Happy Senior Dog

Today’s pets enjoy the opportunity to live substantially longer and healthier lives than those just a decade ago. More and more pets are making it to 7 years old — the age when a pet generally is deemed senior — and beyond. One big reason is you. A generation of pet owners who view their cats and dogs as family members have demanded higher-quality healthcare for their pets. And the veterinary industry has responded. Significant advances in health-management strategies for older pets — including senior-focused nutrition, surgical procedures like hip replacements and kidney transplants, improved therapies for mental decline, advanced cancer chemotherapy protocols, complete dental-care programs, comprehensive arthritis management strategies and easy access to sophisticated diagnostic techniques — have contributed greatly to the average pet’s longevity and quality of life.

Yet for all this good news, there are several common mistakes that even well-intentioned owners make when it comes to their older pets’ health. These missteps are usually based on outdated or incorrect information. To help, we’ll bust four of the most common myths related to senior pets.

Myth 1: The problem is just old age

First off, let’s be clear: Old age certainly is not a disease. Rather, it’s the sum of the damaging effects of time on the body and internal organs. While veterinarians use a pet’s age as a measuring stick for longevity, age alone is by no means an indicator of a pet’s current health status. Nor is age a singular predictor of a pet’s future health. The best way to determine a senior pet’s actual health status is through comprehensive veterinary examinations at least twice every year. For senior pets, these exams typically include routine screening tests of the most vital ­internal organ systems.

Older pets can be more susceptible to serious and progressive diseases such as cancer, arthritis and mental decline, as well as some hormone imbalances and diseases of the heart, kidney or liver. Unfortunately, many pet owners write off early symptoms of these problems as simply old age. Pet owners may incorrectly assume that nothing can be done to improve these conditions. As a result, the pet suffers from lack of timely medical intervention. By the time the cat or dog is taken to the veterinarian for an evaluation, the condition may be advanced. This can make it more difficult to treat the problem effectively.

So be on the lookout for the following common signs, which many pet owners mistake for “just old age.” If you notice any of them in your cat or dog, don’t hesitate to schedule an ­examination with your veterinarian:

  • Reduced activity level
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased drinking/urination
  • Limping or stiffness
  • Decreased vision
  • Periods of disorientation or confusion

Myth 2: Nothing can be done about senior health problems

Many pet owners mistakenly assume that nothing can be done to help senior pets afflicted with common diseases. As a result, their pets continue to suffer from a lack of medical attention and care. In truth, many of the following symptoms, which are often associated with aging, can be managed:

  • Decreasing activity
  • Urinary or fecal accidents
  • Bad breath
  • Morning stiffness
  • Decreased or increasingly finicky appetite
  • Periods of confusion or disorientation

If you notice any of these in your older pet, speak with your veterinarian about options for helping your pet. Specially formulated senior diets, regular exercise, weight control and dental care can help slow the progression of many conditions associated with these signs.

Waiting for your pet’s annual or twice-yearly examination may reduce the chance for an early diagnosis and mean the difference between a good outcome and a poor one.

Myth 3: Senior pets only need yearly checkups

Regular exams are an important part of any pet’s healthcare program, and a once-yearly examination is prudent for healthy younger patients. However, dogs and cats have a significantly faster aging process than humans. After puberty, each calendar year in a pet’s life is roughly equivalent to four to 10 years of human aging, depending on the breed and size of the pet. This rapid aging process can mean that diseases develop earlier and progress faster than they might in humans.

Significant advancement in the natural course of a disease can occur between routine yearly examinations. For this reason, veterinarians often recommend twice-yearly visits — sometimes more frequent — for senior pets, even those that appear to be healthy. This six-month strategy greatly enhances the chances of detecting a problem in the early stages when more therapeutic options may exist.

Obviously, early detection of serious conditions is imperative to long-term successful disease management and the potential for a favorable final outcome. So don’t wait. Any delay in disease detection and treatment could allow the disease to progress unchecked.

The following are a few examples of symptoms that might indicate a serious condition in your cat or dog that requires immediate attention:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A persistent cough
  • Drinking more water
  • Yellow or orange tint to the eyes, oral tissue and skin
  • Black stools
  • A new lump or bump

If your senior cat or dog is experiencing any of the above, don’t delay. Call your veterinarian right away.

Myth 4: Anesthesia is too risky for senior pets

Lifelong dental care is a good example of the advances that have been made in senior healthcare. There’s a growing body of evidence demonstrating the importance of lifelong dental care on a pet’s longevity and quality of life. Unfortunately, the positive benefits of routine dental care and teeth cleaning have historically been tempered by the perceived risks of general anesthesia, which is necessary to effectively clean and polish a pet’s teeth without discomfort to the pet. Any medical procedure, including anesthesia, has risks, and special care must be taken, especially in those that may have heart, lung, liver or kidney ailments.

The practices of required blood and urine screening tests, safer anesthetic drugs and protocols and newer patient-monitoring equipment have all notably improved the safety of anesthesia. These are all positive reasons to consider regular dental cleanings, especially when compared to the negative effects that chronic dental disease has on a pet’s overall health and well-being.

As your cats and dogs age, you must assume an increasing responsibility for their overall health. By being an active and observant partner in care — including being more informed about early warning signs, taking timely action and visiting your veterinarian more often — you can take advantage of the recommended and potentially life-extending preventive healthcare programs available for senior pets today. Your pet will thank you for years to come.

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