For many pet owners, our pets are prominent members of our family, and most of us can’t imagine lives without them. Watching our pets age is rewarding, but we wish they could live forever! Luckily, pets these days are living longer, but as they age, they can develop health problems and require special care. Regular veterinary checkups are essential to the early diagnosis and treatment of many diseases and health concerns. Here is what you need to know to ensure both you and your pet can enjoy their golden years!
Dogs and cats are living longer now. This is because people think about their pets now more as members of their family instead of property or livestock, and are more willing to invest time, energy and resources necessary for the preventative care and to manage chronic illnesses. Health care advances that have been made both more accessible and more affordable have also helped. More accurate diagnostic techniques coupled with less invasive procedures and more effective treatments allow veterinarians and pet owners to provide pets with high-quality health care. Veterinary health care professionals better understand the ageing process and age-related diseases and thus are better able to help senior dogs and cats live longer, healthier, happier lives.
The Senior Life Stage
How your dog or cat ages and its longevity varies considerably between breeds and is affected by many factors such as genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment, and concurrent illnesses. In general, a ‘senior pet’ is loosely defined as an animal in the last 25% of the anticipated lifespan for their species and breed. Typically cats have longer average lifespans than dogs, and small breed dogs usually live longer than larger breeds. The average cat is considered senior anywhere from 9-11 years, small dogs at age 9, medium dogs at age 7, and large or giant breed dogs at age 5-6. Veterinarians refer to pets as senior when they enter the life stage in which they start to decline in physical condition, organ function, sensory and mental function and immune function. During this time the risk of developing age-related diseases such as arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, dental disease and cancer also increases. However, it is important to remember that age is not a disease, and while you cannot change your pets’ genetics, there are many things you can do to improve their environment, nutrition, stress level and overall lifestyle to enhance their longevity and reduce progressive, degenerative health changes.
Signs of Illness
Routine senior checkups by a veterinarian are the most effective way to determine the life stage your pet is in, and if there are any serious health concerns. However, by paying close attention to your pet and noticing any behaviour changes (older pets are creatures of habit!), you can recognize when your pet is entering the senior life stage and/or early signs of disease – you can observe your pet in their home environment, you know your pet much better than their veterinarian ever could!
Look for these changes or clinical signs in your pet:
• Weight changes
• Changes in appetite and food intake (increased or decreased) and eating habits (For example, does your pet pick at their food, drop food or avoid certain types of food?)
• Increased water consumption
• Changes in urination or defecation
• Difficulty jump or climbing stairs
• Persistent cough
• Foul mouth odour, drooling, dropping food
• Seizures, convulsions
• New or changing lumps, bumps, skin tags or swellings
• Breathing heavily/rapidly at rest or difficulty breathing
• Pale or tacky gums
• Sudden weakness, unsteadiness or collapse
Owners dismiss many signs of health problems because they are misinterpreted as typical signs of ageing, but dismissing or ignoring these signs can be bad for your pet! If you notice any of the above symptoms or other changes in your pets normal behaviour it is crucial that you let your veterinarian know as soon as possible.
Most veterinarians recommend your senior pet have a complete physical exam every six months so that potentially dangerous age-related diseases can be detected early. The earlier these problems are identified, the more options you and your veterinarian have to possibly cure or slow their progression, which will give you more time with your pet and keep them comfortable for longer.
During your senior pets regular check-ups your veterinarian will ask for a thorough history, which includes information about any of the clinical signs listed above that you may have noticed. They will perform a physical exam to look for common conditions in your pet and to get a full assessment of their health may also run tests including bloodwork, urinalysis, fecal analysis, blood pressure reading, radiographs, fine needle aspirates, intraocular pressure readings, etc.
The last, but one of the most important, component of a senior wellness visit is owner education. Your veterinarian will teach you valuable information about your senior pet’s health such as the type and amount of food they should be fed, the amount of exercise they need, ways to play with and mentally stimulate pets with decreased mobility, or ways to manage any health issues that do arise. If you have questions or concerns it is important that you voice them – good communication between owners and veterinarians is crucial to ensuring your pet is getting the best healthcare possible.
Caring for a senior pet involves making changes to their home environment to improve their safety and their comfort. Older pets tend to have decreased mobility and are less agile than they were when they were younger, and because of this are more likely to hurt themselves falling down stairs, slipping on floors, etc. It is important to take precautions to avoid putting older pets in potentially dangerous situations by either avoiding these scenarios or altering their environment to make it safer for them (carpet lined stairs or ramps can be helpful!) Adding extra padding to their beds can help reduce pressure on their joints, and elevating their food bowls can help reduce neck and back pain.
By giving your senior pet the special care and attention that this stage of their life requires, you can help ensure that they will be happy and healthy throughout their golden years!
Written By: Dr. Brittni Milligan