By Inna Shekhtman
Our pets are part of our family! They are in our homes, often in our beds, and definitely in our hearts. And as family, we want to do everything we can to keep everyone healthy. But how do you know if our pets are truly healthy? Because they can’t speak, they are unable to tell us if they are feeling great or lousy. In fact, as a result of their wild heritage, their instinct is to hide illness as a very matter of survival.
Too often, I have heard pet owners say “My dog/cat is doing fine”. Perhaps from first glance this is true, but this fact alone is not an indicator of health. Many years ago I had a dog named Terra: a sweet, gentle nine-year-old golden retriever. She went to the vet every year and got her regular check-ups and I thought she was doing just fine. Until suddenly she wasn’t. She passed away less than a month later.
Health is more than the absence of disease. Health is a state of optimal being. To ensure that our pets are in a state of optimal health, we have to be proactive in providing them with a balanced diet, regular exercise, and regular check-ins for signs of health. While your dog or cat may not be able to tell you with words how they are doing, their body provides a lot of information for those that know where to look. These signs can be subtle, but since we observe our animal companions on a daily basis, we are much more in tune with these subtleties than a veterinarian that sees your companion once or twice a year. Listed below are the areas you should examine regularly as part of your pet’s “health checklist”.
Healthy dogs and cats should not smell any more than a healthy person. The only exception for dogs is often if they go swimming and get the “wet dog smell”. Identifying irregular odours can help us track down a myriad of health issues before they become a serious illness. Sounds easy, right? It’s a little more complicated. Because we spent a lot of our time with our pets, and because our noses often acclimatize to smells that we are continuously exposed to, we may actually not realize our pet has an odour. Imagine walking into a house of someone who has scented candles. Chances are the smell will hit you like a ton of bricks, but the owner is probably not even aware there is a smell at all. So you may need to ask others to help you identify if your pet has a strong odour when they come into contact with your dog or cat.
Smells can come from the following areas:
- Skin / Coat: Your pet does produce some natural oils, but their coat should not have a lingering smell. It should smell and feel fresh between baths, and bathing should be done as sparingly as possible (some suggest as little as once a year). A musky or foul odour, or even an irregular “doggy odour”, can indicate an internal or external issue. Allergies, seborrhoea, gastrointestinal issues, and bacterial or yeast infections can cause a strong musky or foul odour as they often result in toxins coming out through the skin and coat. The odours associated with skin and coat often occur in tandem with other symptoms, such as an abnormally greasy texture, itching, flaking, or skin lesions. However, many owners first notice the smell and often report that “I give my dog a bath and the smell is back the next day”.
- Ears: Smell from the ears can be a sign of yeast infections and can lead to serious complications such as deafness if left untreated.
- Mouth: Bad breath is often associated with a dental issue. Bad breath can also be an indicator of a more serious systemic issue such as gastrointestinal disease, kidney disease or diabetes. Make sure to inspect your pet’s teeth on a regular basis. See more about dental health below, under the “Mouth” section.
- Gas: Every pet farts, but if your pet produces immense amounts of stinky gas on a regular basis, something is amiss. Abnormal flatulence can be a sign of a straightforward issue, such as a dietary sensitivity, or of a more serious condition, such as a gastrointestinal disease.
- Anal Sacs (read end): Healthy anal sacs by nature produce an incredibly foul smelling liquid. Normally, this liquid is only released when a dog defecates or is terrified enough to use it as a defense mechanism. If you routinely smell an odour coming from the anal sacs during the course of day-to-day life, something is wrong. Impacted glands may release at inappropriate times (like when your dog scoots across the carpet), and the microorganisms in an infected anal sac can produce quite a pungent odour.
Skin & Coat
Your pet’s coat often communicates lot about their internal health. Many believe that your pet’s skin and coat really constitute an organ that performs many tasks vital to your pet’s survival. This includes maintaining body temperature and offering protection against external infections. A healthy skin and coat should be shiny, soft and odour-free. Many skin and coat issues are a actually manifestations of internal health imbalances. Common visual indicators are hotspots, sores, dull and excessively dry or excessively oily fur, or dry and flaky skin.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your pet’s long-term health and can significantly extend their life. If your pet is carrying excessive weight for a prolonged period, this can lead to joint issues and other serious conditions. Keeping an ideal weight is a result of a balance between a healthy diet and regular exercise. Often the term “ideal weight” is used to refer to the optimal weight for a specific dog or cat, based on their breed, age, and overall build.
Just like people, the most common reason pets gain weight is because they are eating over-processed, grain-filled diets that are very high in sugars. This translates into consuming excessive or inefficient calories, which in turn gets stored as fat. Switching to a diet made from natural whole foods, as well as controlling their feeding portions, will help your pet better regulate their weight.
Healthy gums are firm and pink, black or spotted, just like the dog’s skin. Healthy teeth should be white and smooth. In nature, dogs chew bones, which clean their teeth and strengthen their jaw muscles. In addition, their mouths are naturally acidic, which deters any bacteria overgrowth. Please note that feeding a commercial dry diet changes the pH levels in their mouth and digestive tract, making your pet more susceptible to unfriendly bacteria overgrowth.
The skin inside your pet’s ear should be light pink and clean. There should be some brownish wax, but a large amount of wax or crust is abnormal. Redness or swelling inside the ears indicates an infection or inflammation that may be localized or may indicate a larger internal health issue.
Let’s face it! As pet owners, we spend a lot of time talking about poop! It gives us an insight into our pet’s inner workings – especially their digestive system. A healthy stool should be fairly firm and low in odour. A healthy stool should not be excessive in size – remember that the digestive system should be breaking down and absorbing nutrients out of the food and excreting the waste. If the waste is the same size as what went in, then how much of that food is really benefiting your pet’s body? Many pet guardians find that the size and smell of their pet’s stool decreases when they switch to a raw diet because more of the food is utilized and less is wasted.
Most of the issues mentioned above, if caught early on, can be managed or even completely eliminated with a good quality fresh (or frozen) whole food diet without additional medical intervention. However, if you wait for signs of disease, the illness has already started to brew inside and the path to recovery is more involved. I’m sure you have all heard the idiom “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. I believe in preventative nutrition, which means feeding a biologically appropriate diet right from the start rather than reacting to conditions when they arise.
Just remember: every time your pet eats or drinks, you are preventing disease, fighting it or feeding it!