It’s a hard thing to think about, but your lovely little critter is advancing in life much faster than you; any dog or cat over age seven is considered a senior. Most pet owners visit their veterinarian once a year, which you could compare to you own doctor once every 7 years! I really hope all of you readers are taking better care of yourself than this, but for our beloved pets, once a year is the current recommendation. To make sure you are taking full advantage of your appointment, I’d love to walk you through a Senior Pet Exam.
One of the first things I check with my clients when I see their senior pet is if there are any changes to energy levels. Most people do not notice these changes because they are so gradual over time. It is generally obvious when your dog is no longer a puppy so it may not seem like a problem when he sleeps a little more and is not as interested in playing as he used to be. It could very well be nothing to worry about but there are some things that should be mentioned to your vet at your next check up. Pay attention to the little details: Is he is stiff in the mornings or you have to coax him out of bed? Is he stiff after a long walk? If this sounds like your dog, he could have some arthritis and could be in some degree of pain. I often ask owners to do a trial with arthritis medication and it can be unbelievable for them when their dog is acting like a puppy once again.
Cats also get arthritis but they are even better than dogs at hiding their pain, often changing their daily habits in order to mask their discomfort. If you have an elderly cat one of the best things you can do is have a shallow litter box. Ensuring easy access to their box by keeping it on the same level in the home where cats spend the most time is recommended. You may notice that your cat seems to get more fur matts- especially around her tail base. This can also be a sign of arthritis. Elderly cats are not as flexible as they once were and are often unable to reach around their body to groom. If you are noticing that your pet (dog or cat) is getting matted, having them groomed regularly is for the best. Matts in the fur can trap bacteria and predispose your pet to skin infections.
With the positive advancements in how we are caring for our pets, we are seeing more and more elderly patients. Just like the aging baby-boom generation this comes with a new set of challenges. I like to encourage owners to have their elderly pets’ nails trimmed regularly; long nails can cause strain on the pets’ muscles and joints making their arthritis worse. There are also some natural supplement options such as Glucosamine (which many adults take themselves) as well as chondroitin and green-lipped mussel that can slow down the progression of arthritis.
Another popular discussion from my check ups is how much your pet is drinking. Most of the time, many owners only notice an increase in water intake by how much their pet is urinating. Cleaning an overflowing litter box becomes tiring very quickly and so does the dog whining at the door to go outside every hour. Changes to how frequently your pet is urinating or how much your pet is drinking can indicate there is an underlying illness going on such as diabetes, kidney and liver diseases. These diseases are usually diagnosed using blood and urine tests- tests that should be done every year in seniors as a screening tool. The earlier we can diagnose an illness in your pet the better he or she is going to do in the long run and hopefully prevent any emergency situations.
Weight changes are very important indicators of the health of your pet. Many times a small reduction of weight is the only clue that there is something going on during a clinical exam. For a cat this could be as little as a steady decline of 0.1-02 kg per year. A large weight gain predisposes animals to diabetes. In addition, the stress of the extra weight on your pet’s joints can really exacerbate arthritis. Your veterinarian can lay out a safe weight loss plan for your pet if they do need to lose a few pounds.
Diving into the hands-on part of your exam, we always start with the head. A lot of older pets tend to have hearing and vision loss but if caught early many vision deficits can be managed. You may find is that your pet does well on familiar levels of the house but could be having trouble with stairs or on their nightly walk. These are both indicators that it is time to have your cat or dog’s eyes checked.
Moving onto the mouth- good teeth are some of the most important parts of your pets health. Dental disease, if left untreated, can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and chronic pain. Small dogs and cats both tend to have more problems, but if your pet has bad breath or has started drooling more, it is probably time to get those pearly whites looked at!
Heart disease in animals, like in people, is common in the elderly. Aside from a change in energy level another indicator for heart disease can include coughing, especially at night. When I am in a consult and hear a murmur for the first time in an elderly animal, most owners are very frightened. It is important to know that a lot of heart disease can be managed for a long time with medication.
Lastly, feeling for any lumps or bumps. Lumps and bumps are very common in older animals. A large percentage of these lumps and bumps are nothing to worry about, but there is no way to be absolutely sure what the lump is unless they are sampled and sent off for analysis. This is a quick and relatively pain free diagnostic test and it is one of the most important screening tools for our pets.
I really believe that we are doing well by our seniors if we make sure they are coming to the vet once a year and are having the necessary blood and urine tests. If your little monster is getting up there in years, start to monitor the things mentioned at home and be sure to have to have an honest discussion with your vet at your next check up. We understand how scary it can be to admit that age may be affecting your baby’s day-to-day, but we also know how beneficial it can be for both you and your cat or dog if we are evaluating any warning signs as early as we can. Pets have a remarkable ability to offer unconditional love, no matter what age. In taking care of our senior pets to the fullest, we can ensure that we are giving them the opportunity to showcase this love for as many days, months, and years as possible.