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
Signs of problems in older pets:
Sustained, significant increase in water consumption or
Sudden weight loss or gain
in appetite or failure to eat for more than 2 days
over 3 days
Difficulty in passing
stools or urine
Lameness lasting more
than 5 days or lameness in more than one leg
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
or amount of time spent sleeping
Hair loss, especially
if accompanied by scratching or if in specific areas (as opposed to
Inability to chew dry
Blood in stool or
Sudden collapse or
bout of weakness
A seizure (convulsion)
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?
reduced its activity, including a reluctance to walk, play, jump, climb stairs
or jump into the car?
limping, lagging behind on walks or having difficulty rising from rest,
particularly in the morning?
there been any changes in temperament?
Are they more aggressive, irritable or yelping in pain when touched?
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.