by Dr. Alissa Stichler, DVM
As our pets get older there are certain things we want to do in order to provide the proper care for our aging friends. While our senior pets are more likely to develop certain diseases, it is important to note that aging is a natural process, not a disease itself. Just like with humans, our senior pets will have both mental and physical changes.
Normal changes that can occur is graying of hairs, especially around the muzzle and face, a tendency to gain fat instead of muscle, and eyes that appear more cloudy or bluish over time. Please note that the normal cloudiness in older pets is different from cataracts and normally does not affect their vision as severely as cataracts do. Again, just like with people, our senior pets may have a decreased ability to see, hear, taste, and smell.
What constitutes a senior pet may depend on the size of your pet. Generally smaller breed dogs live longer than large and giant breed dogs. We generally consider small to medium breeds (<50 lbs) to be seniors around 8-9 years of age and large and giant breeds (>50lbs) to be seniors around 5-6 years of age. Cats are generally considered seniors when they are around 10 years old.
Because our pets age faster than we do, we recommend wellness exams with your veterinarian every 6 months for all ages of pets, but especially our senior pets. It is also recommended to get base-line bloodwork and urine testing at least once a year for our senior patients to evaluate internal organ function, unless more frequent monitoring is needed.
Here is a list of some more common diseases associated with our senior pets to keep in mind:
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction:
Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is similar to dementia in people. Prevalence in our patients has been estimated to be around 14-35%, although recent studies have shown this estimate is likely underestimating. We can see this as early as 7 years of age but the typical age of onset is >9 years.
Common signs include decreased interaction with other people or pets, inappropriate or excessive vocalization, changes in sleep/wake cycle, restlessness, disorientation, confusion, anxiety, house soiling, altered appetite, irritability, or aggression.
There is no cure for CCD but there are supportive therapies that can help slow the progression. So if you think your pet is starting to show some of these signs, talk with your vet early!
Arthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is also a very common thing we see in our older patients. This is brought on by years of normal wear and tear on the joints, although certain diseases such as elbow or hip dysplasia can predispose arthritis development as well.
Common signs include pain and decreased mobility of affected joint(s) that can result in stiffness and/or limping and vary from mild to severe. It can be more severe after prolonged periods of rest and may lessen with activity. It can also be worse after overexertion or exercise.
There is no cure for arthritis either, but there are certain supportive care modalities and management of pain. If your pet is overweight, weight loss is imperative! Daily, low impact exercise not only can help with weight loss but also improve joint mobility and muscle mass. Joint supplements containing glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids can help with joint health as well. Pain medications such as Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also help control the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. Please note Over the counter human NSAIDs are NOT safe for our pets! If you feel your pet needs some more management than what can be provided at home, please see your veterinarian for other options.
Cancer, unfortunately, is also commonly found in our older patients. Cancer signs can vary depending where the cancer is located and it is not always visible. Generally skin or other visible masses that are cancerous are fast growing or may present as a non-healing wound. Internal cancer signs may be less obvious such as decreased appetite, weight loss, difficulty breathing, or distended abdomen, etc. Depending on the type of cancer, surgery or chemotherapy may be indicated. However, there are some cancers with poor prognosis even with aggressive treatment.
Internal organ dysfunction
Age-related heart disease is more common in our small breed dogs but can occur in any breed and can occur in cats as well. Common signs include coughing, exercise intolerance, and your veterinarian may note a heart murmur on exam. Please see your veterinarian if you note any of these signs in your pet.
Kidney disease is especially common in our senior cats but can also occur in older dogs. Common signs include increased drinking and urinations, as well as decreased appetite, weight loss, and other Gi signs later in the disease course. Please see your veterinarian if you notice an increase in drinking and urination.
Liver disease is also common in our older pets, dogs especially. Common signs include vomiting, decreased appetite, weight loss, and depression.
As you can see, some of these signs are very similar between these diseases so additional diagnostics such as bloodwork or imaging may be needed to further diagnose these issues.
We know you love your senior pets and want the absolute best care for them. We love to help provide for them in their golden years.