Enjoying the Golden Years
“Age is not a disease,” points out Dr. Daniel S. Aja, past president of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). As your pet ages, you can expect to see some gray in his fur, and he might display a calmer, more mature demeanor. However, just because your pet is growing older does not mean that he will slow down.
Senior pets also do not automatically suffer from conditions such as joint pain, decaying teeth, and obesity. So how can you tell what is normal and what is not? We give you the answers below, as well as some ways senior-related illness can be treated with medication, diet, and exercise.
TAKE THEM FOR EXAMS
In addition to regular examinations, it is essential to get a baseline check of your pet as early as possible. “Every pet is different, so this check will determine what is normal for your pet while he is in good health,” Dr. Aja says. This baseline examination includes not only a physical exam but also blood work and organ screening.
Following this initial check, your pet should be monitored periodically (annually or more frequently, as recommended by your veterinarian). AAHA recommends that older pets be examined every 6 months. “Only 14% of senior pets undergo regular health screening,” says Dr. Aja. Yet these wellness exams are one of the most important preventive steps that you can take to ensure your pet’s continued good health. Regular wellness checks allow your veterinarian to monitor changes in your pet’s laboratory results over the years, which ultimately helps detect diseases and potential health problems early on.
Routine dental examinations should also be included in your pet’s preventive regimen. These cleanings are essential for preventing the buildup of plaque and tartar on the teeth, which can spread bacteria throughout the mouth and the rest of the body, causing serious health issues.
Often, the earlier any problems are caught, the better the chances are for successful treatment.
KEEP THEM PAIN FREE
Does your pet have a hard time getting around? Is he unwilling to jump up? Does he avoid activities that he used to enjoy? If you have noticed any of these signs, do not assume they are a normal part of aging. Your pet might have arthritis.
Most often characterized by stiffness, lameness, and pain, arthritis is inflammation or degeneration of the joints. Arthritis can be caused by a number of factors, including repetitive stress, excess weight, injury, and infection. Exercise and a good diet throughout your pet’s life can sometimes prevent arthritis, but unfortunately these measures may not always help.
Keeping your pet fit and trim can extend the number of years you get to spend with him.
If your pet is diagnosed with arthritis, you can find plenty of ways to keep him as pain free as possible. Help him maintain a healthy weight, and make sure he gets enough exercise (but not so much that he aggravates his joints). Here are some additional ideas for keeping your pet comfortable around the house:
- Set up bedding on the first floor so he does not have to climb stairs.
- Keep him off cold, hard floors, which can aggravate arthritis.
- Place food and water dishes and litterboxes where he can easily reach them.
- Build ramps to help him get around (e.g., off the porch, onto the sofa).
Medications that can alleviate the pain of arthritis are also available. Your veterinarian can suggest the best treatment options for your dog or cat.
FEED THEM RIGHT
Obesity is one of the top health problems in dogs and cats today. Unfortunately, the extra weight pets carry around becomes especially troublesome during their senior years. “Extra weight creates a lot of health problems and is especially hard on pets’ joints, making it more difficult for them to move around without pain,” says Dr. Aja.
The good news is that pet food manufacturers are creating foods for special conditions and life stages. Your veterinarian may suggest feeding your pet a diet specifically made for senior or less active pets. “Senior-formulated diets are fundamental for older pets because they are usually lower in protein and fat and higher in fiber and vitamins, which can be beneficial in limiting the workload on the aged kidneys and liver,” Dr. Aja explains. They also have fewer calories, which will help your older pet stay trim. Some pet food manufacturers are also adding special supplements for joint health.
KEEP THEM ACTIVE
Exercise is another important way to not only keep weight off your aging pet but also to build and maintain his muscle strength and protect against arthritis. As with people, senior pets lose muscle tone if they do not exercise. “Having toned muscles is very important to joint health,” says Dr. Aja. “Muscles help support the joints, and without that support, arthritic joints can deteriorate more rapidly, which leads to increasing lameness and discomfort.”
Check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s exercise routine.
WATCH THEIR BEHAVIOR
Many of the diseases that are typically associated with advancing age can be reversed or halted if caught early. By being especially vigilant, you may even be able to prevent some problems altogether. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, mentions some basic health concerns that owners need to be aware of:
- Appetite loss
- Bad breath
- Bumping into things
- Lack of energy
- Lack of response to name or commands
- Lumps and bumps just under the skin
If your pet shows any of these signs, you should have him examined by your veterinarian right away. Many of the health conditions that affect your pet as he ages can be treated effectively with medication and/or a change in diet.
Your pet’s golden years are a time to cherish. By having a baseline check done while he is young—and giving him love and attention throughout his life—you can help keep your pet comfortable and healthy as he ages. He’s worth it.
A SUCCESS STORY: SOPHIE
Before: Ten-year-old Sophie has always weighed a few pounds more than she should. Her owners had her on an exercise program and were feeding her Hill’s® Prescription Diet® Canine r/d® to help her lose weight. However, Sophie started having trouble standing up, especially in the morning; was having difficulty making it up and down the stairs; and was reluctant to go on evening walks. She seemed to be in constant pain. Dr. Holter of the Holter Veterinary Clinic gave Sophie’s owners several recommendations:
- A switch to Hill’s® Prescription Diet® Canine j/d™, a new joint support food formulated for dogs with arthritis
- Treatment with anti-inflammatories as needed
- Substitution in treats from popcorn to a few kibbles of Sophie’s allotted food
After: At Sophie’s 2-month recheck visit:
- She had lost half a pound.
- She was easily able to get up in the morning and climb the stairs.
- She seemed more comfortable, was eager to go on walks, and no longer lagged behind.