Q&A with Dr. Judy Morgan on Indicators of a Healthy Pet

When a human member of our family is sick, we usually know it.

But when our feline or canine family members aren’t well, things can get a little tricky considering their inability to talk—as well as an instinct to hide weakness.

“They actually do hide some problems,” said Dr. Judy Morgan, pet health author and holistic veterinarian at Clayton Veterinary Associates in New Jersey. “In the wild, predators prey on the weak, so showing illness would leave them vulnerable to being someone else’s dinner.”

But there are some indicators we can check for regularly to keep tabs on our pets’ general health. Morgan offers some advice for monitoring your pet for signs of good health:

The Honest Kitchen: What are the key areas pet owners should be looking at for signs of health?

Judy Morgan: Changes in appetite, changes in stool consistency, changes in thirst or urination, changes in coat or skin. New lumps or bumps should be noticed and checked.

THK: Do these differ for dogs and cats? How so?

JM: Cat fur will get clumpy when cats stop grooming, which is often an early sign of illness. Dogs tend to get dry or greasy skin with hair loss—which can also happen in cats, but the clumping usually occurs earlier.

THK: Are there any tools or tips pet owners should have or do for regular checkups at home?

JM: Daily grooming or petting can show new lumps or bumps or areas of skin irritation or discoloration. Make sure to change the water in their bowl every day and take note of how much has been consumed during the previous day. Feed measured amounts of food twice daily so you will know if your pet is not finishing what is being given. Check the stool consistency daily.

THK: What are some specific signs of health in pets?

JM: Nose pigment. Noses should be shiny and moist, but not wet. It shouldn’t have dry areas around the edges or across the top. For most pets, it should be black and moist but not overly wet or drippy. Look at photos when the pet was young. If their nose was black then, it should remain black throughout life. If their nose loses pigment, that’s a sign of something lurking internally, commonly a problem with circulation—heart disease, masses in the chest, or abdomen, anemia. There is a condition called “snow nose” where the pigment disappears in winter in light-colored dogs, but returns in the summer. This can be a normal variation. Dry crusting around the edges of noses indicate a lack of moisture in their body and can occur in dogs with diabetes or kidney disease, among other things.

Footpads. The bottom of your dog’s feet should be dark and smooth, not rough and gray. Dull, gray, rough pads are a signal of moisture or blood-deficiency in the body. This could eventually lead to kidney problems.

Desire to exercise and move. Dogs and cats should want to get out and play. Aging pets that have become couch potatoes may actually be in pain, hence why they don’t move much anymore. Pets are only too energetic if the owner decides they are too rambunctious. Just like people, some pets have the desire to be very active. Some breeds have more energy than others: Border collies and other herding dogs like to get out and move. Hunting breeds tend to be more active. Average sleeping time is around 14 hours, but can vary by breed and age.

Appropriate weight. Even an extra 5 percent body weight can have deleterious effects on mobility and long-term good health. The ribs should be palpable under the skin, with only a very light coating of fat or subcutaneous tissue. There should be a visible waist behind the ribcage in the loin area, which should be “tucked up.” The underline should not be a straight line from elbows to stifles (hind knees).

Dental disease. Pets should have shiny white teeth without plaque, tartar, and halitosis. Safe, natural dental chews can help maintain oral health. Avoid chews that contain chemicals, sugars, dyes, or carbohydrates. There are some products that can be added to food that may help, but the gold standard is to use a dental product directly on the teeth or brush their teeth. Toothpaste should not contain dyes, sugars, xylitol, or chemicals. Water additives don’t work very well and usually contain chemicals and dyes. Coconut oil can work well for brushing instead of using any kind of toothpaste; it tastes great and won’t hurt the pet if swallowed. 80% of pets have periodontal disease by age 3, yet only 20% of dog owners and 11% of cat owners brush their pets’ teeth. Dental disease can lead to heart and kidney disease along with infections throughout the body. Dental disease is also very painful when it reaches advanced stages.

THK: If one or more of these are off, what’s the next step?

JM: Make an appointment for a thorough physical exam and blood work. Be sure to tell your veterinarian everything you have noticed that is out of the ordinary, even if it may seem unimportant.

Meet the Author: Jessica Peralta

Jessica Peralta has been a journalist for more than 15 years and an animal lover all her life. She has had dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, and rabbits. Her current children are a German shepherd named Guinness and a black kitten named Riot (and he lives up to that name). It’s because of her love for animals that she focused her journalistic career to the world of holistic animal care and pet nutrition. In between keeping Riot and Guinness out of mischief, she’s constantly learning about all the ways she can make them healthier and happier.

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