Advances in veterinary care and nutrition, plus loving care by owners have resulted in an increase in the number of senior pets. A recent study shows that 35% of cats and 33% of dogs are over 8 years of age and could be considered geriatric while less than 8% are less than 1 year of age. Therefore is seems clear that we, as veterinarians, should be focusing as much, if not more, attention on our senior patients as we do on puppies and kittens.
Unfortunately pets age much faster than people do and, as part of their survival instinct, they often will show no overt signs that they are ill until a disease has progressed to the point where they can no longer hide it. Early diagnosis contributes to a much better prognosis.
Medical advancements have enabled us to diagnosis potential diseases early on. Some of the most common diseases afflicting older pets include kidney disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, urinary tract infections and liver disease. Catching diseases early can add years to your pet’s life. For example, kidney disease is one of the major causes of illness and death in both dogs and cats, however symptoms do not usually present themselves until a pet has lost 75% of their kidney function. If caught in the early phases, your pet can live with this condition for many years and sometimes a change as simple as altering their diet can make a huge difference in duration and quality of life.
- Twice yearly visits for pets over the age of 8
A year in a pet’s life is equivalent to 5 or 6 years in human’s life. As a result, a year between visits can prove too lengthy. When you live with your pet day in and day out, subtle changes in their weight, behavior or overall heath can easily be missed.Furthermore, because pets are so good at masking signs of illness, even a devoted pet owner can miss if a pet is drinking out of the toilet more often, eating a bit less food or sleeping more when you are not home.
- Annual Wellness Testing
Apart from the actual physical exam, Wellness Testing gives us the opportunity to see how things are functioning internally with a pet that may outwardly look very healthy. By evaluating a blood and urine sample on a once a year basis, we can pick up abnormalities in organ function or urinary tract health before the pet shows symptoms. As well, should the bloodwork come back normal, we now have a baseline to compare to should the pet present with an illness in the future.
Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, pets are living longer than ever before. However with this increased lifespan comes an increase in the types of ailments that can afflict senior pets. As pets reach the golden years, there are a variety of conditions and diseases that they can face, including weight and mobility changes; osteoarthritis; kidney, heart, and liver disease; tumors and cancers; hormone disorders such as diabetes and thyroid imbalance; and many others.
Just as the health care needs of humans change as we age, the same applies to pets. It’s critical for pet owners to work closely with their veterinarian to devise a health plan that is best for their senior pet.
Senior Health Exams
Scheduling regular veterinary examinations is one of the most important steps pet owners can take to keep their pets in tip-top shape. When dogs and cats enter the senior years, these health examinations are more important than ever. Senior care, which starts with the regular veterinary exam, is needed to catch and delay the onset or progress of disease and for the early detection of problems such as organ failure and osteoarthritis. We recommend that healthy senior dogs and cats visit the veterinarian every six months for a complete exam and laboratory testing. Keep in mind that every year for a dog or cat is equivalent to 5-7 human years. In order stay current with your senior pet’s health care, twice-a-year exams are a must.
During the senior health exam, your veterinarian will ask you a series of questions regarding any changes in your pet’s activity and behavior. The veterinarian will also conduct a complete examination of all of your pet’s body systems. Client education and laboratory testing are also key components of the senior exam.
For cats, an additional routine blood test is recommended in order to check for hyperthyroidism, a common ailment in senior cats. Additionally, depending on your individual pet’s condition and other factors, other tests and assessments might be recommended. These include heartworm tests; feline leukemia/feline immunodeficiency virus test in cats; blood pressure evaluation; urine protein evaluation; cultures; imaging such as x-rays, ultrasound, and echocardiography; electrocardiography, and special ophthalmic evaluations, among others. Additional tests become especially important in evaluating senior pets that show signs of sickness or are being prepared for anesthesia and surgery.
The Effects of Age
With the senior years comes a general “slowing down” in pets. As their major senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) dull, you may find that your pet has a slower response to general external stimuli. This loss of sensory perception often is a slow, progressive process, and it may even escape your notice. The best remedy for gradual sensory reduction is to keep your pet active-playing and training are excellent ways to keep their senses sharp.
Pets may also be affected mentally as they age. Just as aging humans begin to forget things and are more susceptible to mental conditions, your aging animals may also begin to confront age-related cognitive and behavior changes. Most of these changes are rather subtle and can be addressed in a proactive manner. Regular senior health exams can help catch and treat these problems before they control your pet’s life.
The physical changes your pets experience are generally easier to spot than the sensory changes. As the body wears out, its ability to respond to infection is reduced, and the healing process takes longer. Therefore, it is crucial to consult a veterinarian if you notice a significant change in behavior or the physical condition of your pet. Many of the signs indicating that animals are approaching senior citizenship are the same for both cats and dogs, but they can indicate a variety of different.
A very common and frustrating problem for aging pets is inappropriate elimination. The kidneys are one of the most common organ systems to wear out on a cat or dog, and as hormone imbalance affects the function of the kidneys, your once well-behaved pet may have trouble controlling his bathroom habits. If you are away all day, he may simply not be able to hold it any longer, or urine may dribble out while he sleeps at night. In addition, excessive urination or incontinence may be indicative of diabetes or kidney failure, both of which are treatable if caught early enough.
Many older pets benefit from specially formulated food that is designed with older bodies in mind. Obesity in pets is often the result of reduced exercise and overfeeding and is a risk factor for problems such as heart disease. Because older pets often have different nutritional requirements, these special foods can help keep your pet’s weight under control and reduce consumption of nutrients that are risk factors for the development of diseases, as well as organ- or age-related changes.
Exercise is yet another aspect of preventive geriatric care for your pets. You should definitely keep them going as they get older-if they are cooped up or kept lying down, their bodies will deteriorate much more quickly. You may want to ease up a bit on the exercise with an arthritic or debilitated cat or dog. Otherwise, you should keep them as active-mentally and physically-as possible in order to keep them sharp.
What problems might arise?
Common ailments in senior dogs:
- Dental Disease
- Heart Disease
- Chronic kidney failure
- Behavioral Changes
- Hearing/Vision Impairment
What can I do?
- keep vaccinations current (depending on lifestyle)
- brush fur frequently to prevent it from getting matted (grooming often decreases with age)
- clip nails to prevent overgrowth
- keep plenty of fresh water available
- keep indoors in inclement weather
- weigh on same scale often and record results (at least 4 times per year)
Please make an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice any of the following symptoms are present in your pet:
- sustained significant increase in water consumption weight loss
- significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for 2 consecutive days
- significant increase in appetite
- repeated vomiting
- diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
- difficulty in passing stool or urine
- sudden loss of housetraining
- lameness that lasts more than 3 days or lameness in more than one leg
- noticeable sudden decrease in vision
- masses that change in size or appearance
- foul mouth odor
- increasing size of abdomen
- increasing inactivity
- hair loss
- persistent coughing or gagging
- excessive panting
- sudden collapse or bout of weakness
- inability to chew dry food