February 2018

Aging Gracefully: Help your senior pet live longer, feel better

Author: Kirk Dixon, DVM

Unfortunately, none of us can escape the effects of aging. For our pets, it happens at a much earlier age than us. In dogs, the average lifespan is the opposite of their size. The smaller the dog, the longer their lifespan. For little dogs under 20 pounds, their average lifespan is about 15 years, but with great care, many of them make it to 18 and a few to 20. Giant dogs like Great Danes have an average lifespan around 8-9 and a few make it over 10. The other sizes fit in between these ranges. Cats have a very wide range of 12 to 20-plus. Here are some of the most common age-related problems and what you can do about them:

Cataracts: Cats rarely get cataracts, but virtually all dogs will get them to some degree or another. They usually start around seven years of age. When they form, the pupil will go from black in color to a blueish hue. Fortunately, dogs rarely go blind from them. In bright light such as daylight, the dog will see just fine through the cloudy lens, but in dim light, he will have problems. Cataracts can be removed, and it is best to have a veterinary ophthalmologist perform the surgery. If that is not an option, you can help your pet by sticking to well-lit paths or walking with a shorter leash to help him maneuver around difficult and possibly unseen obstacles.

Kidney Disease: The most common life-limiting disease I see in both elderly cats and dogs is kidney failure. Unlike the skin or liver which can regenerate, the kidneys cannot. By the time we reach adulthood, we (and dogs and cats) have all the kidney tissue we will ever have. The primary function of the kidneys is to control the fluid level in the body, get rid of waste products from eating protein, and to stimulate the bone marrow to produce blood. Fortunately, everyone starts with four times more kidney tissue than is needed to survive. We can lose up to 2/3 of our kidney tissue due to age and illness and never show an outward symptom. Between 2/3-3/4 gone, the ability to concentrate urine is lost. The result is increased thirst and urinating much more. This can result in an inability to make it through the night without urinating. If more than 3/4 is gone, waste products build up.

Early symptoms can be a decreased appetite and weight loss. Unchecked it will result in death. The most valuable tool in minimizing problems is early detection. This is done with bloodwork, and it should be done at least annually in older pets. Early detection can allow modification to a special low-protein diet that will ease the load on the kidneys and extend the life of the pet.

Arthritis/Joint Disease: The most common problem I see in old dogs and cats is degenerative joint disease. The problem is painful joints that hurt the most when they first get up but then gets a little better as they move around. The most common symptoms are difficulty getting up or lying down, an inability to get comfortable and/or limping. A common misconception is when a pet is limping but the owner tells me it isn’t in pain. If an animal is limping or moving slowly, he is in pain. Animals are wired differently from us. If we moan or groan and vocalize our discomfort, we will usually get greater sympathy and assistance. In the animal world, if they show weakness, they will either get thrown out of the pack or eaten by a predator. Hence, they just keep moving as best as they can. The great news is we have lots of options to help. The treatments I use are many and varied.

Nutriceuticals like glucosamine and chondroitin create more joint fluid to make the joints more slippery and thereby reduce friction, inflammation and pain. Some of these can actually repair whatever cartilage is left in the joint. Anti-inflammatories will decrease pain by decreasing inflammation. Pain meds block the neurological recognition of pain. Lastly, acupuncture and cold laser therapy are more holistic approaches to these problems that many people find valuable, especially when traditional methods fail to give the desired relief. One final point is regarding activity. Moderation is important. Too much is bad, but too little is equally bad. Cater the exercise to the results. If the chosen activity level results in increased discomfort and symptoms, change it around.

Weight Management: Unfortunately, over 50 percent of pets are overweight. The more they weigh, the more stress is put on joints and organs. Every person with an overweight pet tells me, “But they only eat…” That is the problem. We all perceive we should eat more than we should. If any biological being is overweight, it is because we eat too much. So, no matter what amount a pet is eating, if he is fat, he needs to eat less—usually 1/3 to 1/2 less. We humans control the food dish, so it is our fault if our pets are fat. Senior foods are generally deemed necessary, starting at seven-eight years of age. They are lower calorie, higher fiber and lower fat (to help the GI tract), higher in vitamins, lower in protein (to help the kidneys) and some will even include additives for joint health. Don’t supplement your senior pet with protein. That means don’t top their food with steak, chicken, turkey and cheese. I see so many senior pets that have kidney disease and the owners are literally “killing them with kindness” by loading up their food with protein.

These are certainly not all the senior problems we see, but they are some of the most frequent and manageable. Regular veterinary care is important to identify problems and help your pets live the longest and fullest life possible.

Dr. Kirk Dixon’s veterinary practice, Hilton Head Veterinary Clinics, offers care in two locations: 109 Mathews Dr. on Hilton Head Island (843) 681-2890, and 200 Okatie Village Dr. in Okatie, near Sun City (843) 705-9959.

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