It’s a common misconception that one “human” year is equivalent to seven “pet” years. In reality, bigger dogs age much faster than cats and smaller dogs, and the ratio is actually higher in the younger years, and decreases as the pet ages (for example: cats “grow up” faster than dogs in the first 1-2 years, but then age more slowly).
Age is not a disease (however, many diseases happen more commonly in older pets)
A thorough history and physical exam every six months is recommended after 6-9 years of age, depending on the species, age, and breed. Preventive care is important for the early detection of problems and often leads to earlier intervention and improved quality and quantity of life. Physical exams and geriatric blood work can aide in the screening of most of the more common age-related diseases such as heart, liver, thyroid and kidney disease. Cancer also develops more commonly in older pets, but not all cancers are created equal. Early detection can sometimes give a better prognosis depending on the type, location and nature of the cancer.
One of the most common age-related diseases, arthritis, can develop secondary to previous disease or from general wear and tear on the joints. The symptoms of arthritis can vary from a bit of slowness/stiffness upon rising, all the way to being unable to walk without assistance. In cats, it can manifest with urinary accidents, decreased grooming and reduced social interaction. Interventions include: physical therapy, acupuncture, glucosamine, fish oils and other supplements, as well as anti-inflammatory and pain modulating medications.
Making some easy environmental modifications can go a long way in easing your pet’s ability to get around comfortably (i.e. adding area rugs on slippery floors, or a ramp to the bed); and maintaining a healthy weight and routine exercise are some of the most important, not to mention cost-effective, options to address your old friend’s quality of life.
Cognitive problems are also more frequent in aging animals: nighttime waking, restlessness/inability to get settled down, increased vocalization, increased daytime sleeping, and elimination accidents are all frequently seen. These can be quite distressing as they can affect the quality of life of both the pet and owner. It is important to identify and address any underlying disease that may mimic cognitive problems such as liver, kidney or metabolic disease, pain/arthritis, and cancer. If indicated there are several medications and supplements that may be helpful with these behaviors, including: SAMe, casein, and melatonin.
Check out these senior pet checklists to see if your pet may be exhibiting some of the common aging-related ailments. You can then use these as guidelines to discuss any possible concerns with your veterinarian and together work to keep your pet healthy and happy for as long as possible.
Sometimes, we need to let go
Quality of life is of utmost concern in our aging pets and must be considered when making treatment decisions. As much as we would like our pets to live forever… they don’t. Hospice care and humane euthanasia are options owners have in the face of their pet’s declining health. There comes a time in most of our pets lives when pursuing treatment is not the right decision (for your pet, you/your family, or the disease) and difficult end of life decisions must be made.
Be sure to have an open dialogue with your veterinarian about your aging pet’s quality of life and make sure you’re all on the same page with the management, treatment goals and quality of life of your elderly companion.