Karen L. McGlothlin, DVM, PhD
If you know me, you know that there are not many things I love more in this world than old dogs and cats. Nothing comes close to the serenity I feel when I’m sitting on my couch with a good book, an old dog curled up beside me, and an old cat stretched out across the back of the couch over my shoulders. I often tell people that if I were to win the lottery, I would establish a senior/geriatric pet sanctuary and let as many “oldies” as possible live out their days in regal fashion.
While there are some differences in the exact ages given by different sources, pets are generally considered to be seniors after the age of seven years old and geriatric after the age of eleven. Keep in mind that cats and small breed dogs tend to have longer life spans than large breed dogs, so large breed dogs are typically considered to be seniors after the age of six years old.
Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and the development of higher quality diets and supplements, our pets are living longer, healthier lives and a larger percentage of pet owners are able to enjoy spending their pets’ golden years with some of the best friends they’ve ever had. While that’s certainly great news for all of us who cherish the human-animal bond, it also means that we have to watch our senior and geriatric pets closely because they may experience many of the same declining health issues that aging humans develop, including arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, renal (kidney) disease, senility, and liver disease.
At Lawndale Veterinary Hospital, we want you to spend every day you can with your beloved pet. In order to make that possible, there are several recommendations provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association to help keep your ageing pets’ health on track and to help manage chronic diseases:
1. Provide more frequent veterinary care. The AVMA recommends semi-annual veterinary visits for geriatric pets in order to provide early detection of health issues and successful management of treatable conditions.
2. Provide life-stage and/or disease-appropriate diet and nutrition. There are many prescription diets available to help manage chronic diseases, such as diabetes, renal disease or liver disease. In addition, there are high-quality, over the counter senior maintenance diets that have been developed to be easier to digest, lower in calories, and higher in anti-oxidant levels.
3. Monitor your pet’s weight closely. While it may be difficult to appreciate changes in weight when you see your pet every day and those changes may be subtle enough to overlook, it is important to keep an eye on this. Weight loss in geriatric cats can be an indicator of several chronic diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes mellitus, and chronic kidney disease. Weight gain in older dogs increases their risk of a variety of healthy issues, including degenerative joint disease.
4. Don’t forget to continue administering parasite control. Although it is tempting to discontinue heartworm prevention and deworming products in senior/geriatric dogs and cats, it couldn’t be more important. Even though they may not go outside as much as they once did (or even at all), they remain susceptible to internal parasites and their immune systems are not as robust as they were when they were younger.
5. Keep your aging pets active. Maintaining a suitable level of exercise can help keep your pets more mobile and healthier for the long-term, just like it does for us. Daily exercise routines that include you and your senior/geriatric pet can be a health booster for both of you.
6. Provide recommended vaccinations. Vaccination recommendations change with age. Make sure you have a discussion with your veterinarian and get her or his recommendations on vaccinations during your pet’s wellness examination.
7. Monitor your pet’s behavior/mentation. As our pets age, they can exhibit behavioral symptoms consistent with senility, including: confusion, disorientation, irritability, repetitive behaviors, changes in sleep cycles, increased anxiety, and more. Maintaining mental stimulation and interaction with their environment can help. If you notice changes in behavior in an older pet, consult your veterinarian.
8. Keep your senior pets comfortable. Aging brings changes in requirements for everyday activities. Make sure your senior/geriatric pets have comfortable bedding in safe areas (especially if they are sleeping outdoors). Arthritic pets may need new routines that allow them to avoid stairs and jumping – geriatric cats may even need litter boxes with low entry points. Evaluate the environment and be willing to make changes for the benefit of your older pet.
9. Watch for reproductive diseases. It is highly recommended that you spay or neuter your pets to help keep them healthier and to protect them from some reproductive tract diseases that may occur later in life. Unaltered senior/geriatric pets are at increased risk for a variety of reproductive problems, including pyometra (infection of the uterus), mammary cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer and anal gland cancers.
How Can Lawndale Veterinary Hospital Help?
For senior and geriatric pets, we recommend routine wellness exams and annual diagnostics to screen for changes that may indicate developing disease. If detected early, many issues can be managed with special diets, supplements, and medications, improving your pet’s quality of life and possibly extending his or her life span.
Two of our geriatric patients, Charlie Strong and Noel Miles, are great examples of how annual geriatric screening is a valuable tool for tracking health. Charlie Strong, a senior Labrador Retriever, is almost 10 years old and has a history of significant arthritic change in the lumbosacral region of his spine, as well as some issues with interdigital cysts on his feet that respond well to medication. Routine bloodwork in 2015 revealed an elevation in alkaline phosphatase, which is an enzyme that can be an indicator of a variety of potential health abnormalities, including liver disease and Cushing’s disease. There was also an elevation in SDMA (symmetric dimethylarginine), which is a biomarker for early kidney disease. Both these values have remained stable since the abnormalities were first detected. Charlie sees Dr. Crawford for geriatric screening annually and, as a result, his bloodwork can be monitored to determine if there has been any advancement of disease.
Noel Miles, a geriatric Shih Tzu Mix, is 15.5 years old and has a history of kidney disease. When kidney abnormalities were originally found, Noel was started on Hill’s k/d, a prescription diet for management of kidney disease. Last year, her geriatric work-up revealed protein in her urine, one of the potential sequelae of advancing kidney disease. At that time, Dr. Jelovich prescribed a blood pressure medication to reduce the workload on the kidneys. Noel has been doing well over the last year and was just in this week for regular bloodwork to monitor progression of her disease. Thanks to a combination of her prescription diet and blood pressure medication, Noel’s kidney disease is stable and she continues to enjoy a great quality of life.