Their Affection Is Timeless, Their Devotion Is Ageless, and Their Love Is Endless
He’s been your companion and a part of the family for a long time, but now you see some changes. He’s less agile and not as attentive as he once was. It’s inevitable – our beloved pets are growing older. This means his needs are changing and he is dependent on you to help him stay healthy and comfortable; and it’s our job to help you.
Our goals for the healthcare of our senior pets are to:
- Promote early detection of disease in the apparently healthy pet
- Prevent or delay morbidity and mortality whenever possible
- Help pet owners to understand common clinical conditions in senior pets
- Provide education on all aspects of screening, diagnosis, treatment
- Assist pet owners to evaluate quality of life
Becoming a “Senior”
The term “senior” has been chosen to describe the aging and older pet. The number of years considered to be “senior” may vary, and one must keep in mind that organ systems, species, and breeds of dogs age at different rates. The American Animal Hospital Association defines senior pets as those animals in the last 25 % of predicted life span. Most veterinarians consider dogs as senior by the time they are six or seven years of age, and they consider cats senior by the time they are somewhere between seven and 10 years of age. Your pet’s veterinarian will have senior pet protocols in place based on your practice’s definition of senior ages. Pets, of course, age at a more rapid rate than humans, and therefore, pets move from a senior pet age status to a geriatric pet age within three years of when they are first recognized as a senior pet.
Regular veterinary examinations are important for overall health at any age, but more frequent exams may be needed for an aging pet. Senior companions can live happy, healthy lives, however as our companions age, we will begin to recognize some overall changes in their physical or mental status. While some of the signs you may observe include a general slowing down, lower exercise endurance, decreased agility and perhaps some personality changes, these signs may be a part of the normal aging process or they may be symptoms of various health issues, so it is important to understand some of the more common health problems associated with senior or geriatric dogs.
There is no substitute for a thorough and complete history and physical examination at any age. The purpose of clinical screening of your healthy pet is to establish a baseline assessment for future comparison. This evaluation should include blood work which is used to detect subclinical abnormalities at a time when preventive and therapeutic intervention may have the most benefit. Within the veterinary field, there is a volume of literature that documents subclinical disease in otherwise healthy-appearing pets. Subtle changes in diagnostic tests, such as blood work, may give an indication of the presence of an underlying disease.
Preventive care is directed at making recommendations prior to the onset of disease in order to prevent or temper the effects of disease or adverse health conditions. Yearly examinations as well as yearly laboratory testing is recommended as the most effective approach for recognizing and treating conditions that might otherwise become serious illnesses if left untreated.
By the time that your pet reaches his geriatric year, bi-annual examinations are strongly recommended to identify age-related problems. Your pet’s geriatric exam will once again include a physical examination, complete blood count, blood chemistries, stool exam and urinalysis.
Your pet’s veterinarian may also wish to test blood pressure and thyroid levels, especially in cats. Kidney disease is relatively common in older cats and the urine check can pick up protein leakage. While we can’t cure kidney disease, we can, if caught early, slow down its progression.
Senior and geriatric pets receiving treatment have an increased need for more frequent examinations and testing. Care of senior pets also necessitates more frequent communication with the doctor so that the doctor can monitor progression or regression of signs. With a slowdown in metabolic rate and a decreased level of activity, aging dogs and cats do not require as much food to maintain their weight. Therefore, your pet’s doctor will also want to review dietary changes with you during your pet’s visit.
Managing Senior Pet Medical Conditions
The medical conditions that afflict aging cats and dogs have been a focus of much research in recent years. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the reasons for this research include the increasing longevity of pets, the willingness of owners to address chronic illness in their pets, and the implications for modeling human disease. Some studies have examined issues that commonly affect older pets such as diabetes, heart disease, and pain management. Other studies have delved into conditions more specific to geriatric animals—cognitive dysfunction, glaucoma, and osteoarthritis.
- Weight Changes – Obesity actually “ages” animals faster, but a sudden weight loss or chronic underweight physique may indicate a serious health problem. Diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and diabetes can cause weight loss and affect half the dogs older than 10 years of age.
- Dementia – Geriatric dementia is a condition most often associated with humans, but the truth is that pets are prone to a deterioration of mental functions, too. Dementia in dogs may manifest most commonly as inappropriate vocalization, urinary accidents, getting lost in a part of the house or avoiding interaction with family members; and in cats, forgetting behaviors such as how to use the litter box, and losing some awareness of her surroundings. Some cats will pace, sleep less at night, or walk around crying as if they are lost.
- Arthritis – The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis which is a degenerative joint disease. This condition most commonly affects hips, knees, elbows and shoulders. These changes wear away cartilage and may cause abnormal bony growth resulting in pain, stiffness and de-creased range of motion. There is no cure, but there are treatments that can either slow the progression or ease the pain. Ranges of services include laser therapy, rehabilitation/exercise programs and joint supplements.
- Vision and Hearing Loss – As your dog ages, his senses will dull. His sense of hearing, vision and smell will all diminish. Dogs do adapt to sensory changes. You can help your dog or cat adjust to reduced vision by maintaining a consistent environment for him.
- Cancer – According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the rate of cancer in pets increases with age. Cancer is responsible for approximately half the deaths of pets over 10 years of age. Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, while cats tend to have lower rates of cancer. Some cancers, such as breast or testicular cancer, are largely preventable by spaying and neutering. A diagnosis of cancer may be based on x-rays, blood tests, physical appearance of tumors, and other physical signs. The ultimate test for cancer is through confirmation via a biopsy.
- Pain – Signs of acute or chronic pain vary. Any behavioral change, or change in vital signs, may be an indication of pain. Signs of pain may be less obvious due to your pet’s demeanor (e.g., stoicism) or if your pet is on a combined medication regiment. Treatment options vary depending on whether your pet’s pain is chronic or acute. Single drugs or combinations of drugs may be used.
Hospice and Palliative Care
Veterinary hospice care is defined as “giving clients time to make decisions regarding a terminal companion animal and to prepare for [its] impending death.” The comfort of the animal must always be considered. In human medicine, hospice and palliative care are considered to be the model for quality, compassionate care for those facing a life-limiting illness or injury. Palliative care, based on the animal’s specific requirements, might include outpatient/home care; pain management; easy access to food, water, and litter; wound management; a stable and consistent environment; good hygiene and sanitation; clean bedding and padding; and mental stimulation. Visits to the home by veterinarians and/or support staff may be offered.
Health span and Lifespan
In the book “Good Old Dog, Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy and Comfortable,” its author, Dr. Dodman, writes that it’s important for people to increase not only a dog’s life span, but also their pet’s health span. Advances in veterinary medicine help dogs and cats remain healthier for much longer even as they reach significantly older ages.
Anyone can have a job. We have a passion. Feel free to ask us whenever you have a question or concern. Remember, the needs of your senior pet are changing and he is dependent on you to help him stay healthy and comfortable. It’s our job to help you.