Elderly dogs and cats can seem to have the ideal life - snoozing in a cosy bed or basket, eating when they fancy, and demanding (and receiving!) regular fuss and attention. Their life can appear so idyllic that it’s easy to assume that they are well in themselves, especially as many older pets have a “mustn’t grumble” attitude and appear content. However, their peaceful appearance can be deceiving!
In their twilight years, our furry friends are more vulnerable to many different illnesses, but conversely, are much better at hiding the signs (especially cats). So, we have to be super-vigilant to make sure they aren’t suffering in silence. Regular health checks are essential to make sure your older pets are in top shape and pick up any medical conditions early, when they’re easier to treat. In fact, we recommend 6-monthly checkups for dogs and cats over 8 years old, to try and make sure that any serious health problems can be nipped in the bud.
So, here are some top tips for things to watch out for…
Both cats and dogs develop arthritis. In fact, this is one of the most common problems for geriatrics of both species. The vast majority will suffer with it to some extent but, while dogs often make it obvious with a limp or visible stiffness, in cats spotting the problem can be a challenge. Cats are natural athletes so they may still jump and play - which an arthritic dog will be more inclined to avoid - but if you watch closely, you’ll see that they do so less often than before. You may notice that they don’t sleep in a previously preferred space - perhaps because your dog can’t climb the stairs to get to your bed, or a cat can’t jump up onto the high windowsill, so easily. Perhaps they’re sleeping more? Are they more grumpy? Less keen to play or interact with the family? Not grooming themselves? Don’t necessarily put it down to age - it might be chronic pain! Contact us to arrange a check up - there’s lots we can do to help.
Dental disease is very common in older dogs and cats - in fact, some studies suggest as many as 80% of pets over the age of 3 have some degree of gum disease! The build up of plaque on the tooth surfaces throughout life gets progressively worse, and the plaque hardens to form yellow or brown tartar. This causes bleeding and reddening of the gums, and if not treated, may lead to pain, distress, tooth loss, and even kidney or heart disease. Older pets with dental disease may become fussy with their food, chew on one side, eat more slowly, or dribble. However, in most cases hunger overcomes the pain, giving us no warning signs. This is why regular dental checks are essential!
Notice your dog or cat looking slimmer? In older dogs and, especially, cats, weight loss can be a sign of a serious underlying illness, such as an overactive thyroid (mainly cats), cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, or even senility or chronic pain. Unfortunately, in many cases the gradual nature of the drop in body weight makes it difficult to spot. We’re very happy to weigh your pet, which is a great way to monitor their health if you can’t do it at home! You can also monitor their body condition score, to keep an eye on the levels of fat and muscle - ask us how, or check out the charts here.
Many of the causes of weight loss in older animals are very treatable now, and most can be diagnosed with a simple blood and/or urine test, so if you think they might be running up a bit light, give us a ring and make an appointment for a check-up.
An increase in thirst may be an early sign of health problems such as kidney disease or diabetes, both of which are fairly common in older animals. If they seem to be thirsty all the time, get them checked out!
Wheezing or shortness of breath
The heart is a busy organ! In the lifetime of the average animal, it beats about 1 billion times, and pumps an average of 4.5 litres of blood around the body of a dog every minute. Like humans, dogs and cats sadly do suffer from heart disease. Unlike their owners, heart disease in pets is most often genetic, not caused by lifestyle!
In dogs, two common diseases are seen by vets. In older, small breed dogs, more than half of some breeds suffer a leak in a major heart valve by age ten (called “mitral valve disease”). In larger dogs, middle and older aged dogs can develop a weakness of the heart muscle (called “dilated cardiomyopathy”). Dogs with heart disease may show signs of reduced exercise ability, heavy panting, fast breathing, coughing or even fainting.
In cats, the most common heart disease is a thickened heart muscle (called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy”). This is very common, with around 1 in 7 cats of all ages affected – more cats in older age may suffer the disease, and older cats are more likely to develop signs, such as breathing difficulties or weight loss.
Early detection of heart disease is very important. If you are concerned that your pet is showing any signs of heart disease, please come and see us for a check-up. Happily, modern techniques (such as chest x-rays and heart scans) can help us investigate further and recent developments in veterinary medicine mean that we have new treatments to help dogs and cats with heart disease, which can make them feel well and maintain a good quality of life for longer.
We hear about this debilitating condition in humans but it also affects dogs and cats. Affected dogs often become confused, lose learnt behaviours such as responses to commands or even toilet training, or become rigid in their behaviour and unable to change their routine, as well as losing day/night rhythms. Cats may yowl in the night, seem confused, interact less with the family, and start toileting in abnormal places. If your pet seems to be developing signs of senility, do get in touch - unlike in people, there are a number of medications that can be highly successful in managing the condition in dogs and cats.