Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine our pets are not only living longer, but they’re living better quality lives too.
So it’s really important that we reflect on some of the major issues that our senior pets face and some of the preventative measures that we, as a veterinary profession, try and implement to ensure they have the best quality of life.
It is important to remember that age itself is not a disease process.
So, what is considered old/senior?
For dogs, we used to believe that 1 dog year was equivalent to 7 human years; this theory has since been debunked, since it did not take into consideration the different breeds of dogs. For example, a small-breed dog will likely live longer than a larger-breed dog. Because of this, a newer and more generalised approach is to categorise all dogs older than 7-years-old as ‘senior’.
For cats, there are 6 broad classifications. More specifically to our elderly patients we have 3 groups of cats; mature (7-10 yrs.); senior cats (11-14 yrs.) and geriatric (15+ yrs.).
Life stage classification developed by the Feline Advisory Bureau and adopted in the recent AAFP Senior Care Guidelines (Vogt et al. 2010)
Getting older is a natural and gradual process which, like in humans, predisposes our pets to certain health issues. Hence, a lot of our attention in our older/senior population is picking up these issues before they become a problem. This is where our preventative medicine comes into play.
Switching from yearly to 6-monthly health checks in senior patients
When you bring your pet to us for their yearly vaccination, we do more than just vaccinate. Don’t get me wrong, vaccinations are an extremely important part of the yearly health check and vital in protecting your pet from easily preventable diseases, however, health checks are just as crucial.
For our senior patients, we recommend that all pets receive a 6 monthly health check. This might seem quite frequent, especially if your pet appears to be healthy from the outside, however, it isn’t frequent at all when comparing how much faster pets age than humans.
Consider the following; let’s imagine a 15-year-old dog that has had its yearly health checks up until 7 years-old, after which point starts going every 6 months. This would be the equivalent of an 80-year-old human going to the doctor every 3.5 years; which when put this way, isn’t actually that frequent after all!
Additionally, our pets are very stoic and sometimes do not show signs of being unwell until the very end. Hence, with the increased frequency of health checks, we aim to pick up diseases sooner, with the hope that we can intervene quicker and have a better outcome.
The 6-monthly health check provides a great opportunity to discuss how your pet is going and to address any concerns you may have. Your vet will perform a full physical examination which is sometimes accompanied by the following diagnostic tests; blood pressure measurements; a more extensive ophthalmoscope (eye) exam; a senior wellness blood test; and a urine test. Not all of these tests are required in each case and will be tailored according to your pet’s needs.
Common senior issues
Some of the key health issues we are likely to focus on, in senior patients, include the following:
(We also have a range of information sheets on our website regarding some of these health issues which can be found in the library section – so please feel free to check these out!!)
● Dental disease is one of the most common issues affecting our companion animals, even from very early on in life.
● It is often overlooked and possibly missed by many owners but it can cause great morbidity in our elderly patients. Watching your pet eat at home is one of the things you can actively do to pick up dental disease early. If you notice any changes in their eating behaviour – such as, they drop their food, eat on one side, eat more slowly or show less interest in a particular type of food – it could indicate dental disease.
● Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, affects most of our elderly patients. It can be a painful and debilitating disease. There are subtle signs you may notice at home which could indicate that your pet is suffering from arthritis including behaviours such as; being slow and stiff to rise, becoming less interactive with other pets or people at home, reluctant to jump up onto or off of things, not wanting to go for walks, not wanting to play anymore, becoming lame or they may cry when being picked up. This is not an exhaustive list and there may be other signs to indicate that they are uncomfortable.
● As our pets age, so do their nutritional requirements. The main goal in feeding our senior pets is to promote longevity whilst keeping a healthy body condition (weight).
● In regards to nutrition, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution, so a feeding plan (diet, amount etc) has to be tailored according to your pet’s needs. Ultimately, the most important goal is to ensure they’re getting a balanced diet and they’re fed the correct amount to maintain an ideal body condition score.
Loss in vision/hearing loss
● Vision deficits and hearing loss can be a slow degenerative disease that affect many of our senior patients. As they can be slow to develop, they can be missed by many owners. Some of the signs you may notice at home include; having issues seeing at night time, walking into objects, being unaware of their surroundings, or they can no longer hear their name being called.
Preventatives including vaccination, worming, heartworm and flea treatment
● From the minute your pet comes in for its first kitten or puppy vaccinations, they are prevented against easily transmissible diseases through vaccinations and worming. It is important that we continue these preventative measures as they age, to ensure we keep them as healthy as possible.
If you are concerned about any of the above conditions, it’s important that you seek advice from your veterinary professional. Each patient’s condition will be evaluated and a treatment plan for your pet will be individualised and tailored to their specific needs.
Gawler Animal Hospital will likely send you out a senior questionnaire before your appointment. It is very useful if you can fill this out in advance, so that we can better prepare for your appointment and better accommodate your pet’s individual needs.
We look forward to seeing you and your furry beloveds.
Dr Luisa Panetta
Vogt, HA, Rodan, I, Brown, M, Brown S, Buffington, T, Forman, MJ, Neilson, J, Sparker, A 2010 , ‘AAFP-AAHA Feline Life Stage Guidelines’, Journal of American Animal Hospital Association, vol. 46, pp. 70-85.