Special Health Care Considerations for Senior Pets
We hear it all the time from pet owners – it’s such a shame that dogs and cats don’t live longer.
Obviously, we agree! But there’s a lot we can do to ensure that our pets enjoy the best possible quality of life for as long as we do have them with us – through conscientious attention to their health, sensory perception, mobility, and mentality as they age. You and your veterinarian, working together, can help your pet age gracefully, and keep them as active members of the family throughout their senior years.
Dogs and cats are generally considered “senior” pets when they reach 6 or 7 years of age, depending on size and breed. Cats and smaller dogs tend to live longer. Larger dogs tend to have a shorter life expectancy.
There are methods of translating pet years into human years to make it easier to appreciate what pets are experiencing in their bodies, but for our purposes, think of a 7-year-old cat or dog as having reached the equivalent of approximately 50 human years.
Early Detection is Key!
We recommend that senior pets see their veterinarian every six months for a hands-on and visual checkup, and so the doctor can order some lab tests designed to catch potential problems early.
Early detection matters – just like for humans, it can make a profound difference in terms of treatment options and prognosis. Pets can suffer from cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, and many other conditions that are much more manageable if diagnosed in the early stages.
What You Can Do at Home
You have a key role to play in early detection because you interact with your pet every day. Your observation of what is normal for your pet means that if something changes, you are in the best position to notice it. What is that lump on her belly? Why is he losing hair in patches? Her breath is really smelly! He feels skinnier! These are all important observations that your veterinarian needs and wants to hear about.
It’s a great idea to conduct your own nose-to-tail examination about once a week. Make it part of your routine and combine it with treats, petting, and play to make it fun for your pet. The short time this takes could have a significant life-prolonging benefit.
Be sure to check your pet’s nose, eyes, ears, skin, nails, mouth, and coat. Gently palpate your pet all over to see if anything seems to hurt. Watch how your pet moves to see if she is favoring a leg or seems unbalanced or hesitant in any way.
When checking out your pet, here are specific things you can look out for:
- Nose – Is there discharge? Color change? Rawness?
- Eyes – Is there discharge? How is the clarity? Are the eyes wide open?
- Ears – Do they have a bad smell? Itchiness?
- Skin – Are there lumps or bumps? Irritation? Parasites? Dryness? Are they losing hair?
- Nails – Are they too long? Curling in toward the pads? Dry or cracked?
- Mouth – Does it have a bad smell? Is there gum redness at the tooth line? Tartar on the teeth? Sores?
- Coat – Is it dry or dull? Are there hair clumps? Bald patches?
Try to also notice changes, and report these to your veterinarian. Don’t wait until the next scheduled veterinary visit though – report changes right away and let your veterinarian help you decide on next steps.
Behavioral changes can also be clues to medical issues — the cat who stops using the litter box, the pet who seems to be drinking a lot more water than usual, the dog who can’t go up the stairs without panting anymore.
Here are some specific symptoms/behaviors to watch out for:
Breathing – Labored breathing, exercise intolerance, noisy breathing, coughing (Note that coughing in cats can be mistaken for an attempt to expel a hairball. If you are unsure, ask your veterinarian).
Appetite/thirst – Disinterest in food, increased thirst, vomiting.
Urination – Straining to urinate, excessive urination, frequent but unproductive attempts to urinate, no urination, discolored urine, smelly urine, urination in the house or outside the litter box.
Defecation – Straining, blood in the stools, diarrhea, house soiling.
Urination and defecation issues can be frustrating, and you might be tempted to chastise your pet for “forgetting” his training. But because these issues can point to a medical condition, get your veterinarian involved! It’s always best to rule out health concerns before looking for other causes.
What the Veterinarian Can Do
Many veterinarians offer “senior packages” that include a thorough examination and the most-recommended lab tests for senior pets. These packages are cost-effective, to make it feasible for your pet to see their veterinarian twice a year for monitoring.
At Vet’s Here, we offer senior pet packages as well. We also offer the benefit of having a mobile vet clinic—that means that we come to you and your pet, rather than stressing your pet out by dragging them to the vet’s office. We examine your pet in the comfort of your home.
Senior pet veterinarian packages typically include complete blood work with biochemistry profile and urinalysis. Your veterinarian might also recommend radiographs or ultrasound, depending on your pet’s specific situation. The blood biochemistry profile provides information about how well the internal organs are functioning.
For example, an elevated blood urea nitrogen (BUN) level could suggest a kidney problem. Another example – an elevated glucose level (hyperglycemia) might be caused by pancreatitis or an infection. A single blood panel/biochemistry profile is helpful, but regular testing has the added value of revealing trends. What’s going up? What’s going down?
Dental Care for Senior Pets
The dangers of untreated dental disease are very serious, especially to older pets. The thin mucous membranes in the mouth and the blood vessels in the gums form a gateway to the rest of the body that bacteria can leverage.
Although it’s true that a thorough dental exam, cleaning, and treatment require anesthesia, and although it’s true that some medical conditions make anesthesia more challenging, don’t rule it out without discussing it with your veterinarian.
Pre-anesthesia screenings and the doctor’s thorough examination factor into the doctor’s plan for safely anesthetizing and monitoring your pet during the dental procedure. Careful selection of anesthesia drugs and procedures and vigilant monitoring can compensate for many medical conditions.
For more thorough information on Vet’s Here mobile dental care for your pets and how it can help your pet, see our blog article here.
Older pets can experience degraded sight and hearing, just like older humans. Accommodating your pet in this situation involves increased awareness on your part.
Furniture – Changing the arrangement of furniture in your home can be stressful for your pet. If they know their bed is 10 steps from your bed or that the doggie door is in a straight line from the living room couch – and then suddenly it’s not, you can imagine how disquieting that might be!
Leashes – Trusting your pet outside unattended or off-leash might be risky because your pet does not necessarily know that his senses are impaired and won’t compensate. So, you need to compensate for him.
Sounds – Pets who are losing their hearing might seem extra sensitive to the sounds they can hear. Once you identify what your pet reacts badly to, try to limit their exposure to those things.
Body Language – Use hand signals and other kinds of body language to communicate with a pet with hearing loss. Try stomping on the ground to get their attention – they can often feel the vibration.
Although hearing aids for pets are not unheard of, they are not a mainstream treatment yet due to their expense and the difficulty pets have in accepting them. But if you are interested in exploring hearing aids, talk to your veterinarian.
Mobility issues can have many root causes, not all of which are associated specifically with aging. The first thing your veterinarian will do is identify the cause because the cause determines the possible treatments. Arthritis is a common culprit in aging dogs and cats, but certainly not the only one.
Besides the appropriate medications, supplements, and other treatments your veterinarian can recommend, there are many things you can do at home to help your pet who has difficulty getting around.
- Dogs can have difficulty getting up from a lying down position, especially on slick flooring. Try putting down non-slip rugs and runners to make it easier.
- There are products available to help dogs get better traction, including special socks/booties and toenail covers.
- Ramps and steps can help pets into cars and onto furniture.
- Orthopedic beds can be very beneficial to pets with joint pain.
- You can fit your dog with a harness that will allow you to provide extra support when your dog is standing or walking.
- For severe cases, dogs can be fitted with a wheeled cart.
- Two other conditions can make mobility issues worse for your aging pet: obesity and overgrown toenails. These conditions are not healthy for any pet, but they are particularly detrimental to aging pets with difficulty getting around.
Be sure to work closely with your veterinarian on your senior pet’s diet because your pet’s whole health picture must be taken into consideration. Also, be aware that too- rapid weight loss can be dangerous to overweight pets, especially cats. Achieving a healthy weight for your pet is an important goal, but it must be done in an informed and controlled manner.
Overgrown toenails can make it more difficult for pets to get traction on the floor, and they can also cause your pet pain. Your veterinary team can cut your pet’s nails if you are not comfortable cutting them yourself.
You might notice behavior changes in your older pet that your veterinarian cannot attribute to an underlying medical condition such as cancer or diabetes.
If your pet seems confused or anxious or seems to forget things he knew very well, he might be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. Canine or feline cognitive dysfunction is a state of mental confusion caused by changes in the brain – something akin to dementia or Alzheimer’s in humans.
The acronym DISHA is widely used to characterize the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction:
- D = Disorientation – The pet might become confused in familiar surroundings and seem lost.
- I = Interactions – There might be changes in the way the pet interacts with her human family or with other pets in the household.
- S = Sleep – Sometimes pets are restless when they would normally have been sleeping or are asleep when they would normally have been awake.
- H = House soiling – Cats might forget what a litter box is for. Dogs might soil in the house without letting someone know they need to go outside.
- A = Activity – Changes in activity can be symptoms. Some pets lose interest in play. Some wander aimlessly and can’t seem to relax. Others develop repetitive behaviors that can result in self-injury.
Be sure to report your observations to your veterinarian so he or she can rule out other possible causes of the behaviors you are seeing, and so they can advise you as to treatment options.
For example, your veterinarian might suggest selegiline, a drug used to support brain function in dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction. There are also special diets and dietary supplements available that can help. This is another area where early detection is important. These treatments are most effective when started early in the mental decline.
Terminal Conditions and Quality of Life
Watching a loved dog or cat become a geriatric with a terminal condition often raises the question of how much the pet is suffering. It’s difficult for pet owners to be objective on this issue, but there are some tools, such as the HHHHHMM scale, available to help with the assessment.
The HHHHHMM Scale was developed by veterinary oncologist Alice Villalobos to aid caregivers and veterinary teams in determining whether their efforts on behalf of an ailing pet are resulting in an acceptable quality of life. The scale assesses the degree of comfort/suffering in these areas:
- More good days than bad
Each item in the scale is assigned a number from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Scores of 5 or lower warrant reflection. Can anything else be done to support the pet in that area? If not, is it okay to prolong the pet’s life with that degree of suffering? You and your veterinarian can do this assessment together, on a regular schedule so you can see and consider changes.
Many people feel that the decision to euthanize a suffering pet is an act of love and responsible commitment. Your Vet’s Here doctors and staff are here to help you weigh and balance your options, provide in-home euthanasia if that is your wish, and to point you to resources for coping with grief.
If you would like more information on senior pet care, about Vet’s Here and our mobile services, or are interested in scheduling an initial visit, please reach out to us online or give us a call at 1-888-838-2738.