Walking also provides mental stimulation that prevents boredom and reduces destructive behavior. Aim for 30 minutes a day, starting with 10 minutes if your pet has been sedentary. If your dog pulls on the leash, a no-pull harness can help. Avoid retractable leashes, which make it very difficult to control your dog. 

Feed high quality kibble. Many dog and cat foods contain poor-quality ingredients (e.g. artificial coloring, corn) that may cause cancer, allergies/skin conditions and other health problems. Refer to dogfoodadvisor.com and catfooddb.com for ratings of dog and cat foods. 

Play with your cat. Constructive playtime is essential exercise for cats. One hour of play time increases a cat’s healthy lifespan by four hours. Playing improves cats’ mental health, decreasing boredom, anxiety and destructive behavior. Aim for four 10-minute play sessions per day. Interactive toys (e.g., a feather wand or fishing pole teaser toy) give you time to bond with your cat. Choose toys that allow your cat to grab onto something, instead of laser toys. Toys that let cats “hunt” for a prize are also good choices. 

Pet your cat and dog. This one benefits your health too! Petting a dog or cat can lower blood pressure, release oxytocin (a hormone that promotes feelings of well-being) and serotonin (a feel-good hormone), and reduce levels of a stress hormone (cortisol). It also soothes your pet. 

Beware of toxins. Many plants, including lilies and poinsettias, are poisonous if eaten by cats or dogs. If you must have them in your house, put them out of your pets’ reach. Don’t feed your dog these toxic substances: alcohol, chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions and mushrooms. Call your veterinarian or the 24/7 Animal Poison Control Center (855-764-7661) IMMEDIATELY if your pet eats something poisonous. Do NOT give any home antidotes, and do NOT induce vomiting without consulting a vet or Pet Poison Helpline. 

Limit table scraps. Feeding your dog high-fat foods, commonly enjoyed during the holidays, can lead to gastrointestinal upset and pancreatitis (can be fatal). Cooked bones (especially turkey and chicken bones) can splinter and get stuck in your pet’s digestive tract, causing pain and possibly requiring surgical removal.  

And … 

Keep your pets safe over the holidays. By limiting table scraps and keeping toxic substances away from your pets, you’ll help them stay healthy. Be sure your house guests don’t leave medication or gum/candy containing Xylitol (toxic for pets) within your pets’ reach. 

If your pets get stressed out by visitors, put your dog or cat in a quiet room away from the activity. 

Happy Holidays!