Our pets, ourselves

Those of us who are devoted to our animal companions – and there are lots of us in this category – generally regard our pets as full-fledged members of the family.

And rightly so because, as it turns out, pets and people have more in common than you’d think, at least when it comes to their health.

Banfield Pet Hospital, which operates nearly 800 veterinary hospitals in 43 states, has released its first-ever ”State of Pet Health” report, outlining current trends in companion animal health and disease.

Guess what? Two of the top five conditions found among dogs and cats were dental disease and being overweight. The report also shows that diabetes has been on the rise in the past five years, probably due to the increasing incidence of pet obesity.

Sound familiar?

The Banfield report is one of the largest ever compiled on veterinary health. It contains medical data from 2.1 million dogs and 450,000 cats who were cared for last year within the Banfield Pet Hospital system. Banfield’s research team, known as Banfield Applied Research and Knowledge, or BARK for short, analyzed trends as well from the past five years to identify some of the most common and/or medically important diagnoses affecting companion dogs and cats.

Banfield officials hope the information will help veterinarians and pet owners in their goal of achieving longer, healthier and happier lives for pets.

Among the highlights of the report:

- The single most common condition among dogs and cats seen at Banfield hospitals is dental disease, affecting 68 percent of cats and 78 percent of dogs over the age of 3. Just as with humans, oral health in pets is linked to overall health. Left untreated, dental disease in dogs and cats can affect the heart, kidneys, and liver, leading to chronic disease and, in some cases, to organ failure.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Minnesota is one of the top five states in the U.S. in the prevalence of dental disease among both dogs and cats.

- The second most common diagnosis among dogs and cats: ear infections.

- Since 2006, the incidence of diabetes has risen by 32 percent in dogs and 16 percent in cats. Obesity was the major contributing risk factor.

- Flea infestations and internal parasites have been on the rise, with implications for human health if fleas, hookworms or tapeworms are transmitted from the family pet to others in the household.

The report notes a couple of important trends. First, the researchers saw an increase in the number of small-breed dogs seen at Banfield hospitals over the past five years. Labrador retrievers are still the most popular, but the rest of the top-10 profile has undergone a noticeable shift. In 2000, German shepherds and Rottweilers occupied second and third place in breed popularity; by 2010, they’d been replaced by Chihuahuas and Shih-tzus.

There could be several reasons for the growing dominance of little dogs. Perhaps more dog owners live in apartments or condos with no back yards, or older individuals are downsizing from suburban homes, making smaller breeds more desirable.

Whatever the explanation is for this trend, there are implications for veterinary care. Whereas large-breed dogs are more likely to have health problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia and twisted stomachs, little dogs are more prone to diabetes, gum disease and dislocated kneecaps.

A second important trend noted in the report: When it comes to receiving veterinary care, cats are a significantly underserved population. Although they have a reputation for being self-sufficient, this doesn’t mean they never need to see a vet. In fact, the incidence of diabetes is higher among cats than among dogs. Their rates of dental disease and ear infections are high too.

One of the most noteworthy things about this entire report? Many of the most common health issues affecting companion dogs and cats in the U.S. are preventable or easily treated when they’re caught early.

Prevention and access to routine care are familiar messages these days in the world of human health. It seems the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies equally well when the patient is a dog or cat.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta.  Yes, that’s my cat finally making her blog debut.

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