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Some of my favourite pets to see at Orchard Vets are our senior pets. Of course, new puppy and kitten visits, where we get to meet new family members are fantastic; it’s also great to see them grow when they come back in for their complimentary adolescent checks (included in their puppy or kitten package). But as a general rule, young animals don’t often need to see the vets (touch wood!). More often than not, an annual health check is a matter of reassurance or monitoring, or addressing common problems such as excessive weight gain or dental disease that benefit from being ‘nipped in the bud’ early.

An annual health check for a senior pet can be a different matter. A physical examination and a chat with the owner about their pet’s lifestyle and activity at home, can often identify areas where we can make a real difference in the pet’s quality of life. Owners often think that nothing can be done about some of these problems, or dismiss changes with “Oh, he’s just getting old”. Well, I’ll let you in to a little secret…

There’s no such thing as old age.

Wait….what? Surely I don’t mean that? Well, actually I do. Of course, there is a period in a pet’s life when they are reaching the end of their expected lifespan, but “old age” isn’t actually a medical condition; what it actually is is a collection of conditions that are more common in older pets. Some may be almost inevitable, and many will be incurable, but most are treatable, to an extent. So what are the common health problems in older pets, and what should you be looking out for?

“They’re getting a bit stiff and slow”

The most common cause of this would be osteoarthritis. Wear and tear on the joints causes painful joint inflammation. This is worse in animals with pre-existing injuries, excessive body weight or conformation problems. We can’t unfortunately do anything to reverse the changes in the joint, but we certainly can help to alleviate pain associated with arthritis. We do this by using anti-inflammatories and other painkillers. In addition, we can discuss lifestyle changes, joint supplements or other complementary treatments. We can also provide contact with physiotherapists or hydrotherapists that can help maintain your pet’s mobility into their senior years.

Osteoarthritis is also common in senior cats, but under-diagnosed and under-treated. Cats will often make subtle adjustments to their lifestyle – no longer climbing or jumping high, for example – to avoid pain, rather than showing obvious stiffness or limping. Other signs to look out for in cats inclure reduced grooming, and claws getting long and thick, needing trimming. This is often due to arthritis in the spine reducing natural scratching behaviour.

“She’s got very thin”

It is harder for older pets to maintain lean muscle, which can contribute to weight loss. However, an older pet that is losing weight without their food intake being restricted isn’t normal, and shouldn’t necessarily be accepted as such. Loss of muscle over the hind limbs, for example, can be common in older dogs with arthritis, even if few other signs have been seen; they are avoiding moving painful joints, leading to wasting of the thigh muscles.

Weight loss could also indicate an internal organ problem. For example, older cats may be seen to lose weight. Common causes of this might include an overactive thyroid, or the development of chronic kidney disease. For both of these illnesses, treatment is more successful if instigated in the early stages. Even if your cat has never needed any medical treatment before, it’s worth considering an annual or even biannual health check as they get older, including monitoring for any weight loss.

“He’s too old to lose any weight”

Conversely, we’ll often see older pets that are very overweight. This can sometimes be due to declining activity levels, but with the same calorie intake! Carrying excess weight is hard work for senior pets. It puts pressure on joints that may already be arthritic, and on their breathing. An individual weight management plan, with the support of our trained nurses, can help to improve a pet’s quality of life and even their life expectancy.

“She doesn’t see very well”

Just like us, pets’ vision can decline as they get older. As a general rule, they usually adjust very well, and are rarely distressed. But sometimes, changes in vision can reflect other underlying problems. For example high blood pressure can cause retinal haemorrhage or retinal detachment in older cats; this is often associated with kidney disease. Investigation of the cause of vision loss in this situation can identify a problem that can be managed to improve their long term health.

Another fairly common cause of vision changes in dogs is development of cataracts. Did you know that, just like people, dogs can actually have cataract surgery? Your vet will be able to discuss with you whether this is the correct choice for you and your pet.

“He’s got very bad breath”

By far the most common cause of halitosis is periodontal disease. Bacteria in the inflamed, diseased gums are the source of the smell. Living with bad breath is unpleasant for us, but from the point of view of your pet, periodontal disease is a cause of chronic pain. Animals will rarely show overt signs of this pain as it develops slowly over a period of time. Marked periodontal disease can’t be properly addressed by homecare such as brushing or dental chews.

Often owners of older pets can be anxious about procedures under general anaesthetic, such as dentistry. Potentially, anaesthetic risks can be higher with older pets if they have underlying organ dysfunction. However, we do everything we can to manage this with our choice of anaesthetic medications, monitoring of vital signs such as oxygenation, ECG and blood pressure, and – where appropriate – use of additional supports such as IV fluid therapy. By doing so we expect our outcomes to be as good as with younger, fitter patients. The most common comment we get at dental post operative checks is how much brighter and even younger the pet seems, now that their pain has been alleviated.

“She coughs a little bit”

A cough in a young patient is often an infectious condition. This isn’t impossible in older pets, as the function of the immune system can decline with age. However, there may be an underlying cause. Probably the most common cause of coughing in older dogs is heart disease. (Heart problems in cats tend to present when they are younger, and not commonly with a cough). There are a variety of medications available to improve heart function in pets suffering with heart failure. This ensures they enjoy good ongoing quality of life. A recent study has shown that starting treatment earlier in pets with a heart murmur and enlargement of the heart can actually significantly delay the onset of heart failure and extend overall life expectancy.

“She has the odd accident in the house”

Change in toiletting habits, or loss of house training, can be really difficult to live with in older pets, and impact greatly on their quality of life. Certain forms of incontinence may not be able to be effectively treated. More often, there are other underlying causes that can be addressed. Increased urine production can occur in older pets due to a variety of causes, meaning that they need to toilet more frequently. Being left for a period of time they could previously manage easily may then be too long for them to hold on. If the underlying cause of increased urine production can be identified, it may be treatable. Older spayed female dogs may leak urine at night when they are asleep. Medication is available that can usually treat this very effectively.

Loss of house training in cats may reflect physical difficulty reaching the areas they used to use to toilet. Older cats may start to struggle to get in and out of a cat flap as easily as they did before, or be frightened of other, younger cats in their territory. Cats that previously toiletted outside may then need to use an indoor litter tray again. Cats that are already used to using an indoor tray sometimes start to struggle to get in and out of a high sided litter tray and need a wider, flatter tray than previously.

It can be difficult to be sure of the significance of changes in your older pet, or sometimes even to notice them at all. Changes are usually slow and subtle, and hard to spot when you see your pet all the time. A regular health check with your vet is really important for older pets. This allows us to identify and treat problems as they arise. For many owners, joining our Orchard Vets Health Plan is a reassuring and cost effective way of monitoring their pet’s health. The plan includes an additional six-monthly health check as well as their annual examination and booster.

It’s important to remember that any treatments are not aimed, as some owners fear, to extend their pet’s life at any cost. Instead we want to manage pain, or effects that make them feel unwell. Together we can ensure that their quality of life remains good, and that they – and you! – enjoy rather than endure their senior years.