As our Pets Get Older

As our Pets Get Older

by Dr. Ed Mapes
Stonebridge Animal Hospital
McKinney, Tx

A very good friend of mine is a plastic surgeon. Aging of his clients is the source of many of his procedures – face lifts, wrinkle treatments, liposuction, etc. Cosmetic problems of this nature aren’t a problem for our pets, but they are susceptible to age-related problems nonetheless, and we as pet owners should be aware of these changes to avoid discomfort and disease that they bring. Just as the life expectancy of humans is steadily increasing, improvements in medical and surgical procedures, pharmaceuticals, and nutrition have allowed our pets to have longer life spans. The aging pet population makes geriatrics an important segment of Veterinary medicine as we recognize the senior animals’ needs.

Normal aging processes produce numerous changes that are not pathologic and cause no physical problems. A reduced interest in vigorous activity, for example, can be a normal consequence. Likewise, lenses of the eyeball thicken as the animal grows older, producing a “milky’ appearance that we call nuclear sclerosis. This is often mistaken for cataract, but in fact causes no change in the vision.

Many of the problems encountered are chronic and difficult to identify, since their onset takes place slowly and with few clinical symptoms. It’s very common to discover a number of problems on older pets during routing examination – many of which the owner had not recognized. Depressed liver and kidney function, a number of eye problems, anemia, mild to severe dehydration, urinary bladder stones, prostate enlargement, and several important diseases relating to hormonal disorders are prime examples.

Hearing loss, decreased visual acuity, cognitive deficits, tumor growth, inability to cope with temperature extremes, loss of house training, and bad breath are problems more noticed by pet owners because they cause recognizable symptoms.

Sudden onset of severe itching can be seen in older animals that develop a food allergy. Rapid weight loss, excitability, and a ravenous appetite will appear in a cat with hyperthyroidism. Hair loss, depressed energy levels, and aversion to cooler temperatures are seen in dogs with hypothyroidism. An increase in the thirst, weight loss, decreases in appetite, vomiting and diarrhea can be seen in a number of diseases. These are symptoms that all pet owners should recognize and take note of because they accompany a wide range of problems: diabetes mellitus, renal or liver disorders, tumor growth, and the endocrine diseases called Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease all have the above symptoms in common. Increased thirst and urination are especially significant findings, and warrant a visit to the Veterinarian to make a diagnosis the cause.

Heart and lung disease can be especially sneaky – a mild cough and decreased exercise tolerance may be the only clues seen. We listen to the lungs and heart very carefully, and then do chest X-rays, EKG, and blood pressure sometimes to help elucidate problems. A variety of medications are available to treat heart and lung conditions; often enabling the pet to live a normal life.

Obesity is the foremost problem encountered by our pets – it was the subject of a three-part series of articles published a few months ago. Pets’ metabolic rates usually decline with age (as with hypothyroidism that is common in elderly animals) and they burn calories much more slowly than in their younger days. Weight gain is the outcome for many. Carrying excess weight predisposes our pets to a variety of maladies; much the same as those seen by humans – diabetes, muscle and joint pain, decreased ability to exercise, and chronic diarrhea are good examples.

This could become a long article if each possible age-related disorder was described and discussed in any detail. Suffice it to say that pet owners should be aware that senior pets deserve special attention to prevent needless discomfort or suffering. My best recommendation is that they receive a complete veterinary examination at least yearly. This should include a blood profile, heartworm test, urinalysis, and fecal exam. Many pets should also have radiographs taken, blood pressure assessed, and other procedures when indicated.

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