Follow these tips to give your family pet a longer, healthier life.

By Lynya Floyd

Owning an animal can lower your odds of dying from heart disease, reduce your risk of suffering a heart attack and even decrease your chances of developing depression. In short, your furry friend can save your life, so why not return the favor by scheduling regular vet visits and following our advice.

1. Do a Weekly Work-Up

In a well-lit room, start with your pet's nose and make your way to his tail, feeling and looking for any abnormalities. "Red flags might be pale gums, a sign of anemia; any discharge, which could be an infection; or a lump, which may be cancer," explains Karen Halligan, D.V.M., director of veterinary services at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, California. Regular checks mean you'll learn what's normal for your animal and notice health problems sooner so you can address them right away with your vet.

2. Keep Their Pearlies White

If you don't have a toothbrush and toothpaste just for animals, it's time to buy them. Dental disease, which can lead to heart, liver and kidney problems, occurs in 80% of dogs and 70% of cats by age 2. But daily toothbrushing can help your pet live longer. This is especially true for small dogs, since their teeth are closer together, which increases the chance of buildup. "There are some good food products for oral care," advises Halligan. Greenies dental chew treats and the kibble in Hill's Prescription Diet t/d can scrub away plaque."But they still don't replace toothbrushing," according to Halligan.

3. Make Moving a Priority

Over the past five years, cases of diabetes have increased 16% in cats and 32% in dogs. One main culprit: insufficient exercise, leading to obesity. "Cats need one to two 15-minute sessions of physical activity a day," explains Halligan. "They're carnivores and hunting gives them a cardio workout." So get busy waving that teaser. The amount of exercise your dog needs varies by breed, but she should be breaking a pant daily. Check with your vet to set up a routine and see our tips for exercising dogs and cats.

4. Don't Skip Spaying and Neutering

"Fixing" your pet helps prevent overpopulation and may even calm him. It can also help him go the distance. "The average life span of a neutered male cat is 40% longer than that of a nonsterilized one," says Halligan. "For every heat cycle a female endures, her odds of having a medical problem later multiply by 10," Halligan adds. You can find low-cost spay and neuter programs across the country at:

5. Invest in Pet Insurance

Halligan has seen countless clients have to make a tough decision between expensive treatment and a less efficient work-around. "If a dog blows out his knee, surgery could be as much as $5,000," she says. "A lot of people can't afford that, so they'll restrict exercise and put their dog on anti-inflammatory drugs. It's a diminished lifestyle for your animal and doesn't get him back to 100%." Pet insurance (through companies such as VPI, the ASPCA and Petplan) increases your options, since it covers treatments like these and lifesaving surgeries. Alternatively, you could put $50 a month into a bank account just for vet expenses. Either way, a little planning will help keep your four-legged friend by your side for many years to come.

Unnecessary Pet Expenses

Many pet owners waste time and hard-earned cash. You can skip:

Home-Cooked Meals: "Pet food is now so high quality and well tested that you don't need to whip up your own dishes or buy organic food," says Halligan.

Annual Vaccinations: Talk to your vet about getting updates for some shots every three years or even less frequently.

High-Priced Toys: A $2 tennis ball keeps your pet moving just as well as a $25 premium version.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.