Keeping pets healthy in their senior years

As my 15-year-old dog has grown older, I’ve noticed some common signs of an aging animal. Sparky is a bit slower, and he now favours a nice nap over a long walk. He’s developed arthritis in his hind legs and has needed more than one tooth to be removed.

But although Sparky looks a bit disheveled, he’s still just as loving and content as he was as a youngster.

Just like an elderly human, older pets begin to feel and show their age. Slowing down is normal for a geriatric pet, but with regular veterinary care and maintenance, old age doesn’t have to stop your pet from living life to the fullest.

A geriatric animal is one that’s considered to be in the last 25 per cent of its lifespan. This number ranges from animal to animal – a large dog will be different from a small dog or a cat – so geriatric care generally begins when a pet reaches seven to 10 years of age.

“We tend to see changes [in older pets] that are not necessarily normal but are very common,” says Dr. Jordan Woodsworth, wellness veterinarian at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

As Woodsworth explains, many older pets develop arthritis that causes them to be stiff and sore — especially in the mornings before they move around. Owners may notice their pets eating more or less of their food than usual. As well, their pets’ coats may tend to be dry and show more signs of dandruff.

Woodsworth adds that some older dogs and cats develop cognitive dysfunction — similar to dementia in people.

“These pets will be a little confused and sometimes they’ll get lost in a house they’ve lived in for years. Those are signs for owners to watch out for because early on, we want to rule out other causes of behaviour change and if cognitive dysfunction is the diagnosis, there are things we can do to help slow the progession.”

The same advice goes for other old age changes: older pets are more prone to developing disease, but many of these illnesses can be treated or at least controlled if caught early enough. That’s why it’s extremely important for pet owners to bring their pet to a veterinarian for regular checkups at all stages of life.

“A lot of the diseases that affect senior animals are due to progression of less serious conditions often seen in younger animals,” says Woodsworth. “Senior health is often dictated by how we manage animals in their younger years.”

Focusing on proper management and disease prevention when animals are younger will hopefully help them be healthier during their older years.

“Genetics always play a factor, but we definitely try and focus as much as possible on preventing chronic disease – if we can – in the younger years.”

So what can pet owners expect when they bring an older animal to their veterinarian for a checkup?

“We try to be thorough and vigilant at every life stage, but we really focus on the details when we conduct physical exams on older pets,” says Woodsworth.

During the physical exam, the veterinarians will feel all the pet’s joints, check its central nervous system, look into its eyes for evidence of problems such as cataracts, check its teeth, skin and coat as well as its nails, and keep an eye open for any lumps and bumps.

Frequent health checks are the best way to ensure that your pet is healthy and happy long into its senior years. Similar to recommendations for elderly humans, regular blood work is often recommended for aging animals. Once a pet reaches the age of seven to 10 years, blood samples may be taken on a yearly basis.

“Once animals reach that geriatric phase – the last 25 per cent of their lifespan – we start to recommend checkups and blood work every six months.”

Even if your elderly pet seems healthy, it’s still important to have them regularly checked by a veterinarian.

“Animals are pretty stoic with pain, so they don’t tend to show a lot of clinical signs,” says Woodsworth.

“Sometimes it’ll just be something as simple as a behaviour change so owners might notice the pet is spending less time with the family or that they are more grumpy than usual. These are important changes as they can often signal a bigger problem that we can detect with thorough examination and workup.”

But just because your pet is slowing down doesn’t mean you need to completely overhaul their lifestyle: “It’s really important to keep older pets active,” says Woodsworth.

“The best thing we can do for their health is to keep them active and maintain a routine for them into their senior years.”

Here are some tips from wellness veterinarian Dr. Jordan Woodsworth about some of the most common health problems that affect your pets:

Arthritis

Many pets will show no direct symptoms when they begin to develop arthritis. What you may notice is slight changes in their behaviour: dogs might avoid going up and down the stairs or cats may have bathroom accidents because they can’t climb in and out of the litter box. Some animals may show obvious limping, but it depends on the animal and the severity and location of the condition.

Many different types of therapies are available. If there’s a structural problem, surgery may be a solution. Otherwise, veterinarians may prescribe a combination of supplements and nutraceuticals or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Veterinarians recommend focusing on maintaining mobility and exercise at an appropriate intensity and rate. For example, low-impact exercise such as swimming may benefit your pet. It may also help to modify your pet’s lifestyle: moving a litter box from the basement to the ground floor will mean that your elderly cat doesn’t have to climb stairs.

Dental disease

Dental disease can occur at every life stage, but it’s often most severe in older animals that have not had good dental care or preventive maintenance throughout their life.

You may notice signs such as smelly breath and drooling. Your pet may also drop its food and leave blood on chew toys. Some animals may not show any pain, but instead, they may exhibit some behavioral symptoms such as crankiness or a reluctance to interact.

To combat severe dental disease, the veterinary team will perform a thorough examination and assessment under general anesthetic. Once a treatment plan is reached, the teeth are thoroughly cleaned and further work is done on damaged teeth, extracting severely affected teeth where necessary.

The best way to combat dental disease is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. The most effective tools are regular cleanings at the vet and regular brushing at home.  Other helpful tools are dental treats and special foods that help clean your pets’ teeth as they chew. These measures can help prevent or delay the need for major dental work and extractions later in life.

Diabetes

Diabetes can be seen in any age of animal, but it often develops in obese pets. By ensuring that your pets maintain healthy weights throughout their live, you can help prevent your animals from developing diabetes and other weight-related illnesses as they grow older.

Dogs tend to develop type I diabetes which is related to a lack of insulin. This condition is often secondary to pancreatic damage from causes such as pancreatitis. Type I diabetes can be genetically based or caused by your pet’s lifestyle habits such as eating high fat foods or getting into garbage.

Cats more often develop type II diabetes, an insulin resistance that is similar to what occurs in adult humans. This is often linked to obesity, but there can be other diseases that play a part such as infections, bladder disease and dental disease.

The most noticeable signs of diabetes are increased drinking and urination — often accompanied by an increased appetite and weight loss. But these symptoms can also be indicative of other diseases such as Cushing’s disease or hyperthyroidism. To confirm a diagnosis, veterinarians will perform blood work and a urinalysis in addition to a physical examination.

Untreated diabetes can be very dangerous. If you suspect that your animal may be diabetic, have it examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Vaccinations

When it comes to vaccinations, most veterinarians broadly recommend that vaccines should be given as appropriate for the individual animal in terms of lifestyle and risk. As for geriatric pets, there are differing opinions about whether aging animals should be vaccinated more or less often than their younger counterparts.

If animals are already immunocompromised with diseases such as feline leukemia virus or cancer, the choice of vaccine must be considered very seriously.

Your best option is to discuss your pet’s vaccination schedule with your veterinarian. The need for vaccination and the types of vaccines required comes down to the individual animal, and it should be addressed on a pet-by-pet basis.

Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student and was the WCVM’s research communications intern for the summer of 2013. Visit WCVM Today to read more WCVM news.