People these days are lucky in that we have a life expectancy of around 80 years, largely due to good medical care and treatment, which competes in part against the poor nutrition many of us choose to eat.
The unfortunate aspect of having pets is that we can really only expect that they will be with us for 12 to 14 years or so, on average. The large and giant breeds of dogs are the shortest living of all, reaching senior status by around 5 to 6 years of age.
Just as older people take a lot of looking after, so do our furry friends. Whilst young animals are often constantly on the move, as they get older our pets are more often content just to stay in their bed and wait until the next meal or the call of nature requires them to move about.
Older pets still need to exercise, just as older people do, so taking them for good walks is a great idea, not just to burn off a bit of their food and fat stores, but it helps with their joint mobility and most importantly it gives them some great mental stimulation – and we feel better as well!
If we should get health checks at our GP every few years as we get older, and animals age many times faster than we do, then an annual health check makes good sense. To wait 3 to 4 years between checkups for your pet would be the equivalent of leaving it 20 to 30 years for yourself!
Heart disease is common in older dogs, but the changes are usually different from the types of heart disease more common in people. The most frequently encountered problem is valvular disease, which can lead to congestive heart failure. Fortunately, many dogs can present with a heart murmur but not show any of the typical clinical signs such as coughing, weightless, lethargy, inappetence, increased resting respiratory rate or poor gum colour. There is no evidence to suggest that their quality of life or longevity will be improved by commencing treatment before the onset of clinical signs, but a couple of things are recommended in the early stages.
The first of these is to get a good set of thoracic radiographs so we can get a baseline assessment of the heart & lungs for their records – this is an important starting point from which to monitor changes over time. Keeping the body weight near the middle of the ideal range for their body size is also most important.
Obtaining baseline blood parameters is also highly recommended, especially if they have not had any blood work done in the previous couple of years.
With the huge variability in physical size of dog breeds, we sometimes see quite significant variations in the ‘normal’ blood results for various breeds. The best ‘normal’ range for your dog’s blood tests are the results from their previous blood tests, when they were still quite healthy.
Some diseases can be detected much earlier if multiple samples have been taken over time to detect ‘trending’ and even though the result may be within the normal range, a steadily or suddenly increasing ( or decreasing ) result, may give vital early evidence that there is a disease process developing, and which should be further investigated.
We recommend that obtaining a baseline blood profile at or before 8 years of age ( or younger in large & giant breeds ) makes good sense, so we get started with trending. There are many Vets who are passionate advocates of doing comprehensive annual blood and urine testing, and we would not criticise this very thorough approach.
Early detection can be made of many diseases including kidney, liver, diabetes, hormonal disease – Cushings & thyroid problems ( both quite common occurrences )
Bringing in a freshly caught clean morning urine sample can be a great way to gather further information regarding their kidney health.
Some dog breeds are predisposed to glaucoma, and it is a fairly simple procedure these days to check the pressure inside the eyes with our tonometer.
Blood pressure issues can cause severely debilitating problems, mainly in relation to the retina, but can also affect the kidneys, causing excessive protein leakage and damage to these vital organs. It takes a little while to measure the blood pressure of dogs and cats, but is an important measurement in older patients, and in most cases it can be managed very well medically.
Arthritis is terribly common also. It can involve any of their joints, but the ones we see affected most often would be the hips, stifles and elbows. You may notice that they are resting more often, not playing as happily, are less enthusiastic in going for walks or jumping up, and just put this down to ‘old age’. However, with that old age can come significant pain from degenerative arthritis, which often goes undetected at home. A thorough physical examination at the Vet Clinic will pick up the early signs of arthritis, and these days there are many wonderful treatments that can dramatically improve their quality of life, making them sometimes seem years younger.
Dental disease is also one of those hidden areas where problems can be overlooked So often we may see an old dog or cat for another reason, such as vaccination, and when we ‘flip the lip’ we can find advanced dental disease, with a heavy buildup of tartar leading to very sore and infected gums, and frequently there is extensive exposure of the tooth roots that can be surrounded by pus. If the mouth is not thoroughly checked all you may notice at home is ‘doggy breath’. After the teeth have been cleaned under general anaesthetic we so often hear that pets have not been so happy in years. It really is so rewarding to get them back to good health again.
Obesity is a problem we would see every day at the clinic. It seems that either many people overestimate how much they must feed the dogs & cats, or that their pets are very persuasive in convincing their carers that if they are not fed more they will be dead by the morning. I guess it’s because we are softies!
Unfortunately the ultimate victim is our little round pet that becomes more prone to a whole host of issues such as heart disease, respiratory distress, diabetes, fatty liver, arthritis, heat exhaustion to name but a few.
We can weigh your pets and let you know if they have gone up or down in weight since their last visit, and what we assess would be an ideal weight range to aim towards. Today there are some excellent weight reduction diets available if you are struggling to get their weight down just by volume restriction.
Skin and internal lumps are very common, especially in dogs. The older they get, the more frequent the development of lumps become. Many lumps are quite benign, but around 20% of skin lumps can be malignant. Early identification of these tumours is very important for the future health and well being of your pet. It would be great if all lumps could be accurately identified, simply on the basis of their external appearance or their feel when palpated, but his is not possible in the vast majority of cases.
We have on many occasions had lumps that seemed quite benign looking, only to find that when examined by the laboratory pathologist, they were classified as malignant.
The only way to be certain of the current nature of a mass is to have some testing done. The initial technique of testing is often to take a fine needle aspirate of the lesion, and depending on the initial appearance, some samples may be examined at the clinic, and others may need to go straight to the lab for pathologist assessment.
Once the mass is characterized we can then formulate the best plan for the future, made on the basis of the pathology diagnosis, the age and health status of your pet, and discussion between you and your Vet, so we arrive at an outcome or treatment direction that you are comfortable with.
On occasions a diagnosis cannot be made from a fine needle aspirate alone, and a larger tissue sample or complete excision of the lesion is done before submission of part of the lesion to the lab.
Of course, sometimes it is reasonable to just excise the lesion without testing the lump, but that can leave unanswered questions with regards to the expected prognosis following surgery.
Senility or ‘old age cognitive disorder’ is another unfortunate syndrome seen in some old dogs. Once again it may just be put down to your pet getting old, but some behavioural changes can occur to alert us to a more specific condition. Typical signs can include barking for no apparent reason, wandering around aimlessly, urinating or defaecating in unusual or inappropriate locations, lying outside in the rain, reduced interaction with your family or other pets, getting stuck in corners and just being a bit more vague than you might expect. Whilst we cannot turn their body clock and physiology back to puppyhood, there are treatments that at times can be very successful in improving their circulation to the brain, and leading to a significant improvement in the mental awareness and judgement.
Eventually the time will come when their quality of life has reduced to a point where they are no longer happy, despite all of your care and love and all of our help. End of life decisions are very difficult and can be very distressing for all the family. Most people hope that when the time comes that their dearly loved pet will just quietly pass away while they are asleep one night. This is to a large degree because as pet owners we hate to be the one having to decide when our little companion should be laid to rest. Nobody likes making these decisions, but as Vets we are in a position to help you make an assessment of the quality of life of your pet. We can help ease you through this difficult process. It is important to remember that quality of life is a very important consideration.
If you have questions at all regarding any of the information discussed above, please give the clinic a call and we will be pleased to help both you and your pet in the right direction with any health issues or general Veterinary advice.