Just a few days ago a client asked me how old my dog was, and I actually had to think about it. My first impulsive answer was that he was four years old, but I instantly knew that this was not correct since we adopted him when my oldest son was still in elementary school, and now he is in college. After a few seconds passed, I realized that my dog, Zack, is 9 years old. My client said, "Oh, he's getting old!" I was shaken a bit by her response. I never thought of him as "old."
As a veterinarian, I am keenly aware that pets age much more rapidly than humans, and that we have to be proactive with their health care. That night I returned home to re-examine my "older" dog and was pleased to have found him in good health.
The misconception that 9 years of age is old for a dog brings me to a phrase that I frequently say in my examination room, "Age is not a disease." In addition, age should not be a reason to decline health care advice or treatment. My dog Zack may be older than he was one year ago, but he's in great health, and I am not going to treat or think of him as a declining pet just because of his numerical age. He's got a great spirit, good blood work and last year got a new left artificial hip to help his gait.
As a veterinarian, I would like to share with you some ideas on how to keep your aging pet as healthy as possible. Here's my list of things that I do for my dog, two cats, and thousands of aging pet patients:
1. Keep their weight trim. Carrying extra weight around is a tremendous burden and a strain on joints, heart and blood sugar control. It is important to exercise your pet. For dogs, it's walking 20 minutes a day, playing in the yard or park, and swimming if you have access to water. For cats, I recommend playing fetch with a foil ball, hiding food around the house for them to find, putting dry food in a "food-dispensing ball" and let them bat it around the house, and my favorite is laser tag with a penlight. Exercise is not only a great way to help keep down body fat, but it also is great for mental stimulation and maintaining good muscle mass.
2. Take them at least once, or best twice yearly, to your veterinarian for a complete health examination and blood work, called a CBC (Complete Blood Count) and Chemistry Profile (evaluates your pet's organs). Be pro-active with your pet's healthcare. It's amazing what we discover each day when running yearly wellness blood work on our patients. It is best for all to uncover problems early so that we can try to correct or adjust our veterinary care as quickly as possible. In addition, pets are extremely stoic and do not easily show pain or distress until they are fairly sick (especially cats). In fact yesterday a client came to see me with their 12-year-old dog for her yearly examination and vaccination appointment. During this yearly check up, I discovered a grapefruit-sized mass in her caudal abdomen. I asked the client if she noticed any changes in her pet's behavior. She answered, "No, but for these last few months she does want to go outside to urinate more frequently. When she was younger she could hold her urine for eight-to-10 hours, now she wants to go outside every five-to-six hours. I just thought she was getting old."
Dogs do get older when they age, but that does not mean that all changes in their activity or behavior are simply a result of their body naturally deteriorating and that there is nothing we can do to help them. In this particular situation, this dog's increased frequency of urination was due to the abdominal mass putting pressure on her bladder and not simply the fact that she was getting older and losing her ability to control her bladder function. In this situation, surgical intervention could be potentially curative.
So, don't think your pet is slowing down just because he or she is getting older, maybe there is something medically wrong that can be addressed by your veterinarian. For the sake of your pet, don't assume nothing can be done unless you speak to your veterinarian. You'll be amazed at how advanced veterinary medical care has become and what we can offer you and your pet for a better quality of life.
3. Feed your aging pet a quality diet that is nutritious and balanced. For dogs, I like to see protein in the 30 percent range of daily caloric intake. For cats, I like their protein to be in the 50 percent range of daily calories ingested. (You may want to read an earlier Huffington Post blog that I wrote about "Demystifying the Cat Diet" for more information on what to feed a cat.) I know clients feel good about giving their pets treats and food from the table, but those "table treats" add up in calories and are not necessary for pets' well-being. In addition, clients like to buy pet food labeled "senior diet" for their older pets, which unfortunately has no consistent meaning in the pet food industry. Some senior food is low in calorie, and some is high in calorie. Some senior food is low in protein, and some is high in protein. Years ago, we would recommend feeding low protein formulated food to our senior pets thinking that this would help their kidneys. Regrettably, we were wrong. Low protein diets do not help senior pets, even those with early to moderate kidney disease. We actually discovered that restricting protein, especially in elderly cats, actually accelerates their muscle wasting. So don't deprive your elderly pet protein unless directed by your veterinarian.
4. Help your pet move more gracefully and comfortably. There are a great number of anti-inflammatory drugs available for dogs and pain medications for both cats and dogs. If you see your dog having difficulties climbing up stairs or walking around the block, trembling, stiffness when getting up from rest, or slipping on the floors, go see your veterinarian. If your cat is having difficulties jumping onto countertops (I'm sure he/she is not supposed to be there anyways) or onto furniture, this is a sign that your pet may be suffering from arthritis. Your veterinarian may recommend radiographs of problematic joints to document the pathology and then, dispense an anti-inflammatory drug and/or pain medication to make your pet feel better. There is no reason for pets to silently suffer in pain today. In addition to anti-inflammatory and pain medication, we also have in our arsenal of care nutra-pharmaceutical products that can really increase your pet's quality of life. Acupuncture and physical therapy is also available to help your pet's pain management and increase their movement.
5. I recommend Omega 3 Supplements to all patients unless they have dietary intolerances to fish products. I believe fish oil supplementation is beneficial to the coat, it decreases inflammation in the joints by up to 20 percent, and it has a nice protective effect on the kidneys and liver. Please consult with your veterinarian if he/she may think this is a good product for your pet to take. Ask your veterinarian for the appropriate dose, too. For your information, all fish oil is the same -- it does not need to be labeled for pets only. You can share your fish oil, which typically is lower priced than the fish oil supplement for pets, with your pet.
6. Brush your pet's teeth. Dental disease is a tremendous source of pain and discomfort for your pet. In addition, the bacteria in the oral cavity can enter the blood stream and aggravate your pet's heart, kidney or liver. Brushing your pet's teeth can be quite simple. I always recommend to my client to first start with a moist gauze square and just massage your pet's gums and outer tooth surfaces. Eventually, add pet appropriate toothpaste to the moistened gauze square and gently scrub teeth. The final step would be to try a toothbrush. To be honest, most of my cat clients use a gauze square or finger tooth brush -- it's almost impossible in some cats to use a small children's sized tooth brush. We have a "How to brush your pet's teeth" video on our Animal Medical Center of Chicago website that you may wish to watch to learn this technique. We recommend brushing your pet's teeth at least three times per week.
Despite home dental care, I would anticipate, at least once yearly to have your pet's teeth professionally cleaned and evaluated under general anesthesia by your veterinarian. Unfortunately, even the pets that let owners brush their teeth daily still do get dental pathology. Regrettably, 70 percent of all dental pathology is beneath the gum line and not visible to eye.
7. Watch for signs of pain -- for pet's it can be very difficult to assess. In fact, veterinarians themselves cannot agree on all the signs of pain in our patients. The obvious signs of pain are dull attitude, loss of appetite, decreased ambulation or limping and crying out. The more subtle signs may be restlessness -- just unable to sleep or lay in one position for an extended time period-, decreased grooming (especially for cats), panting, quiet behavior, depressed appetite, salivation, less interactive, changes in water intake, not interested in being petted or weight loss. If you think your pet is in pain, contact your veterinarian. Hopefully, together with your veterinarian, you will be able to uncover the source and potentially find a solution to your pet's discomfort.
8. Pet your pet! Check for lumps and bumps that just don't belong there. If you discover one, see your veterinarian. Hopefully it's nothing significant, like a fatty tumor, called a Lipoma, which is quite common in older pets. If it is something significant, the good news is that you may have caught it early and it can be surgically or medically addressed as soon as possible giving your pet the greatest chance of a successful outcome.
I know my dog is 9 years of age and is not getting younger, but that doesn't mean that I'm ready to put him in a wheel chair and push him around. I believe in being proactive with his health and make his remaining years as enjoyable as possible. Yes, I will try to remember to brush his teeth daily. I will continue to watch his figure to keep him trim. He loves to swim in Lake Michigan on the weekends, and I look forward to years of throwing his tennis ball into the water for him to retrieve. He gets his daily Dasuquin with MSM (a glucosamine chondroitin supplement) and fish oil, along with an occasional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and monthly Adequan injections (helps lubricate his joints and provides some anti-inflammatory benefit) for his bad hip. It's a little bit of extra work to keep him at the top of his game, but it's worth it.
I believe that your pet's senior days can be just as enjoyable as his/her younger days. Take active care of yourself and your pet, and enjoy the remaining days together. You'll never regret it!
And finally, this week I'd like to tell you about Gemma, a 3-year-old Pit Bull Terrier mix available for adoption. Gemma is sweet, shy, and wonderfully cute. She was brought to ACC in August when her owner went to prison. Gemma can take a little time to warm up to new people, but rewards her new found friends with cuddling. She's been interested and polite in meeting other dogs. She would make a loving companion for someone who wants to help her feel comfortable with the world around her and shower her with love and affection. Gemma is available for adoption through Friends of Animal Care and Control. For more information on Gemma, please visit www.safehumanechicago.org.