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, liver disease, tumours and cancers, hormone disorders such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism and many others. Just as the health care needs of humans change as we age, the same applies to pets. It is critical for pet owners to work closely with their vet to devise a health plan that is to devise a health plan that is best for their senior pet.
When does ‘senior’ start?
So when is a pet considered senior? Generally smaller breeds of dogs live longer than larger breeds and cats live longer than dogs. Beyond that, the lifespan will vary with each individual and your vet will be able to help determine what stage of life your furry friend is in. Keep in mind that some small breeds may be considered senior at 10-13 years, while giant breeds are classified as senior at ages as young as five.
Senior Health Examinations
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.
During the senior health exam, your vet will ask you a series of questions regarding any changes in your pet’s activity and behaviour. The vet will also conduct a complete exam of all your pet’s body systems. Laboratory testing are also key components of the senior exam as some conditions can only be picked up by measuring the levels of certain substances in the blood. Additionally, depending on your individual pet’s condition and other factors other tests and assessments might be recommended. These additional tests become especially important in evaluating senior pets that show signs of sickness or are being prepared for anaesthesia and surgery.
The Effects of Age
Sensory changes 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.
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 behaviour changes. 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. 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/her bathroom habits. Excessive urination or incontinence may be indicative of diabetes or kidney failure, both of which are treatable if caught early enough.
Nutrition and Exercise
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 and osteoarthritis. Because older pets often have different nutritional requirements, these special foods can help keep your pets 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 preventative 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.
Pets experience pain just like humans do and we recommend taking steps to identify, prevent and minimise pain in all senior dogs and cats.
Signs of problems in older pets:
Sustained, significant increase in water consumption or urination
Sudden weight loss or gain
Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than 2 days
Significant increase in appetite
Diarrhoea lasting over 3 days
Difficulty in passing stools or urine
Change in housebreaking
Lameness lasting more than 5 days or lameness in more than one leg
Noticeable decrease in vision
Open sores and scabs on the skin that persist for more than 1 week
Foul mouth odour or drooling that lasts more than 2 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 generalised)
Inability to chew dry food
Blood in stool or urine
Sudden collapse or bout of weakness
A seizure (convulsion)
Persistent coughing or gagging
Breathing heavily or rapidly at rest
Osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative joint disease that affects the soft tissues and bones of the joints. It causes pain and decreased flexibility, which makes walking, running and generally getting around more difficult than usual. The stifle (knee), elbow and hip are the most commonly affected joints – although osteoarthritis could affect any joint in the body.
It can often be difficult to detect pain in dogs as they are much more stoical then we are, and they seldom complain. Cats are even better at masking the signs as they tend to be very private creatures and also because they are naturally more lightweight and agile.
What changes should you look for in your pet?
Has it reduced its activity, including a reluctance to walk, play, jump, climb stairs or jump into the car?
Is it limping, lagging behind on walks or having difficulty rising from rest, particularly in the morning?
Have there been any changes in temperament? Are they more aggressive, irritable or yelping in pain when touched?
Have you noticed changes in grooming habits? Is your pet licking, chewing or over-grooming a particular joint or joints? Cats may also show reduced grooming as a result of reduced flexibility leading to mats of fur developing, particularly over the spine.
Things we can do to help relieve the symptoms.
Control weight – Joint problems are aggravated by excess weight. Your vet surgeon will be able to advise you on the most suitable diet for your pet’s needs.
Provide the right kind of exercise – Regular, gentle exercise helps maintain mobility, as joint’s that do not have regular movement may stiffen up, encouraging your dog to become less and less active. Exercise may take the form of walks on the lead. Frequent gentle walks are of more benefit than irregular energetic activities. Dogs with poor joints should avoid very energetic exercise such as chasing a ball in the park.
Consult your vet. It is important to realise that if you are noticing any of the signs mentioned, then your pet is likely to be in a degree of pain. A lot of people believe that it is not worth mentioning to the vet as these signs are all natural age-related changes. Your pet does not have to be in pain as there are lots of treatment options aimed at reducing pain and stiffness thus improving quality of life.
Joint supplements are used extensively now to help maintain normal function in joints and tendons and to improve the symptoms associated with arthritis. As in humans, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents are now commonly used. They reduce the formation of substances in the body which give rise to both pain and inflammation. Early intervention is important to reduce the likelihood of more severe pain developing.
Consider alternative therapies. – Hydrotherapy is an increasingly popular complementary therapy for dogs with osteoarthritis. Swimming helps build muscle mass which will support the joint. It is a ‘low impact’ exercise which won’t aggravate joint pain. Your vet will know a centre where such a service is available.
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