Pets are living longer than ever due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits. It is becoming more common to see cats living into there twenties and dogs living well into their late teens. However extended lifespans usher in a new set of health related problems.
Pets age at a faster rate than people. One calendar year is not equivalent to seven dog years. Puppies mature very rapidly and are young adults (equivalent to a 15 year old) by one year of age. The rate of aging slows after their first birthday and by their third birthday they are aging at a rate equivalent to 4-5 years per calendar year. However, large dogs age faster than small and certain breeds such as toy poodles are considered to be long living.
Changes in geriatric pet behaviors or routines carry greater significance and it is important that pet owners are keenly alert to their pet’s daily routines and behavior. Older pets may demonstrate behavioral changes that signify a change in health due to medical reasons. Changes such as confusion, increased vocalization, increased irritability, decreased sociability, increased aggression, house soiling, decreased grooming and or a change in sleep cycles could indicate a developing medical issue. Maintaining a strong relationship with a veterinarian can help geriatric pet owners communicate abnormal changes.
Older pet’s needs are different than adults or adolescents. Geriatrics requires more attention from both the owner and the veterinarian. Geriatric pets should have semi-annual veterinary visits to monitor for signs of illness or other problems such that potential problems can be detected early and treated. Senior pet wellness exams are more detailed than adults. Senior pet exams include not only a physical exam, blood work, parasite screening, urinalysis but also evaluate hormone levels, provide dental care and radiographs to assess the size and appearance of internal organs and look for degenerative changes in joints and bones. These tests are important to detect the early signs of disease in effort to manage or correct the disease before the problem becomes advanced.
Older pets require a different diet than adults. Geriatrics’ have lower calorie requirements and a low calorie food is beneficial to prevent excessive weight gain. Pet foods formulated for geriatrics are often formulated to be easily digestible and contain high quality protein sources to ensure these pets obtain all of their essential amino acids for maintenance of muscle tone. Similarly, pet foods formulated for older pets can contain joint supplements such as Omega acids, glucosamine and antioxidants.
As pets age, they may have difficulty performing the same jobs or exercises they used to. Pets may have more difficulty climbing stairs, difficulty navigating furniture or hearing. However it is important for pets to keep up an active lifestyle particularly to maintain a healthy weight and stimulate mental health. Alterations in a pet’s environment such as moving the pet bed downstairs, allowing a pet to spend more time indoors or training a pet to follow hand cues can ease the difficulties encountered with the aging process.
Geriatric pets develop many of the same age related diseases as humans. Diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, arthritis, senility and weakness are common in both elderly humans and pets. Cancer is the number one cause of death in pets over 10 years of age. The incidence of cancer increases with age and affects dogs more than cats. Common signs of cancer in pets include abnormal swellings, weight loss, persistent sores, difficulty eating or swallowing, and loss of stamina, persistent lameness and difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating. Cancer can be diagnosed based on x-rays, blood tests and physical signs.
Pets do become better with age. Although geriatric pets require a little more attention as they age, they are valuable companions whom share years of wonderful memories.