Young At Heart: Your Aging Pet

Your pet is considered to be a senior when they turn seven, with larger breeds aging more rapidly. About half of the 1.4 billion pets in America are this age or older. Most of their behavior, appearance, and daily functional changes are considered normal.   However, an owner must be aware of the differences between normal and abnormal aging changes. This will help you identify a few of the typical problems so you and your veterinarian can be proactive with your pet’s health maintenance.

The most common abnormal behavioral change is called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). With CDS, your pet will have changes in sleep cycles, dysfunction in house training, and decreased human interaction. A diagnosis of CDS should only be made when all other causes have been ruled out: hearing, vision, pain, and metabolic disease.

Your dog or cat’s body weight and condition change as they age. Daily energy requirements decrease by 30%-40% during the last third of their life. They can consume more calories than needed for their more sedentary lifestyles, leading to obesity, the most common nutritional disorder.  A multitude of problems can arise such as osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease. The most important take home message is that it DECREASES quality and life expectancy.

Osteoarthritis is the most common musculoskeletal disease. You will see an increase in vocalization, not readily jumping/climbing stairs, or avoiding the litter box.  There are many effective drugs like canine and feline specific NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatories) and supplements (Glucosamine/Chondroitin) that can help. Remember there are not any good over the counter NASIDS available for your pet. Long term Aspirin carries high risk for gastric ulceration and bleeding disorders. Ibuprofen and Tylenol are TOXIC to dogs and cats - so don’t use them.

Periodontal disease is the most common oral change. It affects 90% of animals over three years of age. A few of signs you will see at home will include changes in eating habits, halitosis (smelly breath), or pain when touched.  Your veterinarian can help assess these pets and a professional cleaning or tooth extraction may be recommended. After the problem/s have been addressed, it is possible for you, the owner, to help reduce the severity of periodontal disease. The best way to prevent tartar build up is by brushing your pet’s teeth at least 3 times weekly. But dental bones, oral rinses and water additives are options as well.  The earlier you start at home dental care, the better.

Cardiac and respiratory disease makes up a third of senior dog and cat illnesses. You might see coughing in the morning or evening, difficulty breathing, or decreased energy level.  The first step in diagnosing these problems is through the use of radiography.  An x-ray can help identify whether the cause is primarily respiratory or cardiac in nature.  Most of these cardiac and respiratory problems can be managed with medication but it is important to catch the problem as soon as possible and rule out the possibility of an underlying cancer.

Chronic kidney failure is a leading cause of death in cats and dogs. Once we see elevations of kidney values, 75% of kidney function is already lost! Be aware of these signs at home: drinking and urinating excessively, weight loss, vomiting, and bad breath. This disease can be manageable if caught early on yearly wellness screenings.  Urinary incontinence is also common as your pet ages. He or she will void when resting or asleep. Testing the urine to rule out an infection will help us diagnose this disease and start successful medication treatment.   Changes in the urine can also sometimes pick up early renal dysfunction before clinical signs or abnormalities in blood work are noted.

There are many abnormal changes that affect your pet’s endocrine system. Some of the clinical signs that you might see at home would include excessive urination and drinking, increased panting, a potbelly, and poor hair coat or hair loss are a few distinct signs of a problem.  Your cat in particular, will show signs of weight loss in spite of eating well. The good news is, most of these endocrine diseases (Cushing’s Disease, Hypothyroidism, Hyperthyroidism, Diabetes Mellitus) can be diagnosed at early onset with yearly wellness blood work.  All of these diseases can be managed with medication as well.

Your pet needs a thorough general health assessment every year. This will include a physical exam (look at teeth, listen to heart, etc), checking for heartworms, and a fecal exam (checking for parasites.) Yes!!!!  Indoor pets can get parasites too! Yearly blood work is very important to help determine the quality of your pet’s health on the inside as well as the outside. This is includes a CBC that checks for anemia, infection, and inflammation; a chemistry panel that checks organ function and health, and a urinalysis that assesses underlying infections and crystal formation.

Remember 1 year of our life equals 7 years of theirs. Many changes can occur quickly. Just like us, our pets need more care as they age. Stay proactive! It’s easier to prevent or identify a problem early then to make up for lost time.