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In the Year of the Dog (or Cat): 5 Must-Do's for Your Pet in 2013

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Four-legged family members often make our list of New Year's resolutions: THIS is the year we're going to teach an old dog new tricks or stop the cat from scratching. Maybe you simply vow to vacuum the pet hair more frequently. For me, I've added training our new puppy, Monty, to the family to-do list.

A brand new calendar and a breath of fresh air after the holidays are great motivators! But no matter how intent we are on keeping our intentions, aspirations of toned tummies and fitter finances gradually fall by the wayside each winter. And sadly, even the promises we make to pets tend to fade within days (the over/under on Monty hogging the couch is four weeks).

Shredded furniture and piles of pet hair aside, there are a few pet-related resolutions you should make -- and keep! -- in 2013. None of them are difficult to do, but they are things we often never "get around" to tackling, despite how important they are to our pets' health and wellbeing. If there is one thing I have learned rubbing elbows with the country's best vets, editing fetch! magazine and combing through claims data, it is that prevention and preparation are priceless for ensuring a happy, healthy life for your pet.

With that in mind, here are my top five must-dos for your pet in the New Year:

1. Schedule a "wellness" visit at your vet.

No matter how young or healthy your pet may appear, it is absolutely essential that he or she sees a veterinarian at least once a year (every six months is ideal for senior pets). Because pets have shorter lives than we do, they also age more rapidly, and age-related conditions can develop quickly. Your veterinarian is more likely to notice subtle changes in your dog's health well before you do, and early detection will give you the best chance of treating disease before it progresses. Remember, that once-a-year visit is like one visit in seven years for your dog -- don't make the mistake of ditching the doc just because your pet "seems" healthy!

2. Pay attention to your pet's teeth.

You've been told a million times to brush your pet's teeth, but if I had to guess how many pet parents actually heed this expert advice, I'd say very few do. We buy toys, clothes and furniture for our pets, invest time training them and most of us say we'd do "anything" for our pets, yet oral hygiene is still one of the responsibilities we as pet parents most frequently neglect. If daily brushings are not realistic, commit to an alternative, like dental formula pet food or dental chews, wipes, swabs or mouth rinses. Though they don't take the place of a good brushing, something is better than nothing (particularly if your pet is on a diet of canned food, which doesn't do much to minimize plaque buildup on teeth).

3. Get organized.

If you're like me, you might have a file folder labeled with your pet's name that's stuffed with vet visit receipts, vaccine certificates, microchip info, proof of license, pet insurance papers and about a million other things. If you were to sit down and sort it all out, you wouldn't have to scramble when the pet hotel requests proof of vaccination, or when you need to submit medical history with a pet insurance claim, but there never seems to be time! My advice is do it once, and do it right. There are a number of apps available to help you keep track of all of your pet's vital health information. Put the time into putting it all in one place, and you'll have a picture of your pet's health at your fingertips whenever you need it.

4. Protect your pet (and your budget) with pet insurance.

Imagine being able to give your pet whatever medical care he or she needs, without worrying about cost. Knee surgery? Giddy up. Radiation and chemotherapy? Worth a try! If you haven't given thought to the decisions you might have to make should your pet ever have an accident or become ill, you are putting your pet in a very precarious position. The sad fact is that many pets go without necessary medical care or are surrendered to shelters (or worse, euthanized) each year because their owners cannot afford the cost of treatment. Don't let this be you; do your research and get your pet a health insurance policy. I know, I know -- being the co-founder of Petplan in the U.S. I am a tad biased in favor of pet insurance, but I've seen countless lives saved in the six years since we began selling policies (and signing Monty up for coverage was one of the first things I did when we brought him home). Take it from me, the emergency vet is a terrible place to wish you had gotten around to it sooner.

5. Plan for the future.

While no one loves thinking about what will happen when they pass away, making a plan for your loved ones -- including your pets -- is essential. No matter how much you trust someone, a verbal agreement with a spouse, parent, adult child or friend is simply not enough to ensure that they will take care of your pet exactly as you would after you pass away. Legally, it doesn't even grant them the right to assume ownership of the pet. I recently had an interesting conversation with Worcester, Mass.-based estate-planning attorney Tracy Craig, who recommends setting up a pet trust as part of a comprehensive estate plan. Not only does a trust provide the best legal protection for your pets, but it gives you the opportunity to spell out exactly how you want your pets to be cared for, and puts checks and balances into place to ensure that your wishes are carried out to the letter.

Put your pet's health at the top of your list in 2013, and I promise you'll find the results rewarding. And who knows -- maybe sticking to a resolution for Fluffy or Fido will inspire you to keep on track to accomplish your own! Either way, I wish you and your pets the very best in the year ahead.

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