I’m frequently asked this question outside the office. There are lots of reasons that lead people to neglect their animal companions by not visiting the vet, including cost and the refusal to take time off work, and let’s face it, it can be a hassle transporting some animals (especially cats) from your home to the vet’s office and back.

As a general rule, there are two ways that vet visits can help you and your animal companion—we can treat your friend when he or she is ill, and we can help prevent disease. Preventing disease has largely been viewed as synonymous with vaccinations. Although vaccinations have protected dogs and cats from fatal diseases such as parvovirus and rabies, it’s become clear over the past 15 years that vaccinations can have potentially harmful consequences, including inducing malignant tumors of the skin in cats (vaccine-associated sarcomas) and over-stimulating the immune system, possibly resulting in allergic disorders, some of which can be very serious.

As our knowledge of the negative consequences of vaccines has expanded, veterinarians are reducing the frequency and number of vaccines we administer. Rather than a “one size fits all” approach, we are tailoring our recommendations to the individual animal’s level of exposure. In general, indoor dogs and cats with minimal exposure to other animals should be vaccinated less often than animals relegated to the outdoors or those who travel or board frequently. Because people’s response to vaccination reminders is so good, veterinarians are justifiably concerned that if we reduce the frequency of vaccinations to every three years, we may no longer see our patients on a regular basis, and the health of some animal companions may suffer. Why?

Because our animal companions tend to hide health problems from us, seeing your veterinarian on a regular basis will help pick up on these problems, sometimes preventing them from worsening and becoming serious. Dental disease (Winston really doesn’t like when I try to open his mouth at home!), lumps and bumps on the skin, increasing or decreasing bodyweight, and joint stiffness and changes in the ability to walk caused by arthritis occur so slowly that we often don’t notice them. Your vet can be an objective arbiter and help spot these problems.

The more serious and compelling reason to see the vet is when your animal companion is ill. How do you know if your animal companion is ill and you should visit the vet?

  • If your dog’s appetite has diminished relative to normal, your dog is sick. “He’s just tired of his dog food” almost never applies!
  • If your cat has lost weight, see the vet immediately.
  • If your dog or cat seems less active than usual, lethargic, or depressed; is lying around more; or is less interactive, it’s time for a vet visit.
  • If your dog or cat is vomiting or has diarrhea or loose stools, go to the vet.

As our animal companions age, every month in their life is like seven months for us. So seeing the vet every two years with a senior dog or cat is like not seeing your physician for 14 years!

So, how often should you see the vet?

  • At least annually for dogs and cats under 10 years of age
  • At least every six months for those 10 years and older
  • Immediately if signs of illness are noted