Thanks to advances in Veterinary medicine, pets are living longer than ever before. 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.
When Does “Senior” Start?
Generally, smaller breeds of dogs live longer than larger breeds, and cats live longer than dogs. Beyond that, the life span will vary with each pet. Keep in mind that some small dog breeds may be considered senior at 10-13 years, while some large breeds are classified as seniors at ages as young as 5. Your Veterinarian is your best source for more information to determine when your pet reaches the golden years.
Senior Health Exams:
Scheduling regular Veterinary examinations is one of the most important steps you can take for early detection of problems such as organ failure and osteoarthritis. Most Vets recommend that healthy middle age dogs and cats receive a complete exam and laboratory testing once a year, and seniors twice a year. During the senior health exam, we will ask you a series of questions regarding any changes in your pet’s activity, behavior, eating, drinking, urination, and activity levels.
Along with a complete examination of your pet’s body systems (heart, lungs, skin, eyes, ears, musculoskeletal, lymphatic, teeth, mouth and much more), laboratory testing is highly recommended.
Just like your doctor, Veterinarians depend a lot on laboratory results to help us understand the status of your pet’s health. When your pet is healthy, laboratory tests provide a means to determine your pet’s “baseline” values. When your pet is sick, we can more easily determine whether or not your pet’s lab values are abnormal by comparing the baseline values to the current values. Subtle changes in these laboratory test results, even in the outwardly healthy animal, may signal the presence of an underlying disease. At a minimum, the following tests are recommended:
Complete Blood Count: This common test measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets in a given sample of blood. This information is needed to help diagnose anaemia, infections and leukaemia. A complete blood count also helps monitor your pet’s response to some treatments.
Urinalysis: Laboratory analysis of urine is a tool used to detect the presence of one or more specific substances that normally do not appear in urine, such as protein, sugar, white blood cells or blood. A measurement of the dilution or concentration of urine is helpful in diagnosing urinary-tract infections, diabetes, dehydration, kidney problems and many other conditions.
Blood-Chemistry: Panel Blood-chemistry panels measure electrolytes, enzymes and chemical elements such as calcium and phosphorous. This information helps determine how various organs, such as the kidneys, pancreas, and liver, are currently functioning. The results of these tests help your veterinarian formulate an accurate diagnosis, prescribe proper therapy, and monitor the response to treatment.
Parasite Evaluation: Microscopic examination of your pet’s feces can provide information about many different diseases, such as difficulties with digestion, internal bleeding, and disorders of the pancreas. Most importantly, though, this test confirms the presence of intestinal parasites, such as roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, tapeworm and giardia.
For cats, an additional routine blood test is recommended 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, such as:
- heartworm tests
- feline leukaemia/feline immunodeficiency virus test in cats
- blood pressure evaluation
- urine protein evaluation
- imaging such as x-rays, ultrasound, echocardiography, electrocardiography, and special ophthalmic evaluations, among others
The Effects of Age:
Sensory Changes: These are a general “slowing down” in pets. As their major senses dull, you may find that your pet has a slower response to general external stimuli. 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.
Physical Changes: The physical changes your pets experience is generally easier to spot than the sensory changes. 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 problems (such as inappropriate elimination). The kidneys are one of the most common organ systems to wear out on a cat or dog, and 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.
Keep them moving 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 to keep them sharp.
Pets experience pain just like humans do, and we take steps to identify, prevent, and minimize pain in all senior dogs and cats. You can play a key role in monitoring your pet to determine whether he/she suffers from pain. New and effective Laser Pain Treatments are now available that can significantly assist in reducing pain.
Signs of a Problem:
- Sustained, significant increase in water consumption or urination
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than two days
- Significant increase in appetite
- Repeated vomiting
- Diarrhea lasting over three days
- Difficulty in passing stool or urine
- Change in housebreaking
- Lameness lasting more than five days or lameness in more than one leg
- Noticeable decrease in vision
- Open sores or scabs on the skin that persist for more than one week
- Foul mouth odor or drooling that lasts more than two days
- Increasing size of the abdomen
- Increasing inactivity or amount of time spent sleeping
- Hair loss, especially if accompanied by scratching or if in specific areas (as opposed to generalized)
- Excessive panting
- Inability to chew dry food
- Blood in stool or urine
- Sudden bout of weakness or collapse
- A seizure (convulsion)
- Persistent coughing or gagging
- Breathing heavily or rapidly at rest
To help ensure your pets live comfortably during the senior life stage, it’s critical for us to work together to tailor a senior wellness plan that best fits your dog or cat. Be sure to monitor behavior and physical conditions and report anything unusual so we can help your pet head into the twilight years with ease.