One of the more common problems that veterinarians deal with involves the thyroid gland. The thyroid is in the neck and has to do with controlling metabolism.

The problem is found in dogs and cats. It is probably a more common problem in dogs, and usually involves a low thyroid level, or hypothyroidism.

When the levels of the hormone are low, energy levels drop and a wide range of other problems happen, such as skin problems, unusual body odours, obesity, increased allergy problems, etc.

Some breeds of dogs are more prone to this, and in some breeds it’s downright common. Dobermans fit into this category and this is something to test for early in any diagnostic workup.

Not only do veterinarians test to prove a disease exists, but often have to do tests to rule things out. So let’s look at how you test thyroid gland function.

There are several forms of the thyroid hormone and it’s not easy to simply test for a level. The gold standard currently is to test for another hormone called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, or TSH.

This hormone tells the thyroid to get to work and produce more thyroid hormone.

The test looks at the level of TSH present in the blood, and also looks at the various levels of hormone. A high TSH and low hormone level means the body is desperately trying to produce more. In other words, hypothyroid.

A low TSH, but normal hormone level, tells you all is well. A low TSH, but high hormone level, says there’s a problem and the gland is overactive. And, of course, there are all sorts of variations in between to make the exact diagnosis difficult.

So if the test shows a low level, common in dogs, the solution is simple. Supplement the animal with thyroid pills.

But even here, there’s a bit of controversy. Several major brands are sometimes used and some feel that they are more effective and reliable. The generic brands, while much cheaper, are sometimes avoided since they may not be as effective.

This is a personal choice to talk to your veterinarian about. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a problem using the cheaper generic brands.

But what if the level is too high? This is called hyperthyroidism. This is highly unusual in the dog and presents a much more difficult problem.

Surgery to remove part of the thyroid is possible, but this is a delicate surgery that most general practice veterinarians wouldn’t want to do.

Take too much of the gland, and you’re back to having to supplement the now hypothyroid dog.

Radiation is possible but this is mostly done in major U.S. centres or universities. There are drugs to poison the thyroid, but this requires constant monitoring.

Fortunately this condition is rather rare in dogs. The cat is a different animal all together, as usual.

Hypothyroid cats are highly unusual. It’s just not a usual thing to even think about in cats. But hyperthyroid cats are, unfortunately, all too common.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen bulging eyes in cats, which can be one of the symptoms in humans, but the hyperactivity and a whole range of other problems would let you know it’s time to test.

And the range of options here is just as limited. Surgery is even more difficult in a cat because of the size, and radiation is still a very expensive and distant option.

Drugs to poison or slow the thyroid are the way to treat these guys. And monitoring the level is a good idea. But once the level is reached, economics begins to be a factor.

In ideal terms, frequent testing is the best, but it does get expensive. Some opt to watch the clinical response and simply keep the cat comfortable. Something to discuss with your veterinarian and neither approach is right every time.

On a final note, in mentioning the cost of drugs like thyroid supplements, yes there is sometimes a difference between trade names and generics. Usually the generic is just as good, but this isn’t always the case.

I’ve seen several human cases where the generic form of a drug has caused major problems where the trade name drug works. I’ve seen some problems with insurers and governments who only will pay for the generic form, and if there is a real problem, this is wrong.

Same with dogs and cats. They’re no different.

And a final tirade. Yes, prescriptions are costly.

A study done well over 20 years ago showed what it would cost to sell a prescription of an empty bottle with some cotton in it.

It showed that by the time you stock the drug, lose some to it going out of date, have a stock of vials, keep the system to know where it went, put a label on it, pay someone to do it, etc. it cost $9 to sell an empty bottle. Probably more like $15 today.

Yes, there are cheaper dispensing fees, but only to draw people into the larger store to purchase other things.

That’s what it costs, people. You expect to get paid at the end of the day. So does your pharmacist or veterinarian.