Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, our four-legged family members are living longer than ever. As the pet parent of a senior dog myself, I can easily relate to my clients' concerns for their aging companions. Here are some of the questions I am most frequently asked by owners of senior pets.
At what age is my pet considered a senior?
As a very general rule, dogs are considered senior citizens between seven and ten years of age. Smaller dogs tend to live longer and experience age-related changes later in life than their large-breed counterparts. Giant breeds - those weighing 91 pounds or more - are considered senior at age five, whereas cats do not receive senior status until age eleven. Just like their humans, our pets do not always follow the rules when it comes to aging. Some retain excellent health and vitality long after their muzzles turn gray, while others - like my senior dachshund - lobby for an early retirement. While every pet ages differently, a few minor adjustments in their lifestyle can help them enjoy their golden years. Which takes me to another frequent;y asked question.
Does my senior pet need special screenings or tests?
Like humans over the age of 40, senior pets should see their doctor more regularly. All pets should have routine, annual bloodwork to monitor for signs of diseases that my lack clinical signs. Early detection becomes even more important as our pets mature. In addition to general tests to monitor the functions of the major organs, on older pet's thyroid should be regularly checked as well. A urinalysis can check for kidney and endocrine gland abnormalities, as well as common urinary tract infections. Senior pets should see their veterinarian twice per year. While complete diagnostics may not be needed this often, a complete nose to tail physical exam will allow your vet to spot early signs of joint problems, arthritis, cognitive disorders, or issues related to your pet's specific breed.
Senior pets that have not been spayed or neutered are at alarmingly high risks for testicular cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and life-threatening uterine infections. If you have not spayed or neutered your senior pet, please do this for them now. They are well past their reproductive prime, and the unnecessary hormones produced by their bodies are putting their lives at risk.
Should I change my senior pet's diet?
Just like us, our pets' metabolisms slow down as they age. The high fat, high protein diet she ate during her frisbee-catching days may become to difficult for her to digest as she ages. Additionally, as her activity level decreases, she will not require as many calories. Since every pet is different, it is important to discuss potential diet changes with your veterinarian. He/she may recommend a change to a diet that is more appropriate for a senior pet. It is especially important - and more challenging - to prevent an aging pet from becoming overweight or obese. Feed your senior pets smaller meals more often, and stay away from calorically dense commercial pet treats.
What about vitamins and supplements?
Again, every pet is different - and so is every veterinarian! Ask your pet's doctor if they recommend a multi-vitamin for your pet. Be sure to tell him/her what food you are feeding, including treats and table food. Be honest. We won't judge you, and we only know what you tell us. Personally, I am a big fan of glucosamine chondroitin/MSM supplements, as they help to rebuild cartilage and lubricate joints. There is also some very exciting new research being done on omega 3 fatty acids. This inexpensive nutriceutical is essential for maintaing a healthy weight, and works wonders for the skin, coat, and joints. As a general rule, I recommend omega 3's for any patient that waddles, scratches, or limps. There are many other supplements available to address specific issues such as liver health, bladder health, kidney function, and anxiety. Consult your veterinarian on whether or not your pet needs additional supplements.
What are some symptoms I should watch for with a senior pet?
Any unusual symptoms should be addressed by your veterinarian right away. Symptoms to report immediately include changes in water intake and urination, incontinence, lumps, weakness, coughing, exercise intolerance, changes in weight or appetite, or sudden changes in behavior. Cats who begin urinating outside their litter boxes should be promptly seen by their veterinarian. Increased or unusual vocalizations, and changes in grooming behavior are causes for concern in senior cats.
While our aging companions may require a little extra TLC, I firmly believe that age is not a disease. With an ounce of prevention - and tons of love - we can help our best friends to stay by our sides well into their golden years.