At Clayton & Churchtown Veterinary Associates, we firmly believe the old saying – “Old age is not a disease!” This is as true for our pets as it is for us humans! But we also realize that like older people, older animals may have some additional medical needs or challenges they are facing.
When is a pet considered a Senior?
“What?! My pet is a Senior?! But he’s only 8 years old!” Our pets age much faster than us, but many people are surprised to learn how much faster. Cats are considered Seniors by age 9, and most dogs are Seniors by age 7or 8 (5 or 6 for giant breeds).
Depending on the individual animal, Senior pets may not act that much differently from Adult pets. However, our recommendations for their care may change as they age into their senior years.
The doctor may recommend an Early Detection Blood Panel at your senior’s annual wellness exam. This panel checks their organ function, electrolytes, glucose, and thyroid. It also includes a CBC (complete blood cell count) which analyzes their blood cells to see if the pet is anemic or has other issues with their blood.
What is the difference between Senior and Geriatric?
You might sometimes hear an older dog or cat referred to as “geriatric.” Like in human medicine, a pet is considered geriatric when they are a senior who is medically fragile. Geriatric pets need even more time and attention than other senior pets, due to their medical issues. With regular physical exams and proper medical management of existing conditions, it is possible for geriatric pets to have a high quality of life.
If your pet is considered geriatric, the doctor may recommend bi-annual exams (every 6 months). For the convenience of our clients who have their pets seen bi-annually, we will send a bi-annual reminder postcard, so they always know when it’s time to schedule their next exam.
Changes & Challenges
Senior pets may experience changes to their personality as they age as well as changes to their health status. It’s not uncommon for a pet who has been healthy their entire life to develop health issues as they age.
Some of the most common age-related changes we see in senior pets are:
- Arthritis / Trouble Getting Around. You may notice they are slow getting up in the morning or no longer want to go for walks. They may refuse to go up and down stairs. Pets who were always “couch-potatoes” may start sleeping on the floor. They may shake for seemingly no reason, yelp or growl when touched, or show other signs that they are in pain. They may limp or seem stiff when walking. Some pets may even try to “hold it” when they have to go to the bathroom, because they find getting up to go out to be painful or have trouble squatting.
- Bad Breath. Your dog or cat’s breath may have a foul odor. This isn’t normal! Bad breath is often a sign of dental disease in pets. In some cases, you may notice that they chew oddly or seem to be uncomfortable when eating. Find out more about dental care for pets.
- Sleepiness / Lack of interest in toys/playing. This may be a general “slowing down” that is common in old age, but it could be a sign of a new medical issue. You should always have any behavior changes evaluated by a veterinarian.
- Loss of Vision. They may bump into things, or bark at objects in the distance that never seemed to bother them before. This may be more obvious when the pet is in an unfamiliar environment.
- Loss of Hearing. They may stop responding to their commands or no longer come when you call them. They may be less reactive to noises in general and may seem to sleep more soundly at night.
- Losing Weight and/or Muscle Mass. Your pet may seem to be losing weight even though they are eating normally. They may seem weaker. You may be able to see the outline of their ribs.
- Confusion or disorientation / Cognitive decline. Both dogs and cats may experience the same memory issues that older people may experience. It can sometimes be hard to tell when a pet is truly experiencing memory issues if they have other medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms.
- You may notice that they spend a lot of time starting at walls or “off into space.” They may pace around aimlessly, or bark/meow for no obvious reason. They may have accidents in the house or go outside to go potty and then seem to “forget” why they went out. Alternatively, they may ask to go out constantly as they may not remember that they just went. There are many other ways that cognitive decline can present itself, so any change in behavior is worth having evaluated. Only you truly know what is “normal” for your pet
- Hypothyroid (dogs). The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism are weight gain and poor skin/coat quality. This condition normally effects dogs.
- Hyperthyroid (cats). The most common symptom of hyperthyroidism is weight loss despite having a good appetite. In fact, hyperthyroid cats may seem to always be hungry. They may also drink a lot of water and may vocalize more frequently.
- Inappropriate or Irregular Potty Habits. Your cat may stop using the litter box and begin urinating around the house. They may seem to have to go more frequently.* Your dog may have accidents in the house, or ask to be let out all the time. In either cats or dogs you may notice the urine seems more or less concentrated, and it may have a stronger odor. These irregular habits can also be a sign of a urinary tract infections, so it is important to bring a urine sample to your pet’s exam.
- *Any cat who visits the litter box multiple times to urinate while producing minimal to no urine should be seen immediately to rule out a urinary blockage, which is a medical emergency. Young cats and dogs of all ages may also be affected. When they cannot urinate, this can result in severe kidney damage, a ruptured bladder, or even death. If during normal office hours please call us at 856-881-740 right away! If after hours, find an emergency 24-hour hospital near you.
This list is far from complete as pets can get many of the same conditions as humans – including diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer. Any changes or concerns should always be addressed by a veterinarian.
Assessing Quality of Life
It’s never easy to make the decision to euthanize a pet. If you are concerned that it may soon be time to let them cross the Rainbow Bridge but need some guidance, we offer quality of life assessment exams. Call us at 856-881-7470 or send us an email.
A general rule of thumb is that when a pet is having more bad days than good days with no end in sight (not part of a short-term issue that will resolve with time), it may be time. You may find it beneficial to keep a daily log of your pet’s activities and symptoms. The Pet Hospice Journal is a free online tool made just for this purpose.