Older Pets Need Regular Veterinary Care

Boston, Mass., | July 17, 2001

Older pets are following the path of the population. Five years ago, 39% of America’s companion cats and dogs were considered senior or geriatric. With nutritional and medical advances, that percentage continues to rise…and more people are now sharing their homes with a beloved pet that is less mentally alert, more irritable, and facing a set of challenging health issues. But old age doesn’t have to be accepted at face value. Many age-related problems are preventable, curable or at least effectively controlled.

“Old age is not a true disease,” said William Fortney, DVM, a veterinarian with Kansas State University. “It represents the effects of time upon the physical, mental, and internal organs. Unfortunately, uninformed owners fail to seek veterinary assistance for age-related conditions and falsely assume that their pet is just getting old and nothing can be done.”

When does a pet become “old”? Although the oldest dog on record was 29, the average life span of all dog breeds is around 13.5 years. Client bonding, preventive health care, environment, nutrition and disease all affect life expectancy, but genetics has the most profound influence. Small dogs and cats are considered geriatric at 11.5 years, but giant dogs breeds have reached the “twilight” period at 7.5 years.

One of the common behaviors reported in older pets is a changing sleep cycle. Owners are kept awake by their pet’s panting, pacing, requests to go outside, inability to get comfortable or constantly “fluffing” the bed. And because 62% of pets sleep in the owner’s bed or bedroom, nighttime disturbances can be a very frustrating, in-your-face problem.

“Various causes include an underlying painful condition, such as dental disease; sleeping on a hard surface; an altered biological clock; being uncomfortably cold due to poor circulation; or even a phobia of the dark,” Dr. Fortney said at the 138th Annual Convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) held in Boston, July 14-18, at the Hynes Convention Center. To lull a pet back into a restful sleep pattern, he often prescribes a warm soft bed, a night light, a radio playing softly, a brief walk before bedtime, or, in some cases, drug therapy.

Altered sleep cycles in dogs and cats can also be a sign of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). A progressive, age-related disease, CDS may be caused by the genetically pre-programmed death of neurons, by metabolic and neuro toxins, or by changes in various CNS neuro-transmitter levels. Clinical signs are related to impaired mental function or “senility.”

In cats, CDS is common after 16 years of age and is often manifested by increased vocalization, inappropriate elimination, excessive grooming, aggression, and confusion. Dogs share most of these traits. After other medical conditions or diseases are ruled out, CDS symptoms can often be managed by drug treatments, oxygen therapy, and additional exercise.

Another symptom of CDS is a previously unexhibited fear or phobia. Called “panic attacks” in people, geriatric anxiety can cause trembling, salivation, pacing, vocalization, destructive behavior, eliminations, and escapism. A good example is a pet that fears loud noises, as in thunderstorms or Fourth of July fireworks. “Many owners reinforce the fears by comforting their pet,” Fortney said. “Better success will be achieved by implementing a program of counter conditioning and desensitization.” A desensitization program attempts to increase the threshold of abnormal behavior through distraction and positive reinforcement. The stimulatory levels are gradually increased.

Certain age-related changes in older pets, such as hearing loss, cannot be prevented, but many others can be managed. Skin and coat dullness in older pets can be helped with increased grooming, less bathing, and nutritional supplements. Warm bedding and garments can benefit the hypothermic dog or cat that has a decreased basal metabolic rate. Changes in appetite can be due to many conditions, including gastrointestinal disorders, a decreased sense of taste or smell, or muscle atrophy, and may be remedied by hand feeding, adding water to dry food or feeding canned food, or a program of mild exercise prior to meal time.

Regular veterinary care is crucial for older pets, so that owners can become educated and common warning signs of serious chronic disease are not missed. The four most common causes of death in older dogs are cancer, cardiovascular disease, renal failure, and epilepsy and hepatic diseases. In older cats, cancer remains the number-one fatal disease, followed by renal failure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes mellitus.

Considerable research in the area of interrupting the aging process continues, both in people and their pets. “Gene splicing and other technologies, antioxidant vitamins and compounds; and hormone research may someday provide us with the ‘Fountain of Youth,'” said Dr. Fortney. “In veterinary medicine, our overall goal must be to improve the quality of life, not just longevity.”

The AVMA is a professional organization of 66,000 veterinarians. More than 750 seminars were presented during the 138th annual convention, which is one of the largest gatherings of veterinarians in North America. The next meeting will be in Nashville, July 13-17, 2002.


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