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Checking Under the Hood

One of the things I love about driving in Oregon is that when you stop at a gas station, you actually get service for your auto. An attendant pumps your gas, cleans your windows, and checks under the hood for fluid levels. When I’m left to do this on my own at “self-service” stations, I admit I don’t do this often enough. My bad. I guess I subscribe to the “wishful thinking” school of auto maintenance. Surely all those meters and alarm lights on my dashboard will alert me if the oil level drops or my tires aren’t properly inflated?

I think some pet owners subscribe to the “wishful thinking” school of pet maintenance, too. They hope their pets will sound the alarm when they don’t feel well. Sometimes this is true. When a pet vomits, refuses to eat, or limps, the alarm has clearly sounded that it is time to visit the veterinarian.

However, I would much prefer to learn that the oil level in my car is a bit low rather than waiting until the “overheat” alarm goes on when the reservoir is completely empty. I don’t like leaving my auto on the side of the road with a smoking engine. I would rather top off the oil to prevent an expensive disaster.

The same should be true for our pets. Rather than waiting for obvious symptoms of illness, a bit of preventive maintenance helps to keep pets healthy and avoid expensive hospital stays. Preventive medicine is what veterinarians do best. Veterinarians are trained to diagnose problems early when we can still intervene. For example, I prefer diagnosing early kidney disease, when I can help prolong a pet’s life and decrease its suffering. When I diagnose full-blown kidney failure, there is little I can do to save the pet. And what I can do becomes very expensive.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has identified a frightening national trend. Fewer pet owners are taking their pets for wellness exams. Surveys show that pet owners question the value of veterinary exams. It seems pet owners mistakenly believe that yearly “shots” at the low-cost vaccine clinic will keep their pets just as healthy as wellness exams by their veterinarians. This misconception hurts pets.


Pets do need vaccinations. But pets don’t need every vaccine every year anymore than people need tetanus boosters every year. Over-vaccinating is wasteful, expensive, and potentially harmful for pets and people.

People need annual check-ups. Pets need wellness exams every year, too. Limited dollars for healthcare are best spent on preventive care both for people and for pets. For example, it is more cost effective for your doctor to prevent diabetes than to treat it. At your annual check up, your doctor will monitor your weight, your blood pressure, and probably check your blood glucose levels. If your doctor determines you are pre-diabetic, he/she will start you on a program to help you lose weight, eat healthier, and exercise. It is no different for your veterinarian. Prevention medicine is the goal.

So, spend your dollars on veterinary exams. Your veterinarian will look, feel, and listen to your pet from head to tail. Your vet will advise you on which vaccines your pet really needs. Depending on the pet’s age, your veterinarian might recommend blood tests, blood pressure checks, or other tests to help see how your pet’s internal organs are functioning. This is no different than your own physician recommending a mammogram or a cholesterol screening.

When was the last time your took your pet for a full veterinary exam? If it wasn’t in the last 12 months, time to call your vet’s office. Better to spend a few dollars now for prevention than a lot of dollars later for hospital care.

Instead of wishful thinking, let’s spend some time actually checking under the hood. I promise to do a better job with my car. Will you promise to do the same for your pet?

Do You Speak Medical?

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Do You Speak Medical?

I regret that I never mastered a second language.  English is it for me.  French class nearly ruined my GPA as an undergraduate.  In veterinary school, I paid one of my classmates from Spain to try to teach me Spanish.  She worked at it; I worked at it; but,  it seems the spot in my brain for language development may have closed.

Once on a trip to Germany I was proud  I had mastered some phrases.  Roaming the streets  while searching for the entrance to a castle I practiced one of my German phrases on a nice older couple.  In my best accent, I asked them in German where I might find the entrance to the castle, please?  But, I hadn’t counted on the fact they would answer me in German!  My face instantly registered my shock.  And the nice woman said to her husband in English, “She is American.”  Next she proceeded to give me directions in English.

Yesterday, it finally occurred to me that I do know another language.  I am proficient in Medical.  Sometimes when I speak Medical, clients and staff look at me with the same look I gave to the nice German couple.  Next, I try to translate in English.

My veterinary professors warned us about speaking Medical to clients.  I recall an anecdote about a veterinarian asking a client to bring a fecal sample from their pet.  The client looked at the veterinarian with a blank expression.  The vet then proceeded to translate.  “Could you bring us a stool sample?”  Still, the blank look.  “A poop sample?”  No change in expression.  “How about a sample of number 2?”  Then the light finally went on for the client.

It cost me a lot to learn Medical.  It took eight years of college and at least $150,000 in student loans.  And when I speak Medical to my colleagues, it is a sort of short-hand that helps us understand exactly what we are seeing and doing.  Yesterday, I sedated an older labrador retriever that was having problems breathing.  Chest X-rays looked fine, but an exam of his throat clearly showed “bilateral laryngeal paralysis.”  With just three words, I can communicate the diagnosis to a veterinary specialist who can help this dog.  But saying those same three words to my client produces the same shocked look I gave the Germans.  I begin to translate.  It takes me another 15 minutes of counseling and some written hand-outs and photographs to communicate that the dog cannot open his airway enough to move air properly and will need a surgery to relieve the problem.

I am so proud to be bilingual now!  It is my job to translate Medical so clients can help their pets.

If you have trouble understanding Medical, be sure to speak up and ask your doctor for a translation.  If you still don’t understand, however, there are some great resources on the Web to help you.  Here are some sites that might help you:  Sponsored by The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)  Sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)  Sponsored by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN)


Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida