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Caring for Senior Pets

Caring for Senior Pets

Mindy Cohan, VMD

It is a blessing to have a pet live until a ripe old age. Longevity often presents special needs and circumstances for which pet parents need to be prepared. While many people attribute changes in behavior or activity in a pet to “old age,” it is best to discuss these observations with your veterinarian rather than accepting them at face value.

Arthritis is one of the most common problems associated with senior pets. I broach the subject during routine examinations since many pet parents assume it is normal for their pets to become less active and agile with age. The common signs of arthritis in dogs and cats include slowness in rising from a recumbent position, difficulty or reluctance to climb stairs, a change or stiffness in gait, limping, and pain or sensitivity when touched. If you notice any of these symptoms, schedule a consult with your veterinarian so measures can be taken to keep your pet as comfortable as possible.

One of the most heart breaking problems seen in senior pets is cognitive dysfunction (dementia). It is thought to be due to amyloid deposits in the brain, a condition associated with Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The signs associated with canine cognitive dysfunction include loss of housebreaking habits, disorientation, decreased interaction with family members or favorite toys, pacing and generalized anxiety.

Dogs with dementia can develop disturbances in normal sleep cycles. Sundown syndrome is often seen in people with Alzheimer’s. In the evening, both dogs and people can become agitated, restless and confused. If your dog is sleeping throughout the day and no longer sleeping through the night, talk to your veterinarian about medications to help both you and your dog get a good night’s sleep.

As pets age, so do their kidneys. When kidney function deteriorates, this vital organ is no longer able to cleanse the blood and toxins from the body. Dogs and cats with failing kidneys begin to urinate and drink more, experience nausea, a diminished appetite and weight loss. As kidney function declines, dogs and cats often vomit and become increasingly lethargic. Routine blood tests help veterinarians detect the early onset of kidney disease and track its progress. Pets with chronic kidney disease can be aided with prescription diets, subcutaneous or intravenous fluid therapy and medications to prevent nausea and elevated blood phosphorus levels.

Senior pets can develop neurological problems which are extremely distressing for pet parents. While seizures that develop at a young ager are usually due to epilepsy, seizures that begin later in life are commonly associated with metabolic problems or brain tumors. If you witness your pet having a seizure, call your veterinarian immediately.

Older dogs can acutely develop vestibular disease. The vestibular system is responsible for balance and orientation. This condition, which often presents suddenly, causes dogs to stumble, fall over, develop a head tilt, circle and develop nystagmus (abnormal movement of the eyes). Some dogs can develop severe dizziness and become unable to stand or walk. Many affected dogs with this vertigo-like condition experience nausea, vomiting and a poor appetite. While there are known causes for vestibular disease, “old dog” or “idiopathic” vestibular disease does not have an identified etiology. Although there is no specific cure or treatment for vestibular disease, supportive care at a veterinary hospital is usually warranted. There are different degrees of severity associated with vestibular disease and your dog’s veterinarian will recommend appropriate care.

Additional medical issues faced by older pets include hearing and vision impairment. Pet parents need to take necessary precautions such as always keeping dogs leashed when outside and avoiding household furniture rearrangements. Dogs visually impaired by cataracts can greatly benefit from surgery performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Maintaining good nutrition is critical for senior pets. A well balanced diet and dental care are imperative. If good dental hygiene is not maintained, pets can suffer from oral pain and become reluctant to eat. As dogs and cats age, many pet parents consider switching to a “senior” diet. Bear in mind that there are no regulations when it comes to diets labeled for senior pets. If a pet has an underlying condition such as kidney disease, allergies or inflammatory bowel disease, it is best to use a diet formulated for its specific needs. When it comes to selecting an optimal diet for your senior pet, consult your veterinarian.

In order to provide optimal care for senior pets, schedule biannual veterinary examinations. Although 6 months does not seem like a long time, in the scheme of a pet’s lifespan, a lot can change in several months. Many problems can be detected and addressed early with regular physical examinations and blood testing. Before your pet’s veterinary visit, make a list of questions and concerns to be addressed. By working as a team with your dog or cat’s doctor, you will help to keep your pet happy and healthy for as long as possible.

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