Today I saw a longtime client with his 16-year-old border collie, named "Coffee", who I had not seen in over eight months. Coffee needed assistance to walk into my office, appeared agitated and painful, and was thin. My client told me that for the last six months Coffee has had urine accidents in the house, dribbled urine in her sleep, and had difficulties walking. In the last month, he told me that Coffee had collapsed three times with the most dramatic episode occurring earlier today where she collapsed, became rigid for a few minutes, and then, appeared disoriented for over 20 minutes.
While he was telling me about Coffee, a nagging question was pounding in my head, "Why did he not come to see me six months ago? I strongly suspect he believed that Coffee's problems were a natural and irreversible consequence of aging; something that he had to accept. He was wrong. I definitely could have made a difference.
This event triggered me to share with you my top eight frustrating myths about aging pets:
1. Old dogs naturally slow down. Not true. "Slowing down" is not synonymous with aging. Your pet may be experiencing arthritic pain or be in ill health with liver, kidney or heart disease. This should be investigated and treated appropriately. If your pet is sleeping more and not interacting with you as usual, I recommend that you schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for a compete physical examination. At Animal Medical Center of Chicago, we recommend biannual examination appointments for all pets over eight years of age. Be proactive with your pet's health in his or her advancing years.
2. Old dogs get innocent lumps. "My old dog has a new lump on his chest. My last dog had lots of lumps, I did nothing about them, and she lived to 16 years of age," said a confident client. Similarly, "My groomer told me it was just a fatty tumor and it's nothing to worry about." This wishful thinking or unprofessional advice might be completely false. One cannot diagnose the type of tumor a pet has by the naked eye. Not all tumors beneath the skin, called subcutaneous masses, are innocent lipomas (fatty tumors). There are numerous types of malignant tumors that can initially present as a single "lump" beneath the skin but have the capacity to spread to vital organs. These malignant subcutaneous tumors need to be surgically removed.
If you discover a mass on your pet, please consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may elect to perform a fine needle aspirate and cytology to better characterize the identity of this tumor. It is always better to find out what something is sooner than later, to maximize your pet's good health.
3. Old dogs will cry when they are in pain. "My old dog slips and slides when he goes up and down the stairs. He's not in pain. He's just old." "My old dog is limping on his hind limb, but he's not in pain." Yes, he is! Dogs, and especially cats, frequently don't vocalize when they are in pain. When we hurt ourselves, we usually scream out in pain but pets stoically do not. If your pet is having difficulties going up and down stairs, jumping or walking, or resting more than usual, he/she may be in pain and it should be investigated.
In the last 10 years there has been tremendous progress in the pain management and treatment of our arthritic pets. Please take advantage of these great advancements made in the care of geriatric pets. Call your veterinarian for an appointment to discuss your pet's altered gait.
4. It's normal for cats to vomit more as they get older. "My old cat vomits every other day. He is still eating, happy and purring -- he's just getting old." No, it's definitely not normal for any aged cat to vomit three times per week. I would definitely contact your veterinarian to discuss this situation. Your veterinarian may discover that your cat has hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), inflammatory bowel disease or an infiltrative gastrointestinal disease, like lymphoma.
5. Every dog or cat over 10 years of age needs to be on a senior diet. False statement. In fact, there is no established definition or formulation guideline for what a senior dog or cat diet must be. The senior label on commercial pet food is more of an advertisement gimmick used by pet manufacturing companies.
Pet food manufacturers do not know the health status of your pet and there is no single commercial diet or diet formulation that is best for all senior pets. Some older pets need more protein in their diet than others. Some senior pets need a higher calorie diet than others. Please consult with your veterinarian who is familiar with your pet's health history before selecting your senior pet's diet.
6. Old pets cannot be anesthetized. Age is not a limiting factor to anesthesia. General body health is. If your older pet is silently suffering from dental pain, don't make the mistake of not having a complete oral health examination and treatment under anesthesia because her or his double digit age.
I recommend a complete physical examination by your veterinarian, blood work and if indicated, radiographs of chest and abdomen prior to an anesthetic protocol. Once your pet's health status has been properly assessed, your veterinarian can discuss with you the benefits and risks associated with anesthesia. Age should not be the defining reason to avoid anesthesia.
7. It is normal for older dogs to wake up in the middle of the night to urinate. Or, It is normal for older cats to have large volumes of urine in their litter box. No, this is a red flag that something is wrong. Older pets with kidney or liver disease, bladder infections, Diabetes mellitus (inadequate insulin production), and Cushing's disease (overactive adrenal glands) frequently have an increased water intake and urine production.
Not only did my patient Coffee actively urinate in the house, she also dribbled urine in her sleep. Leakage of urine from the bladder, called urinary incontinence, is not normal for any aged pet and may be responsive to medication. So, just because your pet is old, doesn't mean that it is dying soon. There may be a cure or treatment for your pet's ill health.
8. As they get older, it's natural for dogs and cats to lose weight. Most pets do lose muscle mass and some lose weight as they age. However, most aging pets under 12 years of age usually gain weight because of their reduced metabolic rate and decreased physical activity. Substantial weight loss, greater than five percent of it's bodyweight, may be a sign of pathology somewhere in the body and should be investigated.
If your cat is eating voraciously and losing weight, it may have Diabetes mellitus or Hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a disease that involves an overactive thyroid gland. In 85 percent of the cases, this disease can be medically or surgically managed. See your veterinarian if your pet has unexplained weight loss.
If your elderly pet's attitude, appetite, ambulation or elimination habits change, please schedule an examination appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Don't assume your senior pet is going to die soon or falsely conclude your veterinarian cannot help your older pet. Your veterinarian has the knowledge and skills to help you and your pet through this illness. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that your elderly pet may be suffering from an illness that can be successfully treated.
Dr. Donna Solomon is a veterinarian at Animal Medica Center of Chicago and invites you to email her your questions or future topic ideas to doctors@animalmedicalcenterof chicago.com.