Ask the Veterinarian: Golden Years

Ask the Veterinarian

By Dr. Hagerty, Avery and Bjorn

Over the last two months I have had the pleasure of watching the newest edition of our family, Panzer Bjorn Odinson grow. He started as a fluffy bear cub of an eight-week-old puppy that lacked the confidence to navigate the stairs and now is a gangly, growing, bat eared German Shepherd dog with feet resembling flippers. Bjorn can be a menace to his older brother, Avery, and has the bark of a formidable beast, but he is still a floppy, soft, sweet and goofy puppy. Watching him grow has reminded me how quickly our pets mature and how unique each life stage is. Two months in the life span of a cat or dog is nearly equivalent to years of maturity and growth of a human child.

Age is very relevant. Cats and small dogs enter into their “golden years” at approximately 7 years of age, where their larger counterparts (large breed dogs) reach their “senior status” sooner at 5-6 years of age. To give some perspective, your 15-year-old cat is the equivalent to a 78-year-old human and your 15-year-old dog, depending on size is between 76 to 115 human years old! Currently the oldest living person in Canada is only 117 years old.

Age is also not a disease. However, senior pets may be at risk for age related problems, however good care and awareness of their needs allow them to live many active and healthy grey muzzle years.

Activity

I’ve always said my goal is to run a marathon at the age of 75. Although I’ve run a half marathon, a full marathon still sounds daunting both mentally and physically to me. Perhaps when I am old I will become wise or more stubborn in regard to my goal. Our pets may begin to feel as if they are being asked to run a marathon if expected to play and keep up with their owners as they once did. Simple day-to-day activities may become harder. Does your cat no longer steal the tasty morsels from your kitchen counter? Perhaps its not that Fluffy doesn’t want them anymore, but instead it might be painful to leap so far. Suddenly jumping into your family car or chasing that bushy tailed squirrel is not quite so easy. Have your pets habits changed? If so, it may be time to have your pet examined by your veterinarian.

A careful physical exam can help determine if and where they may be feeling pain. Osteoarthritis, as well as other degenerative joint concerns, is not uncommon in our senior dogs and cats. Joint supplements, pain management options and recommended exercise routines are all important options in keeping your pet comfortable, which your veterinarian can help you with.

Senility

Although we are familiar with signs of dementia in our human population, such as forgetfulness, confusion, loss of focus and even anxiety, we don’t always recognize them in our pets. What is known as cognitive dysfunction is very similar to dementia or senility in people and can explain some behaviour changes. As our pets age their senses also diminish in acuity, which adds to some insecurities. Although our senior pets don’t struggle to read the daily newspaper or drive a vehicle at night, they may experience age related changes in vision and also loss of hearing. Common signs of cognitive dysfunction include increased wandering, sensitivity to loud sounds, increased barking or meowing, nervousness, confusion and disorientation, changes in sleep patterns and grouchy or irritable behaviour.

Carrying the Load

Diet and nutrition become more important in our pet’s geriatric years. The calories required for a growing, rambunctious and active puppy or kitten are no longer required, however rapidly digestible foods filled with anti aging nutrients are often needed instead. Additionally, diets can help control specific diseases such as kidney disease, diabetes and heart disease. Weight management is the other key factor in determining a nutritional plan for our older pets. Weight gain predisposes pets to many health concerns which are already more prevalent in our senior pets, such as osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. Debilitating pain and marked physical limitations are consequences of these diseases, amplified by the significant excess weight their musculoskeletal system is carrying. Imagine being asked to run up a flight of stairs while carrying a recently purchased large bag of dog food, and remember you’re almost 100 years old!

Weight loss can also be a significant concern. Although seen more commonly in our feline friends, weight and muscle loss can be a sign of diseases such as hyperthyroidism (an over active thyroid gland), kidney disease, cardiac disease etc. Any rapid change in weight, either up or down, should warrant a visit to your veterinarian to help determine the underlying cause.

Creature Comforts

Just as your grandmother requires a hand down the stairs, her favourite chair, a pair of soft slippers and the heat turned up a little too high, our senior pets desire the same things. A warm, cozy place to sleep, potentially not requiring navigating stairs or having to jump onto the bed or couch is important. Regular grooming and help with hygiene are also key. Lowering the entrance to the litter box, turning an outside light on for going down the back steps or making safe areas in your house for your pet when you can’t supervise them may be required to help our seniors out.

Time for a Check Up

Routine visits to your veterinarian are very important for your old friend. Checking for sources of pain, listening to their heart and lungs, evaluating your pets oral health and monitoring its weight are just a few important parts of a routine check up. Blood work or other recommended diagnostic tests to monitor or screen for diseases is also an important tool. Even if you don’t think there is anything wrong with your senior pet, getting a baseline of what is his or her “normal” can be very helpful in diagnosing and caring for your pet in the future. Involve your veterinarian to help your pet age more gracefully.

Just as the life expectancy increases for humans, it can also for our pets. Enjoy the beauty and wisdom your faithful friend has to offer you and take the time to embrace all the special moments you share with them.

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