As a veterinarian with a few years (translation: decades) under my stethoscope, I have come to really appreciate the puppies and kittens that come in to our office for their first visits and then watching them grow and develop over years and move on into the autumn and winter of their lives. It is very much like I have a permanent pass into a theater and watching a movie of them as our clients share stories of their furry friends' antics each time they come in.
Yesterday a client told us of their Brittany Spaniel playing with a doe in "Disney-like" fashion in their back field virtually every day. On the big screen I can see the doe waiting for the Britt to come outside in the back lawn to chase her, then she chases the dog and back and forth they go. I can also "see Grady", the kitten, hanging on the curtains 6 feet off the ground looking down on mom, and jumping in and out of boxes on the floor playing hide-n-seek.
Almost in a blink of an eye, comes the senior years and you know the movie is coming to its conclusion soon. Aging is like that. It sneaks up on you. You notice a slowing down that is gradually progressive. Things begin to change including stiffer joints, loss of vision and hearing, increases in naps and sleeping, changes in urination and defecation habits, eventually affecting behavior and memory to the point of becoming "crotchety".which are just a few of MY symptoms.
Dogs and cats go through a similar multitude of aging processes that really vary from individual to individual. Some age much faster, some slower than others. We have 12-year-old dogs that act and look like youngsters and vice versa. We see a lot more age-related diseases now because our pets are healthier and are living so much longer. Especially diseases like arthritis, organ failure (kidney and liver disease), cancer, and dementia.
Identical to human medicine, the keys to a healthier senior life are preventing things that exacerbate the aging process and managing those conditions that can be managed. Without a doubt, the single most helpful thing you can do for your senior dog or cat is to prevent obesity. Obesity affects every part of a seniors life including joint issues, heart disease, cancer, liver disease, diabetes, kidney failure, respiration, decreased activity, loss of muscle mass to name a few. Bottom line an obese pet dies sooner, period.
A senior pet that is a good weight will be more active and healthier. They will move with less pain, which: Keeps fresh joint fluid in the joints, keeps muscles and bones thicker and stronger, allows them to breathe easier (because they can take deep breathes without abdominal fat pressing against their lungs), is less work on the heart which keeps the organs (especially kidneys) healthier. We are real fans of vegetables to achieve weight loss in dogs. Low cal and senior foods are virtually a must for older dogs and cats.
At some point in even healthy weight individuals you may need medication for stiff joints (arthritis, osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease are all the same thing). There are wonderful anti-inflammatories available now that are safe and helpful. They are called COX-2 inhibitors and are meant for long term use (Rimadyl, Previcox, Metacam, Deramaxx). These are safer than aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, which can cause thinning of the blood, GI ulcers, and can be toxic especially for cats. We are also fans of glucosamine, both oral and injectable, which help with joint fluid, and fatty acids (fish oils) which have additional anti-inflammatory effects. These alone can dramatically improve quality of life and keep your dog and cat more active.
Increases in water intake and urine output is a common complaint in geriatric dogs and cats. Blood work and urinalysis will tell whether this is possibly infection, diabetes, liver disease or kidney disease. Kidney disease is a very common reason geriatric dogs and cats will drink and urinate more often. Think of the kidney's job as keeping water and protein in the body, and getting rid of urine (nitrogen) waste.
As the kidneys age they may start to NOT do "their job" and water and protein escapes or leaks out of the body. Therefore your pet becomes dehydrated and needs to drink more to stay hydrated, but that water also leaks out through the kidney in a never ending cycle. As a result they are urinating more (because its water) and drinking more to try and stay hydrated. The loss of protein through the kidneys causes weight loss at the same time. The nitrogen not being excreted by the kidney builds up in the blood stream and poisons the body with its own urine waste. This makes your pet feel nauseated, causes loss of appetite, vomiting, and lethargy. Unfortunately, this condition is progressive and worsens over time and can only be managed with fluid therapy, medications and diet.
Wasting conditions like kidney failure is one of the rare instances that we try and increase calorie intake to try and stay ahead of the progressive weight loss. I am battling this with my 17 year old cat Jag. We have 6 different bowls of food out for him to choose from, to encourage him to eat and keep his calorie intake up (he has become quite finicky).
Dementia or cognitive dysfunction is a slow, sneaky disease that creeps into your pet's senior life almost unnoticed. It can present as pacing (especially at night), blank staring, wandering away, inappropriate urination or defecation, even aggression. It can be very frustrating because they may be very physically healthy. They seem anxious and often you just can't figure out what they want or how to make them happy. This can get quite serious as it progresses and the frustration for clients and pets can be overwhelming. Sedatives and anti-anxiety medications may provide some temporary relief.
This is also part of the movie I get to watch as "my pets" in our office age. I feel a certain kinship to the Norman Rockwell, melancholy, graying dog that lies down in our exam room and thumps his tail as we examine him. I can see him lying by the fireplace at home, client in the lazy boy; reading. It's getting late in the movie for him I know, but I prefer an ending like Homeward Bound when Shadow comes trotting back over the hill. I also realize the movie will have to eventually end, the curtains will close and they will ask me to leave the theater too and that's ok. I've had a long day and think I'll take a nap now. I am kind of tired, I think I'll take a break now.