If you share your life with an older pet, you know the special joy that comes from spending so many years together. You also probably have special concerns about your pet’s health. Like people, pets sometimes need a little more tender loving care as they age.
The good news is that our pets are able to enjoy life for longer than ever before. “There is no doubt that pets can live longer today than they could 20 years ago,” said Dr. William Fortney, a veterinarian at Kansas State University and a well-known expert on aging in pets. Dr. Fortney credits pet longevity in part to the willingness of more and more owners to spend the time, money, and effort needed to maintain quality of life for their pets, especially those with chronic diseases. He also acknowledged the development of new drugs, anesthetics, nutrition, and complementary care to manage chronic conditions as important factors as well. According to Dr. Fortney, “Without the advances in areas like preventative medications, vaccines, and wellness programs, many pets would not even reach their senior years.” All of these things have helped bring pet care to a whole new level.
GET (A) PHYSICAL
For older pets, annual physical examinations are a must; your veterinarian may suggest more frequent visits if your dog or cat shows signs of aging. It is also vital for pet owners to understand the importance of diagnostic tests, many of which can identify problems specific to aging pets. The goal is to catch something before it becomes a problem; the old “a stitch in time saves nine” philosophy definitely applies to seniors.
“The biggest thing about older animals is to understand that your veterinarian needs to perform a thorough evaluation. We can’t stop with the obvious,” said Johnny Hoskins, DVM, a specialist in internal medicine and author of the textbook Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat. Using kidney disease as an example, Dr. Hoskins emphasized the need to find out what else might be going on. “Your veterinarian will need to evaluate the whole patient, not just the one system. That’s still an eye opener for some pet owners. They will ask for a physical examination and lab work to address one problem, thinking that it is OK to stop at that point. On the contrary, particularly in the elderly pet, we need to go on further.” Dr. Hoskins added that once all the problems are identified, a management plan must be developed for the whole animal, not just one affected body system. “When managing senior patients, you not only need to address diet and the use of analgesics for pain management, but also supportive care and medication for specific body systems that may be aging. These may include fluids to prevent dehydration and antibiotics to control infections.”
You need to take care of your pet’s teeth too. Not only does dental care help prevent bad breath (not a necessary part of aging, despite what many people think) but it also protects your pet from other, more serious diseases that can develop from tooth and gum disease. The best dental care starts at home. Routine brushing with toothpaste designed especially for pets is recommended. Regular dental cleanings by your veterinarian are also very important in helping to control tooth disease. Preventive dental care for your pet is not that much different from what your dentist will tell you about your own teeth!
OLD PROBLEMS, NEW PRODUCTS
Many new products have been launched under the general grouping of nutraceuticals, which are essentially foods or natural food supplements thought to have a positive health benefit. The use of different types of food supplements is increasing as both pet owners and veterinarians learn about their benefits. Antioxidants have been shown to promote health and the immune response in people, and many veterinary professionals do believe that they can have similar effects in pets. While these products are not as thoroughly regulated or researched for use in pets as they are in people, they still have many advocates, including Dr. Hoskins. “When body systems are undergoing aging changes, antioxidants can be beneficial,” he told us. “I encourage the use of antioxidants throughout the life of a pet, not just in the senior years.” Many owners believe that supplements have helped maintain puppy- or kitten-like vigor in their precious pet. Pet food manufacturers have taken up the cause as well and over the past few years have introduced several new product lines fortified with antioxidants.
Some pets may exhibit behavioral changes as they age, a condition sometimes called cognitive dysfunction. Signs of this condition vary with the pet. Some dogs may appear either afraid or confused in what used to be a familiar situation. Cats may alter their litter box habits. The bottom line is that a change in your pet’s normal behavior can sometimes point to a change in mental status. Some exciting new products have been introduced for pets with cognitive dysfunction and have achieved dramatic results for some pets. Your veterinarian can best guide you on what products are available and what benefits you can realistically expect.
There are some new pain relievers available called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—more commonly known as NSAIDs (say “en-sades”)—for managing the pain associated with aging joints. These drugs lessen pain and swelling by interfering with the production of chemicals that are released in response to an injury or a chronic condition such as arthritis. Talk with your veterinarian about these products and whether they are appropriate for your pet.
PILLING YOUR PET: A FEW POINTERS
Sometimes it is difficult to get your pet to take medications. Have you ever thought that you had successfully dispensed a pill only to find it later on the floor? Some medications, such as monthly heartworm tablets, are flavored to encourage your pet to take his medicine. If you are having problems medicating your pet, discuss options with your veterinarian. In some cases, medications are also produced in liquid that can be combined with an evening meal. Your veterinarian can teach you some tricks to ensure that your pet gets the appropriate dose. Don’t stop administering medicine because it is too difficult. Ask for help.
Today is a golden age in more ways than one. Advancements in veterinary care and people’s willingness to work as a partner with their veterinarian have made long, healthy life spans a reality. For our pets, there has never been a better time to be a senior citizen.
PUTTING THEM TO THE TEST
Many veterinarians are recognizing the value of comprehensive screening of older pets. Types of tests your veterinarian may recommend include the following:
- Laboratory testing of blood and urine samples can determine whether or not there are any problems with vital organs like the kidney and liver or if the pet is diabetic.
- An electrocardiogram (more commonly called an “EKG”) is an electrical recording of the heart used to assess its function.
- X-rays are helpful for finding disorders of the heart and lungs.
HEALTH CARE QUESTIONS FOR YOUR VETERINARY PROFESSIONAL
- Is my pet at a healthy weight?
- What diet should my pet be eating?
- Does my pet need a dental cleaning?
- What supplements, if any, would benefit the health of my pet?
- How often should I bring my pet in for a complete physical examination?
- Are there any special tests that should be scheduled for my pet?