The Importance of Senior Pet Care

by Dr. Jo-Ann Liebe

When the time comes for us to categorize an animal as senior or geriatric I am often met with feelings of denial by their owners.  “My dog still plays like a puppy, how can she/he be a senior?”  The fact is that a healthy senior should be active and playful.  Sleeping more and a loss of interactiveness, which many people will consider “just normal aging”, often indicates that there is something medically wrong or that the animal is in pain for some reason.

When is an animal a senior?

This is extremely variable in dogs; in small breeds, generally at 8-10 years, medium-large breeds 6-7 years and giant breeds about 5 years.  Some breeds like Boxers and Rottweilers seem to age faster and can be considered senior at 5-6 years of age.  Cats are similar to smaller breeds of dogs and are considered senior at 8-10 years old.

Aging is a fact of life and our reason for creating a “senior” life stage is to recognize needs that are different from a growing puppy and mid-life adult.  It is a difficult category to define.  Compared to puppies and kittens who become adult when growth plates close and sexual maturity is achieved, becoming a senior is a gradual process which is highly dependent on the individual.  It is also mentally hard to accept that a dear companion is winding down in life, when it feels like they were a baby such a short time ago.

How are the nutritional needs different?

Many seniors have a slower metabolism so if fed the same food and quantity as when they were mid-life adults, they are prone to obesity and possibly inadequate nutrition.  In pet food, vitamins and minerals are balanced with the energy the food supplies.  If an animal is receiving less food to control weight gain, they may not be receiving adequate vitamins and minerals.  It is also important to remember that even if your animal is active, his or her heart, kidneys, joints, etc are still going to be aging.

Good quality senior diets have a higher quality and more bioavailable protein to help maintain muscle, higher quantities of vitamins, omega fatty acids (known to slow aging of organs and joints), reduced energy, and some minerals are reduced that seniors do not need in such high quantities.

The great thing about a good senior diet is that you don’t have to wait until seniorhood to use them.  The nutritional benefits can also be enjoyed by an animal that has reached adulthood, especially those that are less active and prone to obesity.

What are common medical problems seen in seniors?

1) Dental Disease: periodontal disease occurs when deep pockets filled with pus develop around teeth.  Bone loss occurs as the pockets become deeper, leading to loss of teeth and secondary organ failure which can result from bacteria gaining access to the blood from this point and causing infections in organs and other areas.  Pain usually goes unrecognized because the animal continues eating and is therefore perceived to be pain-free.  Since animals have to eat or die, they will continue to eat until the condition is intolerably severe.  Signs of a problem include reduced activity (a sign of pain) and interactiveness, bad breath and occasionally blood, drooling and dropping food.  Numerous animals perceived to be “slowing down” due to age are simply suffering from dental disease and can return to a normal life if the condition is corrected.

How you can help: Start dental care from an early age.  Brush teeth daily, especially in higher risk breeds, feed dental diets and use dental chews to slow the advancement of dental disease.  Once the gums are red and swollen and tartar has built up, scaling and polishing the teeth up under the gumline is necessary.  Dental cleanings must be done under general anesthetic and are required on average every 1.5-3 years in most dogs and cats which is not surprising when you consider how often humans require dental care in spite of daily brushing and flossing.

2) Orthopedic problems: these are seen more frequently if the animal is allowed to become obese.  Back pain, neck pain, ruptured knee ligaments and arthritis are commonly found in seniors.

How you can help: Keep your animal in good body condition throughout their life! Large breeds should be kept a bit thin as a puppy to reduce stress on growing bones and ligaments.  Start omega fatty acids (fish oil & flax oil) and glucosamine combination supplements.  Good senior diets have some of these already incorporated into them.

3) Organ Failure:  Including kidney, liver, heart and diabetes 

What you can do: Note changes in activity, interactiveness, weight, appetite, drinking and elimination.  Do blood work once your pet has become a senior every year for early detection.  Manage dental disease and use a healthy diet as previously mentioned.  If caught early, many of these diseases can be managed with prescription diets.

4) Cancer: Lumps of many kinds appear as animals’ age.  A lump that is small and not “bothersome” does not mean it is innocent.

What can you do: Have new lumps checked.  Early diagnosis can improve outcome and reduce the cost of surgery.  If small and in a good area (not legs or face) many can be removed with a local anesthetic.

5) Loss of senses: lenticular sclerosis is a normal change of the lenses with aging, that causes a cloudy appearance that is similar to looking through frosted glass.  Vision is not lost but it is compromised, especially in the dark.  Cognitive dysfunction (“senility”) can cause changes in sleep cycles, memory and interactiveness.  Hearing will also deteriorate over time.  Often animals will loose their ability to hear general sounds but can still hear high or low pitches.  For example clapping your hands can often get their attention.

What you can do: Provide a well-lit area when possible for vision.  Cognitive dysfunction can be improved with drugs and special diets.  Although nothing can be done to stop the loss of hearing just be aware so that you don’t accidentally sneak up on your pet while their are sleeping, which can cause them to become frightened and confused.

6) Are vaccinations necessary?

Just like human seniors, aging animals can be more susceptible to infectious disease.  That said, an animal battling a serious illness may have vaccinations reduced or eliminated based on condition.  It is best to have a discussion with your vet about risk to decide the best option.

Senior animals are a special group with changing needs.  Sometimes more frequent physical exams are necessary to keep up with those changes for optimal care.  With the proper care and nutrition, your pets’ senior years can be happy and healthy so you can enjoy them together.

senior-pet

New to our clinic are Senior Wellness Bundles.  Call for details.

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