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Senior Pets- How to keep your pets healthy during their golden years

Q:  I have a 5 year old Schnauzer and a 9 year old Dachshund and they are both doing fine but I’m concerned about their special needs as they get older.  What should I do right now to keep them healthy as they age?

A:  What a great question. We all know that pets age faster than humans.  A 7 year old dog is equivalent to about 44-56 years in a human. And a 7 year old cat is about 54 in human years.  But Dogs vary a great deal by breed in their age spans. Small breed dogs tend to live longer and large breeds age faster. Large breeds are considered “senior” at 5-6 years of age and small breeds around 8 years.  Cats often live into their teens and even through their twenties.

    The good news is that pets are definitely living longer today because of improved nutrition and advances in veterinary care.  However, with longer lives, pets develop many of the same ailments often associated with old age in humans: kidney disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, cataracts and urinary tract infections.  Your pet should have a complete veterinary exam every 6 months and senior blood panels/urinalysis at least annually which can help detect these diseases at an early stage. Animals of all species are very good at hiding disease because in the wild, signs of visible pain are a sign of weakness and makes them easy prey to predators.  Pets are very adept at hiding their discomfort. They just keep wagging their tails and loving you. The very best chance of early detection is regular wellness checkups.

     Today’s excellent dog and cat foods have made a huge difference in your pet’s longer life.  There is definitely a difference in different brands of dog and cat foods. And yes, higher priced foods are usually better for your pet.  They are more digestible and then your pet has less waste. Higher priced foods (we recommend dry to keep the teeth cleaner) usually have better quality ingredients which means you aren’t stressing out your kidneys and liver. You should consider a diet higher in fiber, lower in calories and a better calcium/phosphorous ratio specifically designed for older pets. Most Commercial pet foods have addressed these special needs for puppy/kittens, adult pets and senior pets with age and breed specific dietary needs.  As pets age, they tend to have joint problems such as arthritis just like us (especially larger breed dogs). It’s important to maintain a moderate exercise program to help keep bones, joints, heart and lungs conditioned (just like us humans as we age). And exercise is really important to prevent weight gain. One of the most common problems we see in older dogs and cats is difficulty passing their stools. This is due to several factors: it’s hard for older pets to squat to pass stool because their stool may be too large or too dry (constipation) and also hip and lower spine arthritis makes it painful to express their bladder and/or pass stool.  Check your cat’s litter box for really hard stools that may be from hairballs. Use a stool softener such as CatLax as often as possible (1-2X a day or every other day). Ask your vet for suggestions on your senior pet’s diet needs. There are lots of excellent choices today.

   Have you smelled your pet’s breath recently or lifted their lip to look at the teeth?  Dental disease is one of the main culprits in kidney, liver and heart disease in pets because of the enormous amount of bacteria that develops at the gum line and deep into the tooth roots.  For humans, dental care is a daily routine. But you can also brush your pet’s teeth and gums or feed dental treats. Teeth are usually graded by Dental Scores of 1-4. You need to have your pet’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia by the time they are dental score 1 or 2 before you get bone loss around the tooth.  Once you get to Dental Score 3 or 4, you have major infection problems and/or loose teeth and will need oral surgery. Bad teeth will definitely lessen your pet’s life span. Pets that have routine dental care have fewer heart, lung, kidney and liver problems as they mature. We recommend an annual dental prophy which includes a senior blood profile.

  Keeping your pet current on vaccinations is important for long term health. We follow a 3 year vaccine protocol starting at 4 years of age, since we do not believe in over-vaccinating your pet.  Every pet at our hospital receives a lifestyle disease risk assessment so we have a specific vaccine plan. For example: do you go camping or walking in the woods with your pet? Then we recommend vaccine for Leptospirosis and Lyme disease. Does your dog attend day care or dog parks? Then you need all the basic vaccines plus Bordetella (kennel cough) and Flu Vaccine.  Is your cat adopted from a shelter or do you have a new rescue kitty? All your cats need to be tested for Feline Leukemia and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) and should have kitten vaccines (need two) and at least one annual booster.

    Age is not a disease. Good care allows your pets to live happy, healthy and active lives all through their senior years. Regular vet exams can detect problems before they become life threatening.

*Originally published in Women's Today Magazine.