Fur parents’ questions answered: Are you overfeeding your pet? When should you take it to a vet?

If watching animal videos already gives your brain little fist bumps to keep you going in the day, living with an actual floof would most certainly lend a shot of pawsitivity to real life.

After all, studies have shown the direct link between pet ownership and better mental health and greater physical activity levels during the pandemic.

Not that Singaporeans need researchers to tell them the benefits of having a pet, COVID-19 or not. In fact, 17 per cent of local cat and dog owners welcomed a new furry member to the family at the start of the pandemic, according to the Pets & Us Survey on more than 1,000 cat and dog owners by Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) Animal Health Singapore. And of which, 12 per cent brought home their pets during the 2020 circuit breaker. 

As it turns out, Singaporeans are big dog lovers; almost half of the pet owners surveyed have a canine family member. About a third of owners prefer cats, while 22 per cent have both cats and dogs. Among the respondents, the largest group consisted of millennials (51 per cent), followed by Gen-Xers, who make up 25 per cent.

(Photo: iStock/krblokhin)

But while there is an increase in pet ownership, pet owners’ knowledge in their animals’ health care is rather lacking. For instance, the concern that almost every owner had, according to the survey, is having their pets develop chronic health issues.

Yet, despite the worry, more than two thirds of pet owners had little or no knowledge of key health issues such as parasite infestation, chronic kidney disease and heart disease that might affect their cats and dogs.

When they did try to find information on pet health, 35 per cent turned to the Internet, while 26 per cent looked at YouTube and TikTok videos. And here’s where inappropriate or incorrect information can be just as harmful.

Information from “unreliable sources, coupled with self-diagnosis or uncertified interpretation of results and behavioural changes in the animal, are usually obstacles to proper care”, said Dr Eddie Tan, BI’s technical manager (companion animals) for Singapore and Malaysia.

He has even come across owners who impose the beliefs and preferences that they follow in their own lives on their pets. They think that by doing so, “the pets will benefit from what they perceive as appropriate”, he said.

What other areas are pet owners in Singapore lacking in? Here’s a look at the common questions that the local experts have come across:

(Photo: iStock/S.Rohrlach)

MY CAT IS ALWAYS CLEANING ITSELF. DO I STILL NEED TO BRING IT TO THE VET TO CHECK FOR PARASITES?

“Some pet owners think cats can take care of themselves without the need to visit a vet for regular consultation or health check-up. But that’s not true,” said Dr Tan Do Yew, BI’s regional technical manager (companion animals) for ASEAN, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. “Cats, like other pets, need veterinary care to prevent health issues and ensure their overall wellbeing.”

He cited a recent study done in East and Southeast Asia, which found that 5 per cent of cats had gastrointestinal parasites. And get this: The same study revealed that nearly half of the cats in Singapore were exposed to at least one vector-borne pathogen (which can be transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes, ticks or sandflies etc) or infested by fleas or ticks.

When you find one flea on your cat, there are already more of the bloodsuckers in your environment, said Dr Tan DY. “A flea can lay an average of 25 eggs per day. Eggs can drop off the animal and cause an infestation in the home,” he said. “Therefore, preventative measures are very important. Don’t wait to treat the issue only when you see them. It could be too late as they may have already spread inside the home.”

The adage, prevention is better than cure, applies to dogs, too. Milo can be troubled by parasites if you don’t keep an eye out for them. In the same study, 4 per cent of dogs in Singapore tested positive for heartworm.

(Photo: iStock/Chalabala)

ARE CATS AND DOGS MORE RESILIENT THAN HUMANS TO DISEASE?

The Pets & Us Survey found that while 82 per cent of owners took preventive measures to safeguard their pets’ health, 11 per cent admitted to not taking their pets to a vet at all. Not a good move considering that about 10 per cent of dogs seen at the vet’s have heart disease. Cats aren’t spared either; chronic kidney disease affects 30 per cent to 40 per cent of cats above the age of 10.

The pet cancer situation looks malignant, too. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), about one in four dogs will, at some stage in their life, develop neoplasia, which is the uncontrolled and abnormal growth of cells. And half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer.

“Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, while there is less information about the rate of cancer in cats. Some cancers, such as lymphoma, are more common in cats than in dogs,” according to the AVMA.

Genetics are to blame for the abovementioned diseases but unfortunately, some of the ways pet owners use to show affection to their furry friends could be killing them. For instance, 85 per cent of owners in the Pets & Us survey admit to spoiling their pets with treats – and think this has a positive impact on their animals’ health and wellbeing.

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Ironically, the effect is quite the opposite. Take chronic kidney disease, for instance. Yes, it can be the result of a hereditary condition, said Dr Kenneth Tong from AAVC – Animal & Avian Veterinary Clinic. But more often, it is the owners’ overindulgence in supplements and feeding as well as not bringing the animal for routine examination to detect early signs of organ dysfunction, he said.

“Early detection enables early treatment,” said Dr Tong. “Many owners tend to ‘fear the results’ and shun even attempting to get a test or examination done. It’s a phenomenon of ‘don’t see, don’t know, all is well’, until it’s too late.”

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MY PET DOESN’T SEEM WELL. WHEN DO I GO TO THE VET IMMEDIATELY?

Let’s put yourself in your pet’s situation, said Dr Tong. If you’re experiencing the following signs, would you wait another 24 hours or would you get yourself to the A&E department immediately?

  • Vomiting and diarrhoea for 24 hours
  • Lying down and groaning in pain
  • Unable to walk
  • Appearing pale
  • Fainting spells, weakness, gasping (difficulty breathing, open-mouthed breathing, laboured breathing)
  • No appetite for days

“If any condition looks terrible to you, seems like an emergency, or sounds urgent in nature, it probably is,” said Dr Tong. “By waiting, you risk having the condition worsen, and the delayed care can result in your options being limited.” 

On the other hand, if your pet is still active and seems to be its usual self (for example, wagging its tail, licking your face or grooming itself), you can wait 48 hours or so before taking your pet to the vet, said Dr Tong.

(Photo: iStock/igorr1)

IS HOME-MADE PET FOOD BETTER THAN THOSE CANNED OR DRIED PET FOOD?

Prepping your pet’s meals can seem like a good idea, doesn’t it? You can control what you put into the bowl (more fresh ingredients) and what you leave out (salt, sugar, oil, preservatives and other additives).

“Recently, perhaps driven by pet owners staying at home during the COVID-19 situation, there has been an upward trend in home-prepared pet food,” said Dr Teo Boon Han, a vet and managing partner of VetTrust. “Some of these home-prepared pet diets are also sold to the public.”

But here’s the rub: Is the home-prepped pet food nutritionally complete? In a 2017 Brazil study on 106 pet diet recipes, which were taken from online and printed sources, the recipes were found to have at least one nutrient below pet dietary recommendations. The most common nutrients to fall short were iron, calcium, and vitamins E and B12. “When consumed long term, these diets expose pets to nutritional diseases,” said Dr Teo.

(Photo: iStock/MarioGuti)

Conversely, it is also a misconception that all commercially available pet food is complete and balanced, he noted. “When in doubt, pet owners should seek advice from their veterinarians and/or pet nutritionists.”

Another way is to look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) or European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) endorsement on the label, said Dr Tong. “This indicates that the manufacturer has met or exceeded the nutritional guidelines.”

He added: “Feeding trials by the AAFCO or FEDIAF, when conducted, are prominently labelled as well, giving the assurance that the food was used for months, and the animal closely monitored and assessed showed no deficiency or side effects.”

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WHEN IT COMES TO PET SUPPLEMENTS, IT’S BETTER TO GIVE MORE THAN LESS, RIGHT?

“Over-supplementation can lead to skeletal-muscle disproportionate growth, especially in young growing animals,” said Dr Tong. Not only that, it can also lead to excessive calcium deposits as well as overwork the animal’s organs. This can all lead to medical conditions such as obesity, urinary stones, joint diseases and to some extent, liver and kidney diseases.

So does your pet need supplements? It goes back to how nutritionally complete your pet’s food is in the first place, reminded Dr Tong. “A balanced diet from a reputable pet manufacturing company would already have all the essential nutrients in it.”

(Photo: iStock/nadisja)

AM I OVERFEEDING MY PET?

One way to minimise overfeeding is to use a measuring cup when portioning out your pet’s meal, said Dr Teo. “In an international survey of pet owners conducted in 2018, an astounding 80 per cent of pet owners do not always measure how much food they feed their pets. My advice is to follow the feeding recommendations on the label of your pet food packaging.”

And for good reason, too. Overfeeding may lead to obesity and that may affect the musculoskeletal (Fido can develop osteoarthritis) and endocrine systems (Socks may get diabetes) of the pets, said Dr Tan DY.

Moreover, “pet owners may not readily recognise their pet as overweight”. One way to get around this blind spot is to use the Body Condition Score (BCS) system – similar to the human Body Mass Index (BMI) – to monitor their pet, he said, which you can speak to the vet about.

And don’t give in to your pet when it begs for food.

(Photo: iStock/chendongshan)

BUT I THINK MY PET IS HAPPY WHEN I FEED IT – AND I WANT IT TO BE HAPPY

It is common in the Asian culture to equate food with love, said Dr Tong. “Have you eaten?” and “eat more” are ways we show affection to one another. In this regard, feeding an animal and watching it eat enthusiastically makes the feeder happy as it is perceived as approval of the feeder’s actions, he said.

“Happiness can vary between individuals and the same goes for animals, too,” said Dr Tong. “Though seeing our pets eat can bring us joy, we need to remember a crucial take-home message: Do everything in moderation. Overdoing anything can impact our pet’s health, reduce their lifespan and ultimately, take away the pleasure we experience from having them in our lives.”

Dr E Tan agreed that there are ways other than food that allow pet owners to show affection such as playing with their pets, talking to them or simply being there. “Pets have feelings and emotions, and they will know or sense it,” he said.

Grooming, showering and brushing them are other examples, said Dr Tong. “Not all activities need to be physically straining but a game of fetch, finding a hidden toy or walking around the block is sufficient to make a better difference than a calorie-ladened treat.”

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