Veterinarian Q&A: Senior Pets

UPDATED: Nov 14, 2013

As veterinary medicine advances, our pets are living longer. That means more pet owners are dealing with the issues that come with age. Here is the next installment of the series, including some of the most common questions I get from pet owners.

Q: As my dog ages, are there mental changes I should look for?

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a new behavior is emotional, mental or physical in nature. For example, some older dogs may start to wander around the house and become easily lost or stuck in a corner. This may signal that the dog has a medical condition needing treatment, such as blindness or senility.

Some behavior changes, like a fancy for a different kind of food or a new pet toy, may not be harbingers of doom. Other changes in behavior, such as seizure or aggression, can be signs that something is amiss and a trip to your veterinarian is warranted.

Q: Do dogs get Alzheimer’s disease?

While dogs and their owners can share many of the same medical diagnoses (like cancer and diabetes), Alzheimer’s disease is exclusively a human medical condition. Dogs can suffer from other disorders of the neurological system such as brain tumors, meningitis and blood clots (‘strokes’) just like their owners. It is not at all uncommon for veterinarians in practice to order an MRI or CT scan of a dog’s brain, and many specialty centers and universities routinely perform brain surgery with good outcomes – things that were unheard of for pets a few years ago.  While the cost of advanced medical treatment may be prohibitive for many, it is becoming more widely available and pet health insurance can help defray the costs of cutting-edge therapy.

Q: What are the most common medical problems with older dogs?

Just as with people, dogs can suffer from myriad medical conditions as they age. Some of the more common ones I see in practice with my older canine patients are renal (kidney) disease, heart failure, diabetes and various types of cancer. Advances in veterinary medicine in recent years have given us a wide variety of treatment options for all of these diseases.

Cancer is no longer the death sentence for pets it was a few years ago. Many of the same therapies used in humans to battle cancer have been incorporated into our protocols for dogs that can give them months or years of excellent quality life with minimal side effects. Surgery to remove tumors, radiation therapy and treatment of cancer with medications (chemotherapy) often conjures up images of friends or family members that owners of dogs with cancer may know themselves. Many pet owners initially are reluctant to consider cancer treatment options for pets based on inaccurate or outdated information. In veterinary medicine, we don’t approach the treatment of cancer in exactly the same way our physician counterparts do, and we focus more on giving our patients the best balance of quality life and freedom from side effects that we can.

Another common problem in aging pets, as in aging humans, is arthritis. I’ll delve into that a little more in the third installment of this series. However, just like with humans, some supplements including glucosamine and chondroitin, can help keep joints healthy. These can be given to dogs easily in the form of what they consider a tasty treat, like Vetscription JointEze Plus. You don’t have to wait until pets are older, either. These supplements can help increase joint strength at any age.

Q: Do I need to change my dog’s diet as she ages?

Not necessarily. For some medical conditions, diet is an important part of the overall treatment plan. It rarely fixes anything by itself, but it can help lessen the severity of certain conditions and extend and improve your dog’s quality of life. But just because a dog ages, doesn’t mean that you need to change its diet.

There are many options for diets available these days – from ultra-inexpensive brands that are available at many retail outlets, to high-end super-premium brands that are only available at specialty stores. Raw-food diets and those including animal bones have become popular of late, but great care must be exercised when feeding these diets and they should only be fed with the express recommendation of a veterinarian. While animals in the wild consume raw food and bones, the lifespan of wild dogs is only a few years, and the potential for contamination of these diets with harmful bacterial poses a very real threat to your dog.

There are also many different kinds of special diets for various medical conditions that are available only through your veterinarian by prescription – diets for diabetes, obesity, intestinal disorders and renal disease, to name just a few. Most pet food companies make an over-the-counter line of products, and several prescription diets.  If your dog is maintaining its weight and has no medical conditions that require a diet change, you may be able to continue with its current diet. Some widely available diets designed for geriatric dogs have reduced levels of protein and fat, which may or may not be right for your pet. The best way to find out if a diet change may benefit your canine friend is to have a discussion with your veterinarian about what option is best for your dog.

Q: What are some things I can do to make it easier for my dog as he gets older?

Older dogs may not be able to reach some of their favorite spaces, so providing easy access in the form of ramps or steps can help them reach that desired spot on the couch or your bed (if that is where they like to rest). Older dogs may not have the same degree of padding as their younger counterparts, so providing lots of soft bedding can make them more comfortable and prevent bedsores.

Dental disease is common as your dog ages – dental cleanings (done under anesthesia) can help remove painful, diseased teeth and prevent the spread of bacteria from inflamed gums to other organs, such as the heart and kidneys. Older dogs should have some pre-anesthetic lab tests performed to make sure there are no hidden medical conditions that would make anesthesia unsafe (and help your veterinarian pick which anesthetic agents to use) and all older pets undergoing anesthesia should also be on IV fluids to keep blood flowing to vital organs and prevent complications such as diminished kidney function.

Discussing your older dog’s overall health with your veterinarian can help make sure your pet gets to live out all of their years!

-Photo Credit: From flickr by Normanek

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Print
  • email