Your Pet Can’t Tell You His Tummy Hurts

By Joshua Bub, DVM

     My wife, a resident physician, is always telling me how caring for her pediatric patients must be very similar to my job as a veterinarian.  Her patients are brought in by their parents, they are usually terrified to be at the doctor’s office, sometimes they get bribed with lollipops or candy when getting vaccines or procedures done, and occasionally she will get bitten by one of them.  While similarities do exist, the one thing I always tell her is that our pets can’t tell us when their tummy hurts, at least not in the way children can.  When kids feel sick, they let you know, if not by actually telling you they don’t feel right, then by waking up in the middle of the night, having the sniffles or a cough, or vomiting all over the carpet (well I guess that one is the same).  Pets are much different; by the time you’re able to tell they are not feeling well, it may be something very serious.

     To understand why pets and people are so different, we need to look back tens of thousands of years ago, back before the domestication of our household pets.  Animals are programmed to hide weakness and illness in nature.  The weak animals are the ones that are preyed upon, or shunned out of the pack.  Humans are much more social, and we are programmed to complain when something is wrong and seek the assistance and comfort of our family and friends.  So not only can your dog or cat not speak to you if they are ill, they may not show any visible signs until they are so sick that they simply cannot hide it anymore.

     Enter the veterinarian.  Our goal is to catch disease early, before your pet shows any signs he or she is sick.  You see, we have a secret language that allows us to communicate with your pets, it’s called the physical exam.  By putting our hands on your pet once every year (and twice every year in their senior years) we can find out if your pet’s “tummy hurts.”

     Unfortunately, we don’t see some pets every year and as a consequence, preventable diseases are on the rise.  A recent review of the medical records of around 2.5 million dogs and cats showed the most commonly diagnosed conditions are dental disease, ear infections, and obesity, and they have all become more prevalent over the last few years.  In addition, the diagnosis of diabetes has increased by about 30% in 5 years!  These are diseases that can usually be prevented by a regular visit to your veterinarian.  In addition to a regular exam, yearly blood work is very beneficial in screening for diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, thyroid illness, etc.

     Understandably, the most common reasons that regular exams are neglected, are economic reasons.  As veterinarians, we also commonly hear, “I don’t get an exam every year, why should my pet?”  The average dog or cat ages about 4-7 years (depending on breed and life stage) for every equivalent human year, the average child sees their doctor at least once a year for a checkup, the average adult once every few years.  Waiting 2 years in between veterinary visits is like waiting 8-14 years between seeing your doctor!   Without a doubt, the pets I see that haven’t been to a vet in 2 or more years almost always have medical problems that could have been prevented if caught earlier, and it is almost always more expensive to treat conditions in their advanced stages.  The severely arthritic dog could have benefited from weight management, exercise advice, nutraceuticals, and medication before his disease progressed.  The cat who is constantly thirsty and is diagnosed with kidney failure at an exam could have been managed on an outpatient basis and now needs to be hospitalized, the list goes on.  These aren’t just extreme examples, written to instill fear into the minds of pet owners and have them start flocking to see their veterinarian; it’s a fairly common occurrence.

     The obvious message here is to bring your pet to the veterinarian regularly for an examination.  But the message is deeper than that.  Your pet will be healthier, live longer, and you’ll actually save money, by keeping up on your pet’s veterinary examination.