Caring For Older Pets
As animals age there are numerous changes that occur, many of these changes have no deleterious effects. There are not many pets that become distressed worrying about their gray hair or receding hairlines! On the other hand sometimes aging does cause problems for our pets and they rely on us to detect those problems and help alleviate them.
The changes associated with aging are characterised by a gradual reduction in function. Sometimes owners do not recognise how big a problem has become, or how much discomfort their pet is in until the condition is well-advanced. Although many of the changes are irreversible, in most cases we can improve our pet’s quality of life with medication or by making simple changes around the house. If your pet is older than 8 years of age they are at the stage of life where “old age changes” will occur and you should be aware of this. Ideally all pets should have an annual health check, this is usually done at the time of vaccination and it is even more important in older pets. In fact in some cases we may recommend 6 monthly check ups. The other option to consider is routine “Health screening” blood tests.
What Should I Watch For?
This is a basic checklist that you can use to assess whether or not your pet would benefit from a Veterinary check up.
The answer to all of the above questions should be NO! If you have answered YES to any questions above then your should either organise for us to check your pet OR ring us and speak with one of our vets.
There are some, more serious old age changes, which do not show clinically until the effects are life threatening. Common examples of this are renal (kidney) failure and hepatic (liver) failure. These organs gradually decline throughout life, often with no outward signs, until the organ can no longer function. At this stage there is, what appears to be, sudden onset of kidney or liver failure. Once this stage of organ failure is reached the only treatment that would work is a transplant! Fortunately we can detect these organ failures very early by using blood tests. If an animal has reduced organ function this will show up on the blood test long before the stage of clinical organ failure is reached. When early organ failure is detected we can slow the progression of the disease, often this will involve using special diets. The option of running a routine screening test in pets 8 years of age or more is not particularly expensive and is often rewarding, if the tests are normal the owners mind is set at ease and if it is abnormal early intervention will prolong the pets life. These tests can be repeated whenever necessary but we would recommend they be done annually in most cases.
Changes That Can Occur in Older Pets
Arthritis is inflammation of the joints, it is a very painful problem, which causes pets to become less active, they move slowly and have trouble getting up. In many cases pets do not outwardly show other signs of pain. When a pet becomes less active it can be hard for owners to know if this is due to pain or, if it is the natural slowing down seen with old age. Most pets will not cry or whine with arthritis but it is amazing how often pain relief sees old pets bouncing around again. In some cases old pets are thought to be “getting grumpy” when in fact they are in pain. These animals don’t like being handled because it makes their arthritic joints hurt. Another fairly common situation is the old dog with what is assumed to be bladder problems but is in fact arthritis. These pets urinate in their bed because they can not get out quickly enough. Common signs that might lead you to suspect arthritis in your pet are trouble getting up in the morning and a stiff slow gait, these changes may be more obvious in the colder months. An examination by your vet will determine the amount of pain involved and painkillers can be prescribed if they may be beneficial. As the condition worsens many sufferers develop swollen misshapen joints.
As well as the different medications available there are also some changes you can make to your pet’s lifestyle, which will reduce the debilitating effects of arthritis.
- Trampoline style beds.
- A warm, draft free, sleeping area.
- Short walks on a regular basis.
- Good weight control.
Eyes and Ears
Another common old age change is a gradual decline in hearing and vision. Again these changes can occur because of old age, but in some cases there is a treatable underlying problem. It is common for dogs to get external ear infections or even foreign bodies such as grass seeds in their ear canals which will effect their hearing. Vision loss may be caused by normal changes such as optic nerve degeneration, but it may also occur as a result of cataracts. Cataracts in turn can be a normal ageing process, or the result of other diseases such as sugar diabetes. In some cases surgical correction of vision loss is possible. If your pet’s eyesight or hearing is deteriorating and treatment is not possible then they will be extremely prone to motor vehicle accidents. Always check they are not asleep behind or under your car and when you walk them keep them on a lead so no one else can run over them. Blind animals will rapidly adapt to their environment and provided you do not move obstacles around they will move about accident free. If you use touch and handsignals you should be able to communicate with these pets very well. Remember, you can call a deaf dog anything you like – he wont hear you! Bad
Breath & Loss of Appetite
Tooth decay and gum disease is seen as problems in old animals even though in most cases they are the result of years of poor dental health. As plaque thickens on the teeth it locks in harmful bacteria and eventually the tooth underneath becomes infected and rots. The bacteria cause bad breath and as the infection worsens the animals may go off its food. A reduced appetite is another change that can occur as pets get older so once again there is a risk that owners will assume the loss of appetite is due to old age when in fact there is an underlying problem. The answer here is to look after your pets dental health while he or she is young, there are many options open to you and our vets are always willing to discuss these with you. Having to anaesthetise a very sick old pet for surgery because its’ teeth are rotten is never the preferred option.
Kidney failure is a relatively common problem in older pets, especially cats. One of the first signs of kidney failure is increased thirst and a tendency to urinate more. If diagnosed early we can slow the progress of kidney failure using dietary modifications and medical treatments. There are other diseases which will also cause increase thirst (for example diabetes) and anytime you suspect your pet is drinking more than usual you should contact us. We are likely to ask you to measure your pets exact water intake and we may ask you to collect a urine sample for us to test.
Loss of Bladder Control
Older dogs, in particular bitches, are prone to a loss of bladder sphincter control. These dogs leave small pools of urine behind them where they have been lying. This is often hormonal or infectious in which case it can be easily treated. Prostrate Problems Older male dogs can develop urinary problems or constipation as a result of swelling of the prostate gland. The prostate is a male accessory sex gland that sits inside the pelvis. The swelling is usually caused by hormonal fluctuations in which case it is treatable by hormone injections or by desexing. In some cases these dogs will also develop perineal hernias. Perineal hernias are very hard to treat, they require at least one and sometimes two operations. These problems occur almost exclusively in entire males and this is another very good reason why male dogs should be desexed.
The most common form of heart disease is when one of the valves stops functioning. The damaged valve causes a change in the blood flow creating turbulence, which causes a heart murmur. Heart murmurs can be detected with a stethoscope. This type of change is far more common in old animals and it is possible to treat it with medication. Clinically an animal with heart failure will be less active than usual, it maybe short of breath, and it may have a swollen abdomen (tummy). Treatment is with medication that will strengthen the contractility of the heart muscle as well as reducing the blood pressure. This will slow the progress of heart failure as well as making life more comfortable and allowing increased levels of activity. Other forms of heart disease do occur, fortunately they are less common than valve disease.
Swellings, Lumps and Bumps
It is common for older animals to develop swellings in different areas of their bodies and in some cases these can indicate serious disease or infection. If your pet develops a lump do not ignore it, early intervention can often prevent a tragic outcome.
- Decreased attention span.
- Loss of attentiveness.
- Abnormal urination or defecation
- Abnormal barking
- Changes in sleep patterns.
In some cases these changes are caused by other problems such as deafness but in true senility there are changes in the brain similar to those seen in people. Treatment will depend on what the cause of the symptoms is but in many cases some form of medical treatment is possible. There are now a number of different types of drugs available to battle senility.