Senior Pet Care
Older pets have special health needs and may require more attention and care than younger pets. As your pet ages, changes occur in his physical condition that warrant more frequent visits to the veterinarian. If medical problems are recognized and treated when they are first detected, the treatment may be easier for your pet and less costly for you. In order to diagnose medical problems in their early stage, twice-a-year wellness examinations are recommended for older dogs and cats.
A baseline senior wellness examination should be performed so it can be used as a benchmark for measuring changes in your pet as he ages. A geriatric exam is more extensive than a simple check-up and includes a complete physical exam, oral and rectal examinations and recording of body weight and body condition. Your veterinarian also examines your pet's ears, eyes, and various internal organs. Some laboratory work may be done, including a complete blood count, urinalysis, fecal exam, and perhaps endocrine blood tests and other complementary examinations.
At Hartsdale Veterinary Hospital, we recommend all pets over 7 years of age have a complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile and T4 (thyroid hormone screening) performed annually at the time of their yearly physical examination. This is the cornerstone of preventative medicine and is intended to uncover occult or "hidden" problems before they manifest. Organs like the kidneys will not show signs of dysfunction until approximately 75% of their mass is not working. Therefore in pets we must rely, in part, on testing to alert us to the presence of many disease processes.
When Should I Consider My Pet To Be A Senior?
The aging process varies between species and specific breeds as well as individual animals. For example, a giant breed dog might be a senior at five years of age and a toy breed not until years later. Most cats become seniors slightly later than dogs, between their eight and tenth year. As an arbitrary guide, owners should start to consider age-related issues at 6-8 years in dogs, and 10 years in cats.
Elderly Pets And Special Health Needs
As dogs and cats grow older, their organs may become less efficient and they may be less able to resist infections and other diseases. As a responsible pet owner, you want your pet to remain healthy and active for as long as possible so you should be aware of any condition that might need your veterinarian's attention.
Signs Of Aging In A Dog
As a good rule of thumb, you should start looking for the "Seven Signs of Senior" at about seven years of age. These signs include:
-Your dog's coat and the area around his muzzle begin to turn gray. Because your pet is getting older, it is important to know that skin problems may occur more often since the skin may be thinner, less elastic, and does not repair itself as quickly.
-Your senior dog begins to slow down, has less energy and has trouble getting up or limping.
-Longer and more frequent naps are common side effects of aging
-A change in habits, including play preferences and eating or drinking habits is commonly observed in older dogs.
-Weight changes are common in older dogs. Some dogs gain weight as they age while others lose weight.
-Dental problems that translate as bad breath are more likely to appear in older pets.
-Hearing, vision and other senses become less acute when dogs get older.
Signs Of Aging In A Cat
-As old cats are often less active, their muscle tone tends to reduce which may further reduce their ability to run, jump and climb. Lack of exercise contributes to the stiffening of joints.
-Frequently older cats suffer from a poor appetite as the senses of taste and smell often deteriorate with age. Teeth problems are common and can discourage eating.
-Bowel function may deteriorate with age, causing problems such as reduced ability to absorb food nutrients. This can lead to weight loss. Some elderly cats suffer from constipation.
-Elderly cats have decreased thirst and they are at risk of becoming dehydrated. This is particularly dangerous in cats with kidney problems.
-Older cats tend to sleep less heavily but more frequently.
-Old cats often have poor coats that may make them less resistant to the cold and wet.
DIETARY NEEDS OF ELDERLY PETS
There are several reasons why a special diet may be needed for an elderly pet. He or she may be less active than a younger animal, and therefore may require fewer calories. The digestive organs may become less efficient in digestion and absorption, and a highly digestible diet may need to be fed. Phosphorus and protein content may need to be decreased if your pet has kidney problems.
CARING FOR THE HEALTH OF ELDERLY PETS
Your senior pet should be examined by a veterinarian every six months. During this examination, changes in your pet's appearance and behavior are noted. If your pet refuses food, is reluctant to go outside, is in pain or has a problem urinating or defecating, these problems should be addressed. There are also a number of specific health problems that you should watch for with an elderly dog or cat.
As your pet gets older, joint pain and stiffness may develop. This may mean that your pet becomes less active and his energy level may decrease. He may become tired more easily and want to nap more often. Dogs with arthritis should still be exercised; however, they may need a diet containing fewer calories to prevent them from putting on weight. Older pets are more susceptible to diseases of the heart and lungs. Signs such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and weakness can be symptoms associated with heart and lung problems. If these symptoms are present, a veterinary examination is strongly recommended.
Ear infections are not uncommon, especially in older dogs. Signs of an ear infection include persistent head shaking, rubbing / pawing of the ears and observing a discharge from one or both ears.
Hearing, sight and smell can all become less acute with age and you may need to make allowances for these changes. For instance, your dog may not obey you or may not respond to his name simply because he does not hear the command. Watch for signs of impaired sight such as bumping into furniture. Eye infections, cataracts, decreased night vision, or even blindness can also occur. A hazy, bluish cast on your aging dog's eyes is normal and usually does not hinder his vision. However, your veterinarian can help you distinguish the difference between the normal aging process and the hazy, whitish growth of cataracts that can lead to blindness.
Older pets are more likely to develop tooth and gum conditions. If your pet has sore gums or loose teeth, he may be reluctant to eat or it may cause food to drop out of his mouth. Gum disease not only leads to loss of teeth, but can also cause heart and kidney infections if bacteria enter the bloodstream through the inflamed gums. Examine your pet's mouth regularly and ask your veterinarian for advice if the teeth or gums do not look healthy.
Urinary incontinence and inappropriate urination are problems that frequently occur in elderly pets. Urinary incontinence is often associated with hormonal imbalance in spayed females or a disorder of the nervous system that controls bladder function. Aside from these conditions, inappropriate urination may also be the result of a urinary tract disorder, prostate problem or other body malfunction. Consult your veterinarian if your pet suddenly becomes incontinent or begins to urinate more frequently.
As your pet ages, his behavior may change significantly. You might interpret this as simple aging, but it actually might be due to a treatable geriatric disease, such as cognitive dysfunction. Some typical signs include confusion, disorientation, decreased activity, changes in the sleep / wake cycle, loss of housetraining, or signs which suggest a decrease in your dog's interest in, or ability to interact with his environment or with you. Your veterinarian can prescribe medication for cognitive dysfunction.
Extra body weight can cause or worsen many health problems. Older less active pets often gain too much weight and should be fed a calorie-controlled diet. Some older pets just need more exercise. Pets that are too thin may have underlying medical problems. Maintaining proper weight is important for the medical wellbeing of your senior pet. If your pet is too lean or too heavy, make an appointment to see your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may perform tests to determine if an underlying condition is causing your pet's weight problem.
Elderly pets sometimes have poor appetites and may need to be tempted to eat. The following tips may be helpful in enticing your pet to eat:
-Feed small frequent meals, dividing the daily food allowance into two to four small meals. Warm the food gently, to just below body temperature. Leave the food down for about 10 - 15 minutes and then remove it.
-Your pet is more likely to eat fresh food.
-Make sure your pet has a quiet, undisturbed place to eat his meals.
Excessive thirst and frequent or uncontrolled urination are often signs of kidney problems or diabetes. Since the kidneys process and eliminate body waste products into the urine, it is important that these organs remain healthy. If your pet's kidneys are not functioning properly, your veterinarian may recommend a diet specially designed for kidney problems. These diets contain a low phosphorus level (to slow down the progression of the disease) and a lower protein level to reduce the build up of harmful waste products in the blood.
Regular booster vaccinations are still advised in older pets. It is thought that the immune system deteriorates with age, therefore increasing the your pet's vulnerability to infections. Booster vaccinations stimulate the immune system and help your pet fight specific diseases.
MINERAL AND VITAMIN REQUIREMENTS
Under certain circumstances the vitamin and mineral needs of elderly pets may be different from those of younger animals. Some of the special senior diets have mineral and vitamin content carefully adjusted to help provide the appropriate balance for elderly pets who have failing kidney or heart function.
Don't Mistake Signs of Illness With Signs of Aging.
Signs of Illness include:
-Increased water consumption
-Increased urine production
-Changes in appetite
-Behavior changes (more or less sleep than usual, crying out, irritation, and lethargy)
-House training failure in a previously trained pet
-Vomiting or diarrhea
-Marked increase or decrease in weight
-Open sores or lumps / bumps anywhere on the body
Be A Good Friend To Your Older Pet
The way you care for your pet as he or she matures can help control some of the health problems associated with advancing years. Here are some tips to keep in mind in caring for your older pet.
General Care For Your Older Cat
Make any changes in your cat's environment gradually. Your cat has habits and hangouts. Sudden changes can cause undue stress.
Keep your cat comfortable. Your cat's bed should be in a dry, draft-free area. Since an older cat is more sensitive to temperature changes, don't leave him outside for long periods of time in cold weather. Dry your cat thoroughly after exposure to rain or snow. In hot and humid weather, use air conditioning to help keep your cat cool.
Provide regular grooming. Grooming helps remove dead hair and helps prevent hairballs that may cause vomiting or intestinal impaction. Grooming also gives you a chance to inspect your cat for parasites, skin disorders and unusual lumps or lesions that call for a visit to your veterinarian.
Encourage moderate exercise. Though older cats tend to rest more, it's helpful to play, stroke, talk and cuddle with them.
Keep your cat's litter box clean and in the same place. Older cats may sometimes forget a lifetime of litter-box training due to disorientation or loss of balance. Litter box mishaps also may indicate a health problem and require you to contact your veterinarian.
Keep your cat's surroundings familiar and try to make as few changes as possible. This helps compensate for reduced hearing, eyesight and smell. As a cat gets older, the recovery period from stressful conditions, such as illness and exposure, take longer.
Observe your cat for changes in behavior, eating habits or other signs of illness. Prompt diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian is recommended. When detected early, many conditions can be stabilized, and some degenerative processes can be slowed, enabling an aging cat to lead a more comfortable life.
General Care For Your Older Dog
There are some specific things you can do to make your older dog's life more comfortable. See your veterinarian more often - It is more important than ever that your dog receive total health care from your veterinarian. Ask your veterinarian about special geriatric screenings and procedures for your dog.
Give your dog more exercise – The exercise that you provide may be slower, but walks and play keep your dog in better shape, both mentally and physically.
Don't let your older dog pack on the pound as obesity can lead to serious health problems. Control his diet and make sure he exercises regularly.
Continue to groom your dog and care for his teeth. Brush and clean his coat to keep it at its softest and healthiest.
In general, older dogs do not like change. Don't move his bed, shift his routine, or force him to adjust to too many new situations.
Keep your dog's environment as comfortable as possible. A soft, warm place to sleep and protection from the elements are recommended to keep your dog happiest and healthiest.
Show extra patience and spend extra time with your senior dog. Things may take longer and may be more challenging. Make an effort to provide the extra emotional support your dog needs by spending as much time with him as you can.
Regular Veterinary Checkups
Even if your pet seems perfectly healthy, regular geriatric check-ups are important to manage many of the changes associated with aging. Dogs and cats over seven years of age should be examined by a veterinarian twice a year.
A complete geriatric health maintenance program can provide a means to target age-related health problems, institute preventive health care measures, and detect any disorders early enough to provide the appropriate medical attention. This program also educates you, the pet owner, on health risks to your older pet and provides information about preventive procedures for maintaining a healthy pet.
All of these components as well as following your veterinarian's recommendations for exercise, administration of any medication, and a proper diet are essential to the health and quality of life of your older pet.