This month's column is all about our aging companions. With good preventative medicine, pets are living much longer than they did in the past. An annual physical exam, annual blood work, good nutrition and better dental care are just some of the factors involved in extending the golden years of your pet's life.
==B When is my dog considered a senior?==
Dogs age at different rates based on their size. Small breed dogs tend to live a lot longer and are not considered a senior until 9 years old, whereas giant breed dogs are considered a senior at 6 years old. Cats are also considered senior when 9 years old. These numbers are just a guideline; some 10-year-old dogs still act like puppies.
==B Why does it take my dog so long to get up in the mornings?==
Arthritis is very common in both dogs and cats as they age. The hips and elbows are most commonly affected but arthritis can plague any joint. Dogs with arthritis usually take a long time to get up after a nap but seem to loosen up after a bit of activity. We use X-rays to diagnose arthritis and rule out other problems such as a bone tumor or infection. Treatment typically consists of pain medications, supplements, weight control and a modified exercise routine.
==B My dog's eyes are cloudy, can he still see?==
When most people ask this question they are referring to a common aging change called nuclear sclerosis, or cloudiness of the lens. Yes, dogs can still see when they have nuclear sclerosis; their vision is not affected. The lens is like an onion that constantly grows new layers of cells. As more layers accumulate over time, the density changes and the lens reflects light differently, appearing cloudy. There are other causes for eyes to appear cloudy so it is always good to have your veterinarian check them out.
==B What causes the lumps and bumps all over my senior dog?==
Several different types of growths show up in older dogs, some benign and some malignant. One of the most common growths is a lipoma, a benign fatty tumor. These are typically soft, movable and under the skin. Although lipomas are not that attractive, we usually recommend leaving them alone. Another common benign growth in older dogs is sebaceous hyperplasia. These are pink, wart-like growths that are usually less than 1cm in diameter. In order to tell a benign growth from a malignant one, your veterinarian needs to take a sample of it. Treatment depends on the type of growth and can range from doing nothing to aggressive surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
==B My dog has horrible breath, what can I do about it?==
Bad breath in dogs and cats is most often caused by periodontal disease. Just like us, dogs get gingivitis, plaque and tartar as well as other dental diseases. Bacteria flourishes in an unhealthy mouth and can spread to the rest of the body causing an infection in distant organs like the kidneys or heart. Some senior pets really benefit from having their teeth cleaned and examined under anesthesia. Extractions may be necessary to maintain a mouth free of pain and infection. Brushing your pet's teeth and providing safe chews can also help improve bad breath and keep your pet healthy.
==B What food should I be feeding my senior dog?==
If your senior dog is overall healthy but slowing down, he should be on a senior diet. Senior dog foods are usually lower in calories and higher in fiber. Some senior diets contain supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, omega 3 fatty acids and/or vitamin E. If your dog has a medical problem like kidney disease, diabetes or food allergies your veterinarian will probably recommend a specific diet. If your senior dog is underweight or extremely active he should stay on an adult or performance diet.
==B How can I keep my senior cat happy and healthy as long as possible?==
Once your cat is a senior, we recommend an annual physical exam and annual blood work. During the physical exam your veterinarian may find treatable problems such as periodontal disease or an enlarged thyroid. Blood work is useful to evaluate for kidney or liver disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, anemia and more. For some of these problems, early diagnosis leads to early treatment and can slow the progression of disease keeping your pet happy and healthy as long as possible.
==B How do I know when it is time to let my pet go?==
It is really difficult to watch your pet endure a painful disability or terminal illness. You know your pet better than anyone and will know when he or she is suffering. But to help you make that decision about euthanasia, consider your pet's quality of life. Does your pet still want to eat? Does your pet want to be scratched and enjoy getting attention? Does your dog still bark when the mailman comes to the door or chase squirrels in the yard? Does your cat still sleep on your bed at night? When your pet no longer cares about the things that are typically important to him, then it is time to make that difficult decision to say goodbye.