On Topic: Golden Years for Fido and Fluffy

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By Robin Brennen

Adopt a Senior Pet Month occurred in November, so it seems a fitting time to chat about health care for our aging pet population.

When is your pet considered a member of the AARPets? The answer is "it depends."

In general, small breed dogs live longer than large breed dogs, and cats live longer than dogs. Therefore, different breeds enter the golden years at different times.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners recently came out with a feline life stage guideline that classifies cats between the ages of 11 and 14 as seniors, while those 15 years and older are considered geriatric. These life stages are important to identify to assist the pet owner and the veterinarian in mapping out a plan for wellness aimed at keeping Fluffy alive longer. A similar guide for canine life stages will soon be released.

It is certainly reasonable to expect that health care needs change as a pet ages, just as they do in people. Senior dogs and cats are more prone to osteoarthritis, dental disease, kidney, liver and heart issues, cancer, hormone imbalances, hearing and vision loss and cognitive dysfunction (senility). The challenge is in detecting these issues early enough to intervene and make a difference in the outcome. Cats and dogs are not necessarily forthcoming with complaints of aches and pains and ailments, so we need to be astute at looking for them.

Senior pets need twice-yearly veterinary check-ups at a minimum. The rationale behind this is that changes in health status can occur in a short period of time. Subtle changes in weight, water consumption, appetite, mobility or behavior can be detected through careful questioning by your vet. A thorough physical examination can detect growths, heart murmurs, lung issues, eye problems, organ enlargement, hydration status and joint pain and, evaluate oral health.

Diagnostic testing can assist in early detection of many age-related diseases. Your veterinarian may recommend blood work to assess kidney, liver and hormone function, red and white blood cell counts and electrolyte levels. Screening X-rays can highlight organ enlargement and some cancers. Blood pressure monitoring helps establish the presence of hypertension, which can be a symptom of certain diseases.

Subtle changes in any of these measures, even in a pet that appears healthy, can signal early onset of illness. Even if these tests come back normal, they offer valuable insight and a basis of comparison for future tests.

Even perfectly healthy seniors can slow down and appear slightly less enthusiastic about things that thrilled them when they were younger. Their five senses can dull over time, making them less responsive to external stimuli. Keeping the mind sharp and active can slow this progression down. Exercising the mind and body, maintaining their routine and preventing "couch potato" syndrome helps keep your pet stimulated and engaged.

Nutrition is important at this life stage. Matching caloric intake to activity level is vital to maintaining a healthy weight. Older, overweight animals are more prone to diabetes and arthritis. Senior diets are often formulated with reduced calories and restricted in some nutrients as the body's requirements change over time.

Subtle changes in your pet's behavior can be a first clue to an underlying problem. Increased thirst or frequency of urination or accidents can be a sign of kidney problems. Decreased appetite can be the first indicator of many issues, including oral pain. Reluctance to use a litter box or go out for a walk can suggest arthritic pain. As a pet owner, you play a key role in early detection.

The golden years can be a great time for you and your pet. With good preventive medicine, you can help your pet grow old gracefully.

Robin Brennen is chief of veterinary services and VP Program Operations at Bideawee.

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