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Barbara E. Royal, D.V.M.

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Your Pet's Golden Years: Health Tips For Aging Animals

Posted: 05/28/11 05:13 AM ET

Our pets are precious to us. We want them to live forever, but we are distressed to see their troubling signs of aging.

A decade ago, when my dog Tundra was eleven years old, I felt she might be nearing the end. Because she looked like a German shepherd mix, I guessed her lifespan to be about twelve years. This alarming thought motivated me to find a way for her to live better and longer.

I found many common sense answers that improved Tundra's longevity and quality of life. The answers did not come from my veterinary textbooks, but they have added to my arsenal of integrative medical solutions. I know for certain that Tundra benefitted from them. My soul mate and companion outlived all my estimates -- thriving until the grand old age of 17.

I have since refined the strategies I used for Tundra and applied them to my older canine and feline patients. These include an appropriate high-protein diet with proper moisture content, supplements as they apply to each case, acupuncture where needed, limited vaccines and meds, species/breed-relevant exercise and simple, effective ideas for home care.

In my previous blog, I offered suggestions to improve ambulation and stamina in the elderly pet. This time, I'll suggest other Royal Treatment Tips pertaining to appetite, sense of smell and vision.

On the Nose

He's got to smell it to want it:
If your furry friend doesn't seem hungry and is looking thin, it could be that he just can't smell the food. Older animals may lose weight because of eating less. This can be normal for pets as they age -- they naturally need to slim down. While loss of interest in food may be a sign of significant illness in geriatric pets (cancer, systemic diseases, dental problems, etc.), it may have more benign origins. The solution may be right under their noses.

Supersize the aroma:
Assuming you've been to the vet and found no apparent medical reason for the lack of interest in food, your pet may have a diminished sense of smell. Odors are important appetite stimulants. Aging animals can have trouble discerning smells due to many causes, such as a previous respiratory disease or side effects of medication (e.g., some anti-inflammatory meds may decrease sense of smell). They may be puzzling over the scentless muck in their food dish. But they don't make the yummy dinner connection because they can't smell it. Dining is not on their mind -- or in their olfactory lobe. As a general rule, smelly is better.

Canned, pre-prepared raw or home cooked foods tend to be more tempting since they are aromatic. You can also try warming up food or stirring in some hot water or chicken broth to release aromas. Mix in some tripe (very smelly), or a slurry of meat baby food (no onion powder), and your pet may come running for supper.

Be careful not to add too many new foods too quickly. Older pets need time to adjust to new foods -- up to two weeks to transition. So take your time.

Quibble about kibble:
Especially in the older animal, I prefer to avoid feeding kibble foods. Contrary to popular belief, kibble food is not better for dental health. It can stick to the teeth more than wet food. The adhesive carbohydrate used to keep pieces of kibble together causes tartar build up on the teeth and possible weight gain. (More on specific diet choices in my next blog.)

Chubby is not better:
If your pet is overweight, don't try to convince him to eat more. It may be his body's natural wisdom telling him he's slowing down and needs less food.

Breakfast may be optional:
I've noticed that many aging dogs skip their morning meal. Even with enticement and fabulous smelling food, they just say no. By supper, they are perfectly happy to clean the bowl. As long as everything else seems normal -- and there's no vomiting or other alarming signs -- older dogs can do just fine having all their food at supper, if that's what they choose.

Plastic is not fantastic:
Exchange plastic bowls for ceramic, metal or glass, and clean them regularly.
Plastic bowls may become an irritant to sensitive older nasal skin. Inflamed skin on the mouth, chin or nose of a dog or cat can improve once plastic food or water bowls are removed.

Sometimes a dry nose is just a dry nose:
Nose dryness/crustiness can be a sign of a significant autoimmune condition or nutritional deficiency. But sometimes older pets just have dry noses. After ruling out any underlying medical cause, there are a few options to consider.

My clients agree that Vaseline on the nose is the most reliably effective topical treatment for a dry nose. Yes, it is a petroleum product, and I generally try to offer alternative/natural medical solutions, but this really works (and, as Texas oil executives say, what could be more natural than petroleum?).

I have also had some success with shea butter or coconut oil topically. Coconut oil taken orally (about 1 teaspoon daily per 30- to 50-pound dog, or ¼ teaspoon per cat) can ameliorate dry skin issues -- dry noses, dandruff, dull hair coats -- and improve general gastrointestinal health.

The Eyes Have It

Throw a little light on the subject:
Put in an extra light fixture over the stairs and consider carpeting the stairs. This may sound like a home-decorating solution, not a veterinary one. In fact, this can work wonders for an aging pet with an optical condition. When a pet seems hesitant to go up or down stairs, the hesitancy is often attributed to arthritis. But arthritis may not be the culprit. It is frequently a geriatric vision problem.

Lenticular sclerosis is a typical aging change in the lens of a dog or cat's eye -- it's responsible for that subtle bluish tint to the pupil. It's not a cataract, and it only creates a mild vision issue, like looking through a shower glass. This hazy vision obscures depth perception. In darkened conditions, it can become even more difficult for dogs or cats to judge spatial variations. Improve the lighting on stairs, make surface-edges easy to see and they will be able to gauge their footing and walk more confidently on uneven surfaces.

No sudden moves:
If your older pet has vision issues, avoid suddenly moving water and food bowls, furniture or litter boxes. Sudden changes can make geriatric pets confused, and that can cause accidents or just plain stress. Make sure they know where things are if you have to rearrange.

Bright may not be all right:
Too much light, bright sunshine on bright surfaces (like snow or white sand) can also be bothersome for older animals, particularly cats and smaller dogs. Animals with iris atrophy have trouble opening and closing the iris over their pupil as a protection against bright light. They will be light-sensitive, and may be unable to see well when the light is intense. Give them time to adjust, or get to the shade, where possible.

I look forward to your comments and will provide more suggestions for your pet's golden years in my next blog. Supporting animals as they age is especially rewarding for me. My clients and I consider aging to be a blessing rather than a disease.

Dr. Barbara Royal is the owner of The Royal Treatment Veterinary Center in Chicago where she practices integrative veterinary medicine. A zoo veterinary consultant and international lecturer, she is also Oprah Winfrey's veterinarian.

Dr. Royal's debut book "The Royal Treatment: Making Pets Wildly Healthy," will be published by Simon and Schuster in Spring of 2012.

For More Information about Dr. Royal's practice, visit: royaltreatmentveterinarycenter.com

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