Studies by vets such as Ronald Schultz, professor and chair of pathobiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and W. Jean Dodds, the president of animal blood bank Hemopet/Pet Life-Line in Garden Grove, Calif., and an authority on blood and immune disorders, thyroid disease, and nutrition, have repeatedly demonstrated the long-lasting effect of many of the core vaccinations. Schultz, who has been conducting controlled studies since the 1970s, has found that the vaccines that protect against life-threatening diseases are essential for all dogs, but not on a yearly basis. His studies demonstrate that with the exception of the rabies vaccine, others (for canine distemper, canine parvovirus type 2, and canine adenovirus type 2) trigger an immunology memory of at least seven years. Rabies shots last three years, which is the interval now required by law in most states.
Proceed with caution, though. "The benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh any risks," says Elizabeth Curry-Galvin, AVMA director, scientific activities. Her recommendation: Talk to your vet to devise a customized vaccination plan.
3. High-quality diet. Most vets agree that proper exercise and high-quality nutrition are the secret to an able-bodied pet. Pets seem to recover from illnesses faster and stay healthier on balanced diets made from the best ingredients.
Since the 2007 pet-food recalls heightened consumers' concerned about pet-food safety, demand has soared for special natural and raw diets such as the B.A.R.F. diet and natural/organic brands, including Breeder's Choice, Castor & Pollux, Evanger's, Natural Balance, Newman's Own Organics, and Old Mother Hubbard. The special Natural Diet Foundation dog food Maggie switched to, developed 30 years ago by Volhard, consists of dehydrated oats, wheat bran, chicken liver, carrots, molasses, and cod liver oil mixed with water, and topped off with a protein such as raw ground beef or salmon. Top marketers Nestlé Purina, Mars, and Procter & Gamble (Iams) have begun offering natural pet foods, too. According to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research firm, sales of natural pet food in the United States reached $1 billion in 2007, up from $558 million in 2003. By 2012, the market is expected to top $2 billion.
These higher-priced formulas are usually made from certified organic grains and vegetables; and chicken, beef, or lamb that has no added hormones and is antibiotic free. Even celebrity cook Rachael Ray launched a superpremium brand of dog food in July. Rachael Ray Nutrish's main selling point is that the No. 1 ingredient is real chicken or beef and that there are no fillers or artificial flavors. Added to her dish: omega fatty acids, a blend of fiber, antioxidants like vitamin E, and a dash of "evoo" (extra-virgin olive oil).
The problem is that there's "lots of opinion but no scientific evidence of a benefit for pets to any of these all-natural diets," says Lisa Freeman, a researcher at Tufts University. "There are no legal definitions for holistic, human grade, organic, or premium," she argues. "These are primarily marketing terms," Freeman says, "and owners should be skeptical."