Senior Wellness - A Plan for Keeping Your Aging Pet Healthy
If you’re like most pet parents, you would do anything you could to keep your canine or feline companion healthy as she ages. Fortunately, by following a few simple recommendations, you can do just that—and perhaps even add a few years to her life in the process.
One of the best things you can do for your dog’s or cat’s health is to have your veterinarian perform a baseline examination before your pet reaches senior status. Such an examination typically includes a thorough physical exam, assessment of body condition score, blood work, a urinalysis, and a fecal exam. Depending on the results, additional tests may be needed.
“Baseline exams are so important because what is normal can vary from pet to pet,” explains Stephen C. Fisher, DVM. “By having a normal baseline for a particular pet, we can tell what is abnormal for that pet if something changes in the future.” Adult pets should have an initial baseline exam performed at two years of age; for most older pets, six years of age is the ideal time for a senior baseline.
Daniel S. Aja, past president of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), also stresses the importance of practicing preventive healthcare for our senior pets. “Early detection of disease will often improve your pet’s chances of successful treatment,” he says. In addition, being proactive might even prevent health problems from developing.
SCHEDULE EXAMS TWICE A YEAR
AAHA recommends that healthy senior pets visit their veterinarian for a wellness exam and laboratory testing every six months. “Because pets age at a faster rate than people (roughly five to seven human years for each pet year), they often encounter health condition changes much more quickly than we do,” explains Dr. Aja. “If you have your pet examined by your veterinarian only once a year, this is similar to us seeing our doctor every five to seven years! A lot can change with your pet’s health in this short period of time.”
Pain should not be a given in older pets. Consult with your veterinarian about how to keep your senior pet pain free.
“Since a pet cannot talk and tell you what is bothering her, an examination and blood test every six months can often pick up on disease before symptoms are evident,” Dr. Fisher says. In fact, approximately 22% of dogs and 18% of cats older than seven years of age harbor disease that is detectable only through an advanced diagnostic workup. *
PROVIDE PROPER NUTRITION
“Nothing affects a pet’s health directly like nutrition. As the saying goes, ‘We are what we eat.’ This is even more essential as our dogs and cats age,” explains Dr. Aja. “Older pets have different dietary needs than do young or middle-aged pets.”
As they grow older, dogs and cats are at risk of becoming overweight or obese if their activity levels decrease and their diet is not adjusted accordingly. “Senior-formulated diets are fundamental for older pets because such diets are usually lower in protein and fat, and higher in fiber and vitamins, which is beneficial in limiting the workload on the aging liver and kidneys,” Dr. Aja explains. “Work with your veterinarian to make sure that your senior pet has a good diet that addresses her particular nutritional and health needs.”
ENSURE APPROPRIATE EXERCISE
Exercise is important for your senior pet for many reasons. Dr. Aja points out that regular exercise can help prevent obesity and improve muscle tone, joint flexibility, digestion, and cardiovascular fitness. “Also, just like with people, your pet’s mental health may benefit from exercise,” he says.
Before beginning a fitness plan, Dr. Aja recommends that you take your pet to your veterinarian for a physical examination. “Your veterinarian will evaluate your senior pet’s overall condition and recommend how much exercise, and what types, is appropriate.
WATCH FOR SIGNS OF TROUBLE
“Often, one of the first signs of disease is a pet’s change in behavior,” says Dr. Fisher. Some behavioral changes to be on the lookout for include:
- Acting differently toward family members
- Altered sleep cycles
- Confusion or disorientation
- Disinterest or excessive interest in self-hygiene
- Loss of housetraining
- Unusual irritability or fearfulness
Other signs of potential problems may include:
- Bad breath
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in drinking and urination
- Coughing during exercise
- Excessive weight loss or gain
- Lack of energy
- Lumps or bumps under the skin
- Tiring more easily
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble passing urine
Consult with your veterinarian if you notice any health or behavioral changes in your pet. As Dr. Aja notes, “You may prevent a serious problem from developing through early detection and treatment.”
“Age is not a disease,” Dr. Aja reminds us. Just because your pet isn’t a pup anymore doesn’t mean you should expect her to slow down or hobble around. By giving your pet love and attention throughout her life and working with your veterinarian to create a senior wellness plan, you can help keep your aging pet healthy and feeling young throughout her golden years.
As pets age, they may become more prone to degenerative joint disease, including osteoarthritis, especially if they experience excessive strain on their joints. Being overweight and performing repeated strenuous exercise can contribute to this strain.
To help prevent joint problems and possible progression to arthritis, Joseph Harari, MS, DVM, DACVS, a surgeon at Veterinary Surgical Specialists in Spokane, Washington, says, “The best things for pet owners to do are to prevent obesity in their pets by feeding correct amounts of a good quality diet and promote exercise to maintain muscle tone and joint health. Furthermore, as their pets age and lose their natural mobility, owners should avoid strenuous exercise or activities on hard, uneven surfaces.”
If your pet is suffering from a confirmed diagnosis of arthritis, Dr. Harari recommends the following ways to reduce the animal’s discomfort:
- Maintain the pet’s ideal weight.
- Avoid excessive activity in harsh climates and on uneven terrain.
- Consult regularly with a veterinarian to obtain proper medications to alleviate discomfort.
Your veterinarian will also monitor the progression and severity of the condition through x-rays and physical exams.
Says Dr. Harari, “As with most people, the ill effects of osteoarthritis in animals can be controlled through a healthy lifestyle and appropriate medications.”
*From a study performed by David Bruyette, DVM, DACVIM, in 1999 on 100 dogs and 90 cats.