Healthy Paws

Pet Insurance

We are frequently asked for our opinion on pet insurance so we figured this would be a great topic for discussion this week… though it nevertheless remains a topic wide open for debate.

Veterinary pet insurance is a bit more comparable to dental insurance than our own general medical health insurance plans, in that the client pays the provider/veterinarian directly, files a claim, and then is reimbursed directly from the insurance company. A few hospitals may process the claim for the owner, but for the most part the hospital is uninvolved in any processing of the claims, other than providing a diagnosis and records to the insurance company when requested.

The other main difference from human health insurance is that pet insurance is for the most part designed to cover accidents, illnesses and injuries, not the routine wellness and preventative care (annual exam, vaccinations, preventatives) that one typically budgets for when acquiring a pet. It is the accidents/illnesses/injuries that come up unexpectedly and can be difficult to budget for ahead of time that most owners want the insurance against.

Each company works a bit differently in regards to yearly premiums, deductibles, pre-existing conditions, and coverage limits. It is very important to read all the fine print with any policy you are considering to be sure that there are not breed or other exclusions that may pertain to your pet. We recommend discussing the policy you are considering with your veterinarian if you have any questions.

So, all-in-all, is pet insurance worth the money? It’s impossible to say, since by nature we can’t predict which or when accidents, illnesses, or injuries may occur. The argument can certainly be made that in some cases it may be less pricey to simply set aside the money that would go towards the monthly or yearly premium so that it’s there for an emergency, but then again, a young pet can be just as likely to have an accident or serious illness as an older one who has more “reserves” in such an emergency fund.

We tend to recommend insurance the most strongly to pure-bred pets with well-known breed dispositions to certain conditions or diseases. The other question to ask yourself is that if you had to go to one of the local emergency clinics with a serious emergency or other significant medical issue — are you prepared and able to foot a several thousand dollar bill (potentially >$5,000 depending on the emergency) without getting reimbursed for any part of it down the road?

The following is a list of questions to consider when evaluating a potential pet insurance company and if their plans are right for you and your pet:

  • Are there any breed exclusions?
  • What is the policy for preexisting conditions?
  • What is the deductible?  Is this yearly, or per problem?
  • Will the premium go up yearly?
  • What is the turnaround time to get reimbursed?

Lastly, most policies won’t issue new policies on pets over a certain age, even if otherwise healthy.  The best time to sign up is usually when your pet is a puppy/kitten, before any “pre-existing conditions” have been identified.

For a side-by-side comparison of the various plans available click here. And for more information or a discussion on how the coverage a specific plan may benefit your pet, as well as to get an idea of medical costs of various illnesses, talk to your veterinarian. Hopefully this will aide in making an informed and educated decision to determine if obtaining veterinary/pet insurance for your fur-baby is the right one.

Summertime Fun & Safety Tips

It’s not quite summer… but it sure feels like it!! This week we’ve got some summertime tips and advice to keep you and your fur-kids happy and healthy.

The Weekend Warrior — Just like most people, intermittent and inconsistent exercise can lead to overexertion in our pets! If being active isn’t part of your pet’s regular routine, going for that 6.5 mile hike up Old Rag can lead to overexertion, overheating and injury. Be cognizant of your pet’s limits and if you’re planning a big hike or a long run, doing a bit of training ahead of time will go a long way in preventing injury.

High-Rise Syndrome — As it gets nicer outside, apartment cats are more likely to be let out on the balcony and windows are left open. While we always tease that cats have nine lives and are deft when falling… creating a safe balcony and making sure windows are securely screened is paramount to reducing the risk of injury or death related to a fall.

Heat Stroke and Other Heat-Induced Maladies — The hottest part of the day tends to be from 10am – 4pm and is the worst time of the day to be doing outdoor activities with your pet. Long walks, jogging, and hiking should be done early in the morning or in the evening. Certain breeds of dogs (and cats!) are more sensitive to the heat than others – breeds with “smooshed faces” (i.e. Pugs, Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Himalayan and American Shorthair cats) are already predisposed to respiratory problems/difficulty… and when it gets hot those problems can be far more apparent. Additionally, you should NEVER leave your pet alone in a parked car. Even with the windows open that vehicle can become furnace-like, and quickly!

Sun & Contact Burns — Pets can get sunburn too! Dogs and cats that have thin hair or light skin are at increased risk for developing sun-induced skin cancer. The ears and nose tend to be the most susceptible. Talk to your veterinarian about using sunscreen/sunblock on your pet. Additionally, our dogs and cats can develop painful burns on their feet from walking on hot pavement. Minimizing exposure to hot pavement, walking in the morning and evening and using booties can reduce that risk.

Swimming — Swimming can be a great way to cool off for both you and your dog…however not all dogs know how to swim well! Be sure to stay within the comfort level of your dog and to use a life vest if needed. Additionally, be aware that not all bodies of water are ideal to be swimming in. Certain gastrointestinal parasites, such as Giardia, flourish in streams and small bodies of water. Bathing & ear cleaning after swimming, especially if the water source is not ideal, can also help prevent skin and ear infections.

Fleas, Ticks and Other Bugs — Fleas and ticks start to come out in full force as it gets warmer. Be sure to keep up regular use of your flea and tick preventive as that is their primary defense against many diseases, including Lyme. Additionally, other bugs (flies, mosquitoes, etc..) can bite and cause allergic reactions. If you have a pet that seems sensitive to bug bites, be sure to chat with your veterinarian about a Benadryl dose you can safely use in your pet.

Grooming — Shaving can seem like a quick/convenient way to cool your pet down – but remember that fur helps protect your fur-kid from sunburn! Cats should generally only be shaved if they’re matted or not grooming adequately – not for the heat.  And certain breeds of dogs with “double coats” (e.g. Huskies, Akitas) should NOT be shaved as their coat actually helps keep them cool in the heat!

Hydration — Finally, just as with us, hydration for our pets is paramount in the warm weather. Be sure to have clean water available and accessible at all times for both you and your pet!

We hope you and your fur-babies have a safe and enjoyable summer!

Seasonal & Environmental Allergies

Spring allergy season is already in full-force, with many of us experiencing the runny eyes, stuffy noses, and congestion typical of seasonal environmental allergies. Our pets, too, can experience environmental allergies, though in addition to the runny eyes and sneezing that we experience, they typically manifest their seasonal allergies through itchy skin and/or ears. Itchiness may manifest itself through scratching, biting, chewing, licking, and/or rubbing.

Allergies themselves cause itching and redness but in our pets, it is often the secondary infections that make matters even worse. Bacteria and yeast are part of the normal healthy flora of the skin of both dogs and cats. With an underlying allergy, the skin’s barrier function is affected, and these organisms are able to “set up shop,” leading to further itchiness and inflammation of the skin. As such, chronic/recurrent yeast infections are often a hallmark of allergic skin disease in our pets.

Unfortunately, diagnosing an environmental allergy is not always cut-and-dry. Many other things can cause similar symptoms — other types of allergies (fleas, food, contact), metabolic or autoimmune conditions, and other skin diseases can sometimes mimic the symptoms of environmental allergies. Your veterinarian will likely ask a number of questions related to the history involving your pet’s symptoms.

One of the strongest support factors for an environmental allergy is a seasonal component to the symptoms — most dogs with environmental allergies will be significantly less symptomatic during the late fall and winter months. Additionally, environmental allergies can often get worse with age, or may be worse in certain environments (unfortunately, the D.C./Northern Virginia area is one of the worst for allergies).

Intradermal skin testing is the gold standard for diagnosing environmental allergies. This is typically done by a veterinary dermatologist. However, in recent years some of the available blood testings for environmental allergies have become more reliable and provide another means of more definitive diagnosis that can be done with your regular veterinarian.

When it comes to “treating” environmental allergies, the most important thing to realize is that allergies are never cured, but are instead managed. A multimodal approach is most often the most successful. Potential therapeutic options include: medications, supplements, bathing and allergy “shots.”

Medications that we often reach for include antihistamines (though their action is not nearly as reliable in cats and dogs as we’d like), corticosteroids (to help decrease the inflammatory/allergic responses), immunomodulatory drugs such as cyclosporine/Atopica or Apoquel, and often antibiotics or antifungals to address the secondary infections. Fish oil supplements are often recommended to patients with allergies as higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and they can improve the overall health of the skin and fur.

Frequent bathing with a medicated shampoo to cut down on the number of allergens, yeast, and bacteria on the skin often allows us to use less drugs to keep a pet comfortable (though is often more feasible in dogs than cats!). And, finally, non-pharmacologic methods with immunotherapy (allergy “shots”/vaccinations) can be very helpful with chronic management of environmental allergies, to reduce the haywire response of the immune system to a normal stimulus.

We recommend talking with your veterinarian at the first sign of excessive itching/scratching in your pet.  Fortunately, the options for managing environmental allergies are improving all the time, but it still remains a very frustrating condition since it can never be cured.  Some patience and understanding of the underlying condition can go a long way in making the condition more approachable and manageable.