Chin lifts for mastiffs, testicular implants for cats—we all know that’s over-the-top, right? (Right?) But what about acupuncture, aromatherapy, or grass-fed, gluten-free food? Now that pet care has expanded to include so many options once considered solely for humans, it’s hard to know what’s truly necessary for good health and what’s an indulgence. To help you put your money where it matters, we asked the experts to clear up a few things....
Is an annual checkup a must?
Puppies and kittens need crucial vaccines—for serious conditions like parvovirus, distemper, and rabies—at 4 or 5 months and 1 year old, so don’t miss those appointments, says veterinarian Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis. After that, booster shots are typically required every three years. In a perfect world, you’d bring your pet in annually, but unless you’ve suddenly decided to let Chester roam the neighborhood at night or to board Sir Spanky while you fly to Tahiti (the sort of changes that might call for additional vaccines), healthy middle-aged animals may be able to get by without a checkup. For older ones, it’s a different story: “Pets’ clocks tick a lot faster than ours,” says Hurley. When the vet asks to see your 9-year-old pug again in six months, she’s not being overzealous. In human terms, that’s like seeing your doc once every four or five years.
Dental work? Seriously?
Some people have a perfect smile but barely brush; others are rewarded for religious flossing with three new cavities. The same genetic luck applies to dogs and cats, says veterinarian Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, service chief for community practice at Colorado State University. Gunky tartar and bad breath mean there’s an overload of bacteria, which not only weaken teeth and gums but may also contribute to liver, kidney, and heart disease. The best way to keep the vet from finding anything funky when Princess Sofia opens wide? Brush her pearly whites. (We know it sounds ridiculous, but it could save you a bunch.) Let her lick a vet-approved paste off your finger (fluoride is toxic to dogs and cats); once she’s okay with that, rub it on her teeth and gums, and eventually progress to a soft brush. If your vet does find buildup or inflammation and suggests a deep cleaning, try to do it sooner rather than later. A lowball estimate for the procedure is in the hundreds, since anesthesia is required; as teeth become more damaged and need to be extracted, the bill can easily triple.
Is fancy food worth it?
Depends. The giant name brands employ nutritionists to make sure their formulas are balanced, says veterinarian Steven Marks, a clinical professor of critical care and internal medicine at North Carolina State University, who suggests sticking with them. If you’re considering artisanal kibble, you may want to avoid anything with “human grade” on the label (jargon that’s not recognized by the association that drafts regulations for pet food), says veterinarian Camille Torres-Henderson, an assistant professor for community practice at Colorado State University. And remember, “natural” means only that a food’s ingredients come from plant, animal, or mined sources—not necessarily that it’s healthier. Pet food with the organic seal must meet the same strict USDA standards as organic people food. If your vet has prescribed a special diet for heart, liver, or kidney disease, buy the food from her office. Many kinds claiming to treat specific medical conditions haven’t been evaluated for safety by the FDA.
Should I buy pet insurance?
The idea of animal policies started with expensive, injury-prone horses and livestock. Now pet insurance is one of the fastest-growing optional employee benefits, according to Consumer Reports, though the economics may not make sense: On average, in 2014, annual premiums cost between $158 and $473 for dogs and between $132 and $285 for cats; not all include routine care, and the cheaper policies cover only accidents. Before you sink hundreds of dollars into premiums, ask your vet whether you’d be better off opening an emergency fund instead.
Noted! A stellar vet checkup won’t mean a thing if your pet gets lost. A lifesaving microchip costs only around $50, and your vet can implant it in seconds.
Illustrations: Matt Chase. Dog: Life On White/Getty Images. Cat: Dave King/Getty Images.