Pet owners, we have a problem: According to a first-of-its-kind study, diabetes, heartworm disease and other preventable conditions are on the rise in dogs and cats.
Even flea and tick infestations are more common now than they were five years ago, according to a report released in April by Banfield Pet Hospital, a national system of veterinary hospitals. The reason for the uptick, said Jeffrey Klausner, the chief medical officer at Banfield, may have to do with financial strain.
"People are going to vet less," Klausner told LiveScience. "They see ads on TV for PetMed Express saying, 'You can skip a visit to the vet.' Well, you can, but what you've missed out on is a physical exam and a discussion with the vet about what's next."
Veterinarian Jessica Vogelsang, who blogs at Pawcurious.com, said that some of the increases could be a sign of better record-keeping, but agreed that people seem to be cutting back on pet care due to the economy.
"In particular, people have been less likely to spend money on preventive care since maybe it is perceived as less urgent than when a pet is ill," Vogelsang, who was not involved in the report, told LiveScience. "Although people understand its importance, when they have to choose between a dental cleaning and the car payment, there is a tendency to put [the cleaning] off for a month or two or twelve."
The Banfield report is based on the electronic medical records of 2.1 million dogs and nearly 450,000 cats treated at affiliated hospitals across the United States in 2010. Klausner and his colleagues focused on preventable conditions, including parasites, dental disease and diabetes. In almost every case, they saw the frequency of these conditions go up.
Diabetes and dental disease
Diabetes, for example, rose 32 percent in dogs since 2006, from 12.2 cases per 10,000 to 17.4 cases per 10,000. Cat diabetes rose 16 percent, from 55.5 cases per 10,000 in 2006 to 64.3 cases per 10,000 in 2010.
In cats, diabetes is strongly linked to obesity, which is also on the rise in pets, Klausner said. The reason for the doggie diabetes increase is less clear, as obesity and diabetes are not as strongly linked in dogs. Much of the increase in dog diabetes may be a result of better diagnostic tests, said North Carolina veterinarian Ernie Ward, who was not involved in the report. For our increasingly fat population of cats, he said, he was surprised the number of diabetes diagnoses wasn't even higher.
"All of these conditions closely track with the rise in pet obesity so it's no surprise to me that we're documenting more weight-related diseases in pets," Ward told LiveScience.
Obesity was one of the top five disorders diagnosed in dogs and one of the top three in cats, according to the Banfield report. [Read: Is Fido Fat? Human Diet Tricks Could Help]
The most common disease in both dogs and cats was dental disease, which includes inflammation, tartar and gingivitis. Small breeds seem more prone to dental disease, the researchers found, which may have broad implications since the report also found a trend toward smaller breeds of dogs in the United States. Meanwhile, big dogs such as German shepherds decreased in popularity by about 40 percent over the last decade; Chihuahuas rose in popularity by about 116 percent in that period, the researchers reported, and Banfield Hospitals also served about 87 percent more shih tzus.
Since 2006, dental disease has gone up 12.3 percent in dogs and 10.2 percent in cats; it's now diagnosed in 78 percent of dogs and 68 percent of cats over age 3. And the effects are much more serious than simple dog breath.
"The disease can spread from the mouth to other organs like the kidneys and liver," Klausner said. However, he said, "it's an easy disease to prevent. It's completely preventable just by having professional teeth cleanings once a year by a vet."
Another easily preventable disease that vets can't seem to shake is heartworm infection. These slender parasitic worms are transmitted by mosquito bites. They can grow up to a foot long, and their preferred environment is a pet's heart. Once the worms take hold, they can be difficult to eradicate safely, Klausner said.
Heartworm disease prevalence held relatively steady, with only a slight upward trend over five years.
"Maybe worse is that it's not going down," he said. "There are preventatives."
Those preventatives include heartworm pills or injections, which dogs should receive year-round. Cats living in heartworm areas, especially the Southeast, should get monthly prevention meds too, Klausner said.
Pet owners should also pay closer attention to flea and tick prevention, the report found. In dogs, fleas are up 16 percent since 2006, from about 600 cases per 10,000 to just over 700 cases per 10,000. Likewise, cats have become more flea-ridden with time, from just less than 1,100 cases per 10,000 in 2006 to about 1,200 cases per 10,000 in 2010.
Klausner said he hopes future reports will include exotic pets, including guinea pigs, birds and reptiles. He also hopes to see the number of preventative diseases start falling, which he and Ward agreed could happen if owners religiously bring their pets for at least yearly checkups.
"Bottom line," Ward said. "Preventative care saves owners money and pets suffering."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.