Since our furry family members unfortunately live shorter lifespans, they tend to age more quickly than humans, and can have problems develop and progress faster than we realize! The good news is that dog life expectancy has doubled in the past forty years, and house cats now live twice as long as feral cats. The reasons for these improvements are better health care and a healthier diet. However, aging in pets may come with diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cognitive decline and arthritis just to name a few.
What can you, as a dog parent, do to extend the ‘healthspan’ of your pet? The healthspan is defined as ‘the period of life spent in good health for your senior pet’. Who wouldn’t want more good years? As your pets get older, they need extra care and attention. Let’s start with the definition of a ‘senior’ pet… how old is your dog or cat when we start calling them ‘senior’? Cats are generally considered ‘senior’ when they’re ten years of age or older. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) uses the following criteria for dogs (larger breed dogs have a shorter life span than smaller breeds):
- Small or toy breeds (less than 20 pounds): 8 to 11 years
- Medium-sized breeds (20 to 50 pounds): 8 to 10 years
- Large breeds (50 to 90 pounds): 8 to 9 years
- Giant breeds (more than 90 pounds): 6 to 7 years
Senior pet exams
Regular exams by a veterinarian can detect problems in senior pets before they become serious or life-threatening. This helps your pet lead a longer, healthier life. We recommend that senior pets see a veterinarian twice a year, so our doctors can pick up on signs of illness or other problems early before they become bigger problems. Remember, our pets age much faster than humans so months to a pet are equivocal to years for a human in most cases. Senior pet exams may include dental care, bloodwork, and we will check specifically for signs of aging-related diseases.
Pets show pain in different ways than humans do. It’s very important to remember that pets often do not cry, whimper, whine or vocalize at all when displaying pain or discomfort. Oftentimes the signs are more subtle. They can become slower, they may not want to go up the steps anymore, they may pant, refuse certain foods that they used to like, seem stiff or just be starting to ‘show their age’. In general, be aware that changes in behavior tend to be signs of underlying issues, not just old age. Don’t accept these changes, talk to your veterinarian about them! We can help figure out what is going on with your pet and treat them for it. Technology has brought about so many new treatments to combat the signs of aging, there is sure to be one option to suit the needs of every pet and family.
Many pets (including cats!) will suffer from osteoarthritis (often called arthritis or OA) when they age. Arthritis worsens over time, often resulting in chronic pain. In dogs the symptoms may include stiffness, refusing to get up, licking joints, and lack of enthusiasm for walks or playing. In cats the symptoms may be more subtle: reduced mobility, changes in grooming, missing the litter box, or not jumping onto window sills where your cat used to like hanging out. We have several options to help your pet’s quality of life when they have arthritis.
Laser therapy and medicines
In both dogs and cats, cold laser therapy seems to work miracles. Cold laser utilizes low level light to reduce pain and inflammation and to stimulate healing. We have seen so many of our patients improve and go back to being ‘their old self’ after just a few treatments. Besides laser therapy there is a new product on the market which is an injectable that we can administer once a month that works to combat pain from osteoarthritis. There are a myriad of other medications and supplements that can help mitigate and prevent joint pain as well. In short, there is a lot we can do for your arthritic dog or cat to make their life better!
Become a citizen scientist
“The Dog Aging Project” is a long-term study of aging dogs (your pet can enroll!) in the hopes of discovering the genetic keys to health with the hopes of increasing the “healthspan” of dogs and humans alike. This study is conducted through the University of Washington but any dog that meets the criteria nationwide can join. At the Dog Aging Project a team of veterinarians and scientists partner with regular dog owners across the United States. They gather information about the health and life experiences of dogs and their humans, because they want to understand how biology, lifestyle and environment affect health and longevity. These scientists will use this information to help our dogs live the best lives possible. By studying the aging process in dogs, they will be able to better predict, diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses. Participants are ‘citizen scientists’ who collect data about their dogs. My dog Huckleberry has been enrolled for five years now. If you want to participate with your dog, go to www.dogagingproject.org. This website is also an excellent source of information about your aging dog. For more information about senior pets in general (cats and dogs), go to https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/senior-pets
October 18th 2023
Bridgeport Veterinary Hospital