ANIMAL BYTES: TLC for Senior Pets


By Stephanie Oba, DVM
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 31, 2011)


Pets are living longer these days, much like the human population. As they age, they, too, need extra attention and loving care.

When is a pet considered a “senior”?

This variable depends on the size of the dog. Generally speaking, cats and small dogs are considered a senior at age seven. Large and giant breed dogs age sooner and are seniors as early as five or six years old.

What problems are common in senior pets?

Common diseases that I see in older pets include heart and lung disease, cancer, kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, liver disease, senility and arthritis.

These pets will show a decline in their abilities to see and hear. Their eyes may become cloudy, usually caused by one of two processes: cataracts or nuclear sclerosis.

In cataracts, the lens crystallizes making it difficult to see through. For correction, cataract surgery can remove the crystallized lens.

Nuclear sclerosis is an aging process where the lens hardens and causes a cloudy appearance very similar to cataracts. There are no treatments for this aging process yet.

With a noticeable inability to hear well, senior pets become easier to sneak up on. Care should be taken not to startle them.

Adopted 14-year-old Doberman Pinscher mix Xena, who takes glucosamine and fatty acid supplements for arthritis due to hip dysplasia, was a happy camper in Dr. Oba’s wedding party. (Courtesy of S. Oba)

What are symptoms to look out for?

Be on the lookout for anything that is out of the ordinary for your pet. Diseases start out very subtly and we can easily miss the early signals.

Monitor your pet’s drinking habits. Kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death in older pets. One of the first signs is an increase in drinking and urinating.

Monitor their eating patterns as well. Mouth problems may show up as only wanting softer foods. Eating well, yet losing weight, can be a sign of thyroid problems, diabetes or even cancer.

Watch your pet’s behavior as well. Many times, the first sign of a problem is a change in behavior. This is commonly due to senility, but many other organ problems first manifest in this manner.

Monitor your pet’s mobility. Do you notice a difficulty in getting up or lying down? Are stairs starting to become harder to manage? These can be signs of arthritis.

Cats get arthritis also. You can help out by having a litter box with shorter walls so that they can climb in and out of the box easier. Look for changes in breathing patterns. Panting excessively, breathing changes and coughing can be signs of heart, lung or endocrine diseases.

Lastly, are there any new lumps or bumps on the skin or changes in the fur coat? This can be a sign of a variety of cancers and endocrine diseases.

Can we treat any of these diseases?

Advances in veterinary medicine have made treating even tough diseases possible. There are new surgical procedures that can remove tumors once thought inoperable.

A new stem cell procedure helps manage arthritis in certain cases. Cats can have kidney transplants if you are willing and able to have the vet do this procedure.

Radioactive iodine treatments can help cure cats of hyperthyroidism.

Of course, many of these diseases are progressive, and eventually terminal, but we have made strides in keeping pets comfortable for longer periods of time. When it involves kidney failure, we have been able to keeps cats and dogs happy significantly longer with advances in diagnostics, treatments and nutrition. Diabetic cats can reach remission in certain cases as well.

Can we prevent any of these diseases?

Yes, some of the diseases are preventable. If you spay your female dog or cat before she goes into heat for the first time, her chances of getting breast cancer is less than one per cent.

Diabetes and certain forms of arthritis are preventable by keeping your pet fit, thus avoiding obesity. Exercise keeps pets mentally stimulated, thus slowing down signs of senility.

Keep up with routine veterinary checkups and annual lab testing to help find diseases earlier when they are treatable.

Regular dental cleaning prevents many oral problems and allows us to do better oral exams to find problems in the mouth sooner. Dental diseases are linked to kidney failure, liver disease and heart disease. A clean mouth is one weapon against these ailments.

NOTE: Surgery was performed on Xena in August 2009 for a lump mass diagnosed as non-malignant cancer of the bronchioles. She celebrated her two-year remission anniversary this month.


Stephanie Oba is a contributing writer and physician for animals in  Alhambra. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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