When you hear the word “healthy”, what immediately comes to mind? Do you think about being physically fit, avoiding fatty or processed foods, having positive and nurturing relationships, or maintaining a work-life balance?
Now think about the term “healthy” as it applies to your pets. Do you think of the same things? If not, exactly what do you think of when you hear the term “pet health”?
If you’re like most people, you probably recall the basics: a good diet, daily exercise, and regular veterinary care. But really, pets are not all that different from us when it comes to what makes them truly healthy. Humans usually think of their own health in the context of 3 things: Body, Mind, and Spirit. This same model can also be applied when it comes to the health of our pets.
Physical Health (Body)
When it comes to the body, a wide variety of factors influence overall pet health:
- Diet and Nutrition: Feeding a high-quality, species-appropriate diet is important to make sure pets get the nutrients they need. Adult dogs thrive on diets containing high levels of animal protein, good-quality carbohydrates, fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Adult cats need an even higher-protein diet containing Vitamin A, essential fatty acids, and the amino acid taurine. For birds and reptiles, different classifications of these species require very different diets. Your veterinarian can help provide recommendations on the best food choices for your pet.
- Maintaining a healthy weight: Overweight dogs and cats are at increased risk for diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, cancer, joint problems, and a shortened lifespan. Good pet health relies on daily exercise and portion control.
- Proper dental care: Brushing your dog’s or cat’s teeth and providing periodic veterinary dental care can reduce the risk of gingivitis and tooth loss, as well as heart, liver, and kidney disease.
- Regular veterinary exams: Regular trips to the vet aren’t just for vaccinations. They also provide a great opportunity to monitor your pet’s health and work with your vet to develop a customized wellness plan for your pet.
- Preventive medications: For dogs and cats, these include heartworm prevention, parasite control, and flea and tick prevention. Heartworm infection is a serious, life-threatening disease, while intestinal parasites can cause malnutrition and dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea. Fleas and ticks can cause anemia, infected fleas can carry tapeworms, and ticks can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
- Proper grooming: Dogs and cats need to be brushed regularly to keep their coats free of mats and debris, and regular brushing reduces the incidences of hairballs in cats. Ears should also be cleaned if you see wax buildup or debris. Most birds need to have their nails and beaks regularly trimmed, and many birds enjoy being regularly bathed and “misted” with water.
- Preventing exposure to toxins and household dangers: Ensuring pet health includes pet-proofing your home to prevent exposure to household chemicals, cleaning supplies, certain human foods that are toxic to pets, electrical wiring, household plants, and ingestible objects. For households with birds, teflon-coated pans should be avoided, since heated teflon releases chemicals that can be fatal to birds if inhaled. Also, if you are a smoker, never smoke indoors around your pets. They can develop lung and other cancers from second-hand smoke.
- Protection against the elements: This includes extreme heat, extreme cold, and sun exposure. Never leave your dog outside at night or during the day when you aren’t home, and never leave a pet in a locked car. White and hairless dogs and cats are at higher risk for developing skin cancer, so ask your veterinarian about using a veterinary-approved, pet-safe sunscreen for them.
- Safety outdoors: When outside, keep your dog on a leash. If your cat goes outside, consider keeping him indoors full-time. Cats who are kept strictly indoors avoid exposure to many threats, including contagious diseases (such as FELV or FIV), parasites, poisons, predators, or being hit by a car.
- Observation and monitoring: Pets who are closely monitored for changes in their bodies or behavior are more likely to live a longer, healthier life. Watch for the appearance of lumps and bumps, eye or nasal discharge, or any changes in eating, drinking, bathroom habits, energy level, or weight loss. Remember, no one knows your pet like you do, so don’t hesitate to report anything out of the ordinary to your veterinarian.
Mental Health (Mind)
Pets need mental stimulation just like people do. Imagine being tied up in the backyard day and night with no exposure to humans or other pets, or being kept in a cage all alone in an isolated room. Keeping your pet mentally engaged is just as important as caring for his physical needs.
Mental stimulation includes:
- Socialization: Continuous opportunities for interaction with people or other pets keeps your pet engaged and confident. Socialization helps develop skills to cope with new experiences in a positive way, making pets less likely to be timid, aggressive, or stressed. Ideally, all pets should be socialized starting when they are very young, but older animals can be successfully socialized with time and patience. If you work long hours, using doggie daycare or hiring a dog walker to walk your dog during the day can help provide additional opportunities for socialization.
- Daily play: Who doesn’t like to play? All animals, even those in the wild, engage in play for no other apparent reason than because it’s fun! Daily playtime is also good exercise (for both of you). It allows the release of pent-up energy, strengthens the bond between you and your pet, and can prevent behavioral problems. Dogs and cats in particular use play to satisfy their natural drives to hunt and stalk. Playtime also relieves boredom, and pets who are not bored are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors like digging, chewing, barking, and obsessive licking (or in the case of birds, feather-plucking and self-mutilation).
- Environmental enrichment: This includes providing your pet with interactive puzzle toys, playing music or videos while you’re away (calming music and videos are available that are species-specific for dogs, cats, and birds), or in the case of smaller pets such as rats and mice, creating a specialized habitat in their cage that gives them opportunities to climb and explore. Dogs can enjoy canine sports such as flyball and agility, and cats can be provided with cat trees, perches, or climbing shelves built high on the wall. Any type of environmental enrichment has been proven to lower stress and increase contentment in pets.
- Training: Teaching your pet tricks or obedience training isn’t just fun, it also provides a good mental workout for your pet. Almost all pets, including dogs, cats, rats, mice, horses, rabbits, and birds can be taught tricks. Watch the video below to see how even fish can be trained!
Emotional Health (Spirit)
When it comes to pet health, the emotional component is just as important as the physical and mental ones. Pets thrive in a loving environment where they feel secure, cared-for, and have a strong bond with their caretakers.
The human-animal bond can be profoundly deep. Pets can affect brain chemistry in people with mental health disorders, lower blood pressure in those who are experiencing high levels of stress, and can speed up the healing process in people who are sick by causing the release of the hormone oxytocin.
And the benefits go both ways. Dogs who are being petted experience a drop in blood pressure. Pets of all species who have a strong bond with their people tend to be more confident, more relaxed, and less likely to be aggressive.
But perhaps the most difficult thing to quantify scientifically is the effect that love and attention has on animals. Anyone who has socialized a completely feral cat, or watched a formerly abused dog or horse blossom into a trusting creature that unequivocally returns their love and affection, can attest to this phenomenon. The power of a loving touch, a kind and gentle voice, and inclusion as part of the family makes just as much impact on a pet as providing food, shelter, and veterinary care. The effect of these on a pet’s emotional health should never be underestimated.
An Integrated Model
Like human health, pet health depends on a myriad of factors, all of which are equally important. The Body-Mind-Spirit model is just as applicable to our pets as it is to us. Pets require more than just the basics of food and shelter – they need ongoing new positive experiences, plenty of opportunities to learn and play, and daily loving interaction in order to thrive.
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Have I left anything out? What else do you think makes for a truly healthy pet? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!