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Professional Version

Overview of Preventative Health Care and Husbandry in Small Animals


Susan Barrett

, DVM, VCA Morris Animal Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2022 | Modified Jun 2023

Proper management to prevent and control disease has historically been a higher priority in production animal medicine than in small animal medicine. However, appropriate management is just as important for small animals, whether their environment is a single-pet or multiple-pet household or a more intensive housing situation such as a kennel or cattery.

Responsible pet ownership must be emphasized to all those owning or considering owning pets. Areas of client education that should be emphasized include:

Pet Selection

Choosing the right pet to meet the lifestyle and goals of pet ownership is the first consideration. Costs of care, time away from home, activity level, housing arrangements, and local laws, among other things, are factors to weigh when selecting a pet. Responsible pet ownership starts with ethical sourcing of pets. For example, see Canine Care Certified.

Routine Care and Grooming of Small Animals

Routine care and grooming not only help maintain pet health but also enable early identification of health problems. Compared with disease in humans, disease in animals is generally identified at a later stage. Close observation of pets enables the evaluation of changes in appetite, thirst, urination, defecation, ambulation, and general behavior. Any changes may suggest the need for a more thorough examination and possible intervention. Special attention should be given to hair coat, skin, ears, eyes, and teeth. Anal sac impaction and overgrowth of nails are common problems.

Environmental enrichment is the process of manipulating the pet’s environment to make it more interesting, to promote species-typical behavior, and to occupy the pet’s time to minimize boredom and frustration. Enrichment enables the pet to run, play, stalk, figure things out, etc. Enrichment is vital for the welfare of all pets, whether housed in a home, in a kennel, or outdoors. Training plans (eg, puppy kindergarten or other positive reinforcement training classes or resources) can be incorporated into enrichment of the pet. Incorporating enrichment and training can enhance the bond with the owner, enable more complete grooming, and help avoid or mitigate unwanted behaviors.

Housing Requirements and Environmental Factors for Small Animals

Housing requirements and environmental factors are important considerations for pets.

Outdoor housing must provide cover from direct sunlight, shelter from excessive wind and extreme temperatures, adequate ventilation, and an ample supply of fresh water. These factors are critical in kennels and catteries. Drainage must be appropriate for proper sanitation, and surfaces must be suitable for cleaning and disinfection. Hazardous environmental conditions can result in hyperthermia, sunburn, dehydration, hypothermia, or frostbite. Housing must also be safe and keep pets away from dangers such as other animals, motor vehicles, and malicious mischief; in addition, it should provide appropriate enrichment. If animals are restrained by a leash or a chain, care should be taken so that they cannot hurt themselves. Currently, 33 states and Washington, DC, place specific restrictions on tethering of animals.

Indoor housing generally limits concerns, although the environmental factors listed above should be considered for pet walks, time in the yard, or other outdoor activities.

Household hazards provide a variety of dangers to dogs and cats. Potential hazards include electrical cords, lead-based paint, cleaning supplies, antifreeze Ethylene Glycol Toxicosis , houseplants Houseplants and Ornamentals Toxic to Animals For pets, houseplants and ornamentals are a common source of potential toxicosis. Although many plants are harmless in small quantities, large ingestions or ingestion of highly toxic varieties... read more Houseplants and Ornamentals Toxic to Animals , insecticides Insecticide and Acaricide (Organic) Toxicity , prescription drugs Toxicities from Prescription Drugs Pets commonly ingest prescription medications from countertops, pill minders, mail-order packages, or other sources. Veterinarians also can prescribe certain human drugs for animals. Safety... read more , illicit and abused drugs Toxicities from Illicit and Abused Drugs Exposures to illicit or abused drugs in pet animals can be accidental, intentional, or malicious. Occasionally, drug-sniffing dogs also ingest these substances. Because of the illegal nature... read more Toxicities from Illicit and Abused Drugs , alcoholic beverages, chocolate Chocolate Toxicosis in Animals Chocolate toxicosis is the syndrome resulting from ingestion of excessive amounts of methylxanthine-containing chocolate products. Clinical effects include vomiting, restlessness, agitation... read more , artificial sweeteners (xylitol Xylitol Toxicosis in Dogs Xylitol toxicosis occurs in dogs after ingestion of xylitol or xylitol-containing products. Profound hypoglycemia is the most common clinical effect, which may result in vomiting, weakness,... read more ), sewing needles, fishhooks, and many others. (Also see Household Hazards Household Hazards .) Elements of house design, such as steep stairs, slippery floors, open windows, etc, may also be hazardous.

Traveling With Pets

Traveling with pets is another important consideration. If state lines will be crossed, a health certificate should be issued. When international travel is planned, owners should be advised to become familiar with the appropriate health, quarantine, agriculture, and customs requirements because they vary by country and may change frequently. Transport of animals by airlines is under the jurisdiction of the specific airline company and is increasingly restrictive; however, a veterinarian should be consulted and a health certificate issued. Animals should not be allowed to ride unrestrained in motor vehicles, and they should never be allowed to ride in the back of open vehicles such as pickup trucks. Motion sickness Motion Sickness and anxiety are common problems in dogs and cats when traveling. Multiple anxiolytic medications may be useful in this situation—eg, lorazepam, clonidine, trazodone, and gabapentin. Maropitant citrate is also approved to treat motion sickness.

Zoonotic Diseases and Pets

The potential disease-management interaction between pets and owners is important in the prevention of zoonotic diseases, especially when pets are owned by immunocompromised people. Pet owners with human immunodeficiency virus or those being treated with chemotherapy or other immunosuppressive agents can safely own animals; however, they should consult both their veterinarian and their physician about appropriate precautions.

Most animal-associated infections, including those due to Toxoplasma gondii, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, appear to be acquired by immunosuppressed individuals from sources other than exposure to animals. The possible exception may be cat scratch disease, caused by Bartonella henselae. Because the risk of zoonotic transmission is low, animals pose minimal risk to immunocompromised people if basic precautions are followed. Precautions include avoiding the cleaning of litter boxes or using gloves when doing so, avoiding dog feces, avoiding young or unhealthy pets in favor of healthy or adult pets, having sick animals evaluated by a veterinarian, not allowing cats to hunt, not feeding pets undercooked meat, and preventing coprophagia or access to garbage.

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