When your dog gets to 7 years old, or your cat gets to 9 years old, they enter the senior years. During these years, diseases can develop, such as diabetes, heart disease, endocrine diseases, and cancers. These diseases can go unnoticed in early stages of disease if undetected. Preventive health is extremely important as your pet ages. Getting baseline values and monitoring trends for our individual patients helps with early detection and intervention of a number of diseases and conditions.
Each pet, like each human, is different. An aging pet may experience changes in behavior, pack order, dominance issues, or even aggression. These social changes can come as a result of outward signs of advancing years or from health problems like dementia, pain, or factors related to worsening eyesight or hearing. Here are some general physical signs to watch for and some ways to help your pet adjust to seniorhood.
Diet and weight management
It is important to feed your pet a balanced diet and maintain your pet’s appropriate weight. Studies have shown that 30-40% of pet in the US are overweight. Pets can suffer from the same problems as overweight people, including heart disease, respiratory problems, diabetes and arthritis. Most food companies make special diets for your senior pet or overweight pet to help managed this concern.
Arthritis is also known as osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints. At least 90% of cats over 12 years of age have evidence of degenerative joint disease on radiographs. In dogs, osteoarthritis is a common condition possibly affecting a quarter of all dogs. You may notice your pet slowing down or limping. However, you may only see subtle changes such as in how they get up, lie down, use stairs, jump onto furniture, access the litter box, or take part in activities. Maintaining a lean appropriate weight can lessen the effects of arthritis.
There are several pain scales, Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index and Canine Pain Inventory that we use yearly, or even monthly, to monitor for changes.
Older dogs are at risk for hypothyroidism, an endocrine disorder. Symptoms can include weight gain with no change in diet and/or loss of hair on tail, sluggishness, and/or changes in the skin and hair coat.
The most common endocrine disease of middle aged and senior cats is hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism affects the entire body, so owners may not realize there is an issue until the disease has progressed. Symptoms vary but you may see a voracious appetite with weight loss. Both conditions are easily managed with medication prescribed by a veterinarian.
~75% of dogs and cats over the age of three years of age suffer from dental disease. You might notice bad breath, gum redness, discoloration of the teeth and in more advanced stages drooling and reduced appetite. On examination, tartar build-up and gum inflammation (redness) may be noted. We recommend brushing your pet’s teeth daily or as often as possible (in addition to dental chews, water additives, and other dental products) to help prevent plaque and tarter buildup. To learn more about how we address dental disease visit our Dental and Oral Health Page.
Kidney disease is one of the most common medical problems of the geriatric pets. Most signs of kidney disease aren’t present until more than 75% of the kidney’s function is already lost. Some symptoms you may see include decreased appetite, increased thirst, depression, weakness, poor hair coat, vomiting, and weight loss.
Diabetes mellitus is a disease involving glucose (sugar) in the blood and insulin. Diabetes is one of the most common hormonal disorders in dogs and cats. The disease is most often seen in older, overweight female dogs and cats. Since obesity is an underlying factor in the disease, keeping your cat or dog trim and healthy may help prevent diabetes. Common signs of diabetes in your pet include increased water consumption and frequency of urination. Weight loss despite a large appetite may also occur.
Almost half of all dogs over 10 years old will develop some type of cancer. Cancer is less common in cats. Some signs of cancer in your pet can include: growths or masses on the body, areas that are swollen and continue to grow, sores that will not heal, weight loss, change in behavior and energy, and/or changes in appetite.
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Pets can suffer from cognitive dysfunction syndrome which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a degeneration of the brain and the nervous system caused by physical changes in the brain and of the brain chemicals. These changes affect cognitive abilities in dogs and that is what changes their behavior.
Here are some signs to look out for related to cognitive dysfunction: house soiling, staring at walls or into space, withdrawing from activities with the family, sleeping more during the day, pacing or wandering aimlessly, difficulty learning new tasks or routes, ignoring known commands, becoming lost in familiar places (home or yard), not responding to name, getting stuck in familiar places (corners or behind furniture), having trouble finding the door or going to the hinge side of the door, not recognizing family members or familiar people. The Purina Cognitive Dysfunction Evaluation Tool will help assess how your pet may be affected.
One study revealed that 28% of dogs aged 11-12 years and 68% of dogs aged 15-16 years showed one or more signs of cognitive impairment. In cats, one study suggested that 28% of cats aged 11-14 years developed at least one sign consistent with cognitive dysfunction, and this increased to over 50% for cats 15 years or older.
We want your pet to be healthy and happy for as long as possible. Some things to help your pet live long include:
- Comprehensive physical exam – The veterinarian can assess all body systems and check for any abnormalities. A biannual exam is recommended once your pet becomes a senior.
- Behavioral/Pain screen – This will check your pet for any changes in hearing, vision, sleep-wake cycles, and evaluate for dementia. We recommend completing this every exam to track changes.
- Blood chemistry tests – We will run a chemistry panel, which will test different organ function. This can tell us about your pet’s kidneys, liver, electrolytes, and glucose levels. When we run the chemistry panel more than once we can start to see a trend and can see when organ function starts to deteriorate.
- Complete Blood Count (CBC) – This test helps us see if your pet has anemia, infection or platelet disorders.
- Urinalysis – We will check your pet’s urine for kidney function, we can also check for abnormal crystals or cells.
- Thyroid screen (T4) – This test checks your pet’s thyroid level. This disease is common in older cats and dogs.