The Truth About (Older) Cats and Dogs
Don’t let these four myths slow down your senior pet. With the proper knowledge and healthcare, your mature cats and dogs can live longer, better lives than ever before
Today’s pets enjoy the opportunity to live substantially longer and healthier lives than those just a decade ago. More and more pets are making it to 7 years old—the age when a pet usually is deemed senior—and beyond. One big reason is you. A generation of pet owners who view their cats and dogs as family members have demanded higher-quality healthcare for their pets. And the veterinary industry has responded. Significant advances in health-management strategies for older pets—including senior-focused nutrition, surgical procedures like hip replacements and kidney transplants, improved therapies for mental decline, effective cancer chemotherapy protocols, complete dental-care programs, comprehensive arthritis management strategies, and easy access to sophisticated diagnostic techniques—have contributed greatly to the average pet’s longevity and quality of life.
Yet for all this good news, there are several common mistakes that even well-intentioned owners make when it comes to their older pets’ health. These missteps are usually based on outdated or incorrect information. To help, we’ll bust four of the most common myths related to senior pets.
Myth 1. The problem is just old age
First off, let’s be clear: Old age certainly is not a disease. Rather, it’s the sum of the damaging effects of time on the body and internal organs. While veterinarians use a pet’s age as a measuring stick for longevity (see the “Human/Pet Age Analogy” below), age alone is by no means an indicator of a pet’s current health status. Nor is age a singular predictor of a pet’s future health. The best way to determine a senior pet’s actual health status is through comprehensive veterinary examinations at least twice every year. For senior pets, these exams need to include routine screening tests of the most vital internal organ systems.
Older pets are more susceptible to such serious and progressive diseases as cancer, arthritis, hormone imbalances, mental decline, and age-related disease of the heart, kidney, or liver. Unfortunately, many pet owners write off early symptoms of these problems as simply old age. Pet owners may incorrectly assume that nothing can be done to improve these conditions. As a result, the pet suffers from lack of timely medical intervention. By the time the cat or dog is taken to the veterinarian for an evaluation, the condition may be advanced. This can greatly reduce the number of health-management options available.
So be on the lookout for the following common conditions, which many pet owners mistake for “just old age.” If you notice any of them in your cat or dog, don’t hesitate to schedule an examination with your veterinarian:
- inactivity (which may actually be arthritis or a systemic illness)
- decreased appetite (possibly from dental disease or any of a number of systemic diseases)
- decreased vision (perhaps due to cataracts or a retinal problem)
- periods of disorientation or confusion (likely culprit: cognitive dysfunction syndrome).
Myth 2. Nothing can be done about age-related problems
Unfortunately, some specific diseases are age-related. Most pet owners recognize the symptoms and behavior changes associated with an age-related disease. However, many mistakenly assume that nothing can be done to help senior pets afflicted with the common diseases of aging. As a result, their pets continue to suffer from a lack of medical attention and care. In truth, many of the following symptoms, which are associated with aging, can be managed:
- decreasing activity
- urinary or fecal accidents
- bad breath
- morning stiffness
- decreased or increasingly finicky appetite
- periods of confusion or disorientation.
If you notice any of these in your older pet, speak with your veterinarian about options for limiting the effects. Specially formulated senior diets, regular exercise, weight control, and dental health can all help prevent age-related diseases—or at the very least, significantly postpone their onset.
Waiting for your pet’s annual or twice-yearly examination may eliminate the chance for an early diagnosis…and mean the difference between a good outcome and a poor one.
Myth 3. The problem can wait until the next visit
Regular exams are an important part of any pet’s healthcare program, and a once-yearly examination is prudent for healthy younger patients. However, dogs and cats have a significantly faster aging process than humans. After puberty, each calendar year in a pet’s life actually represents four to 10 years of aging, depending on the breed and size of the pet. This rapid aging process can also accelerate the development and progression of diseases.
Significant advancement in the natural course of a disease can occur between routine yearly examinations. For this reason, veterinarians recommend twice-yearly visits—sometimes more frequent—for senior pets, even those that appear to be healthy. This six-month strategy greatly enhances the chances of detecting a problem in the early stages when more therapeutic options exist.
What’s more, most age-related diseases are time-sensitive. Obviously, early detection of serious conditions is imperative to long-term successful disease management and a favorable final outcome. Waiting for your pet’s annual or twice-yearly examination may eliminate the chance for an early diagnosis, minimize therapeutic options, and mean the difference between a good outcome and a poor one. So don’t wait. Any delay in disease detection and treatment could allow the disease to progress unchecked.
The following are a few examples of symptoms that might indicate a serious condition in your cat or dog that requires immediate attention:
- shortness of breath (symptom of heart failure)
- a persistent cough (symptom of heart failure or lung tumors)
- drinking more water (symptom of early kidney failure)
- yellow or orange tint to the eyes, mouth, and skin (symptom of liver disease)
- black stools (symptom of gastrointestinal hemorrhage)
- a new lump or bump (symptom of a benign or malignant tumor).
If your senior cat or dog is experiencing any of the above, don’t delay. Call your veterinarian right away.
Myth 4. Anesthesia isn’t safe for senior pets
Lifelong dental care is a good example of the advances that have been made in senior healthcare. There’s a growing body of evidence demonstrating the importance of lifelong dental care on a pet’s longevity and quality of life. Unfortunately, the positive benefits of routine dental care and teeth cleaning have historically been tempered by the risks of general anesthesia, which is necessary to effectively clean and polish a pet’s teeth without discomfort to the pet. It is true that the risk of anesthesia is real in older pets, especially in those that may have heart, lung, liver, or kidney ailments.
Still, the risks of anesthesia have been significantly minimized. The standard practices of required blood and urine screening tests, safer anesthetics and anesthetic protocols, and newer patient monitoring equipment have all notably contributed to much safer anesthesia. These are monumental advancements, especially when compared to the negative effects that chronic dental disease has on a pet’s overall health and well-being.
As your cats and dogs age, you must assume an increasing responsibility for their overall health. By being an active and observant partner in care—including being more informed about early warning signs, taking timely action, and visiting your veterinarian more often—you can take advantage of the recommended life-extending preventive healthcare programs available for senior pets today. Your pet will thank you for years to come.