Sep. 24, 2014 at 12:00 PM ET
Nearly every pet has a minor freak-out during its annual checkup, so chances are that you’re more focused on keeping your pup or cat calm than having a heart-to-heart with your vet about its health. That’s why we asked vets around the country to share one piece of stay-healthy advice every pet owner should know. From dental care to diet, here’s what they had to say.
Annual exams are a must.
Bringing your pet to the vet once a year is a simple, effective way to maintain its good health.
“Preventive exams actually save money and allow your pet to live longer," explains Dr. Ted Cohn, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and companion animal practitioner for 35 years. Treating a problem early increases the chance for success, minimizes discomfort for the pet and costs less in the long run.
Pets older than 6 months need yearly exams, Cohn suggests, while puppies under 6 months and senior pets should have wellness exams twice a year.
Seek out a specialist.
Animals can develop tough-to-treat medical issues that are best handled by a specially trained vet.
“If your pet has a condition that isn’t improving, or requires testing or procedures beyond the scope of your veterinarian, consult a specialist,” says Dr. Mary Ann Crawford, internal medicine specialist at Oradell Animal Hospital in Paramus, New Jersey.
With an additional three to five years of training, specialists have a greater knowledge of the unusual, uncommon or downright rare. Your veterinarian will work closely with them and resume care once your pet once is stable or has recovered.
Don't try to diagnose your pet.
"When in doubt, don't consult with Dr. Google," says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, a companion animal veterinarian in Laguna Hills, Calif. "You get what you pay for. When your pet has a problem, you need professional eyes, ears, fingers and sometimes diagnostic tests to assess it.”
Microchip your pet.
"Microchips can save your pet's life," says Dr. Larry Dee, a Hollywood, Florida, a small animal veterinarian and American Veterinary Medical Association executive board member. And he’s not kidding.
Consider this: If your pet breaks out of the backyard, it could end up in a shelter and possibly euthanized (or adopted by another family). A microchip will speak up when your little buddy can’t, offering your contact information when scanned. It’s a painless procedure — the tiny chip is just implanted between your pet’s shoulder blades — and relatively inexpensive. Veterinarians and animal shelters will most often implant chips for less than $50.
Cats need extra attention.
"Cats are very good at hiding diseases, so it's challenging to know when yours is sick" says Dr. Marcus Brown, president-elect of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and a cat-only veterinarian in Arlington, Virginia. His suggestion? Two check-ups a year, and keep an eye out for any new behaviors in between vet visits.
“Subtle changes such as weight loss, eating less, not greeting you at the door or peeing outside the litter box are significant with cats, and should prompt a call to your veterinarian," he says.
Be smart about nutrition.
“If you love your pet, keep it lean," suggests Dr. Laura Eirmann, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and clinical nutritionist at Oradell Animal Hospital in Paramus, New Jersey. From a nutritional standpoint, Eirmann says that keeping your pet fit is the single-most important factor that will increase the lifespan of your dog or cat. Make sure the pet food you buy states somewhere on the label that it is AAFCO-approved, meaning it is complete, balanced and appropriate for your pet's stage in life.
Don't forget about their teeth.
Don’t count on a bone or bowl of dry food to get your pet’s teeth clean.
“Dogs and cats need routine dental care, including full-mouth X-rays, to reveal hidden problems,” says Dr. Larry Dee, a small animal veterinarian in Hollywood, Flordia. The imaging picks up potential issues like abscessed teeth or receding or infected gums, which can cause pain and — worse — infect the heart and kidneys.
A full workup does involve anesthesia, which sounds extreme but is very necessary. Without it, a thorough cleaning — especially under the gum line — can’t be done.
Hamsters (and other small rodents) need check-ups, too.
Speaking of teeth, your small rodents also need to be examined once a year, says Dr. Suzanne Scott, a Houston-area companion animal and exotic pets veterinarian. That’s because their choppers grow continuously, and if they don’t line up correctly, they will grow sideways and develop sharp points that cut into the gums. As a result, the pet doesn't eat.
Don't count on keeping an eye on these teeth yourself. Back teeth are usually the problem, and they are all but impossible for you to see.
Keep your meds out of reach.
Pets — especially dogs — can sniff out and gulp down trouble, so keep all dangerous substances out of reach. That includes prescription and over-the-counter medications, which can be lethal in pets, says Dr. Ted Cohn, a Denver-based companion animal veterinarian. "Acetaminophen, in particular, is toxic to dogs — even more so to cats," he adds.
Be proactive about flea control.
Even if you don’t spot fleas on your pet, it can just take one to send your bestie into a scratching fit (especially if he’s sensitive to flea saliva). A good rule of thumb? If your pet is itching, biting or scratching, chances are it’s because of fleas, says Dr. Cruz.
Thankfully, the fix is easy: Year-round flea control on all your pets is what’s needed. If your pet's still itching after that, it's time to consult your veterinarian.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.