For humans, culture dictates how elders are treated. In a way, this is the same for our pets. I like to think that our pets earn a lot of goodwill over their lives. They see us through big life events, heartbreaks and joys, weddings and divorces, births and deaths. They get calmer and easier, then maybe a little harder towards the end of their life, just like people. What our pets don’t get is Medicare, so it is up to us to care for them as they age. Today I will talk about some common diseases of older pets.
The most common disease that we see in older pets is osteoarthritis. As in people, a lifetime of wear and tear on joints starts to wear them out. Dogs who have had orthopedic operations, like torn cruciate, kneecap or hip surgery, tend to get osteoarthritis (OA) at a faster rate. Dogs suffer from OA much more commonly than cats, as they carry more weight. On that note, overweight pets suffer from OA at a far great rate than pets of an ideal body condition. Their bodies are designed to carry a certain amount of weight, so extra weight greatly increases strain on joints. Not only that, but it strains the muscles and ligaments that support the joints, so the joints have less help. Think about how much more joints hurt when you are carrying a heavy backpack, then think about that over years.
The best thing we can do to slow down arthritis is keeping our pets at an ideal weight and fitness level. This is especially important for our smaller dogs, as extra weight on them may seem like a little bit, but really adds up to a lot! I talk more about this in about 1000 other articles, and your vet will be happy to help with a diet plan. The sooner you do this the better in terms of long-term joint health.
Next, we recommend supplements as pets start to age. These are especially important for dogs that aren’t built exactly to the “model.” That can mean shorter legs and a longer back, toes that point in or out, very straight or very bent hind legs, or any ongoing joint issues. I recommend supplements for dogs that are very active (either with daily runs or competitive sports.) Your veterinarian will have these glucosamine supplements, or a prescription food that contains large amounts of those ingredients. Don’t bother wasting money on all of the “joint treats” at the store, as these contain variable and often very small amounts of helpful ingredients. The real supplements are worth the cost, as they have a very high degree of quality control.
Finally, as we start to see more changes (either on x-rays or with the way they move) we start to recommend things to treat pain rather than prevent it. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are one of the first steps. This is similar to Advil in humans (which should never be given to pets as it is extremely toxic) and helps treat inflammation and pain. There are many varieties on the market, and your veterinarian can help guide the best treatment. Acupuncture and cold laser are other amazing options that help reduce pain and inflammation as a non-medication option. I often recommend starting with these, though in many cases pets progress to using all three.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, dental disease can start at a very early age. However, as pets age, this progresses. If a pet hasn’t had regular dental care, dental disease can reach a very severe level as they age. Age is not a reason not to undergo anesthesia, and we have had many successful dental procedures in pets as old as 17! However, as with all things, older pets often have more risk factors. For this reason, I always recommend routine dental cleanings so that disease doesn’t progress. If a specific issue is found, like a tooth abscess, it is best to deal with it as soon as possible to keep things less complicated.
As dogs age, they tend to get hypothyroidism, which means the thyroid isn’t working as well. Cats tend to get hyperthyroidism, which means the thyroid gland is overactive. Hypothyroidism causes weight gain with no appetite change and a poor hair coat. Hyperthyroidism causes weight loss with increased appetite, poor hair coat, heart disease, and vomiting. Both of these conditions are controlled fairly easily with medication, though the longer hyperthyroidism goes untreated the more complications arise.
Kidney disease affects both dogs and cats, though cats get it more often and usually are able to live longer in the face of it. Kidney disease is diagnosed with bloodwork. Treatment depends on how severe it is, but it can range from food change, fluids and dietary supplements. Since it is a progressive disease, it is a reason we like to get screening bloodwork to check the status on all pets.
Sometimes owners don’t even know how drastically things have changed for our pets as they age until we start treating them. We have dogs leave after an acupuncture session to run up stairs again, cats with dental disease fixed acting like kittens, and see the happiness come back as we start to treat pain. As pets age, they should be getting physical exams at least yearly, though we recommend every six months in older pets. A good physical exam and a good history from you help guide our diagnostics and treatment. Early intervention makes all the difference. Remember, age itself isn’t a disease, and often we can intervene before diseases take over.