First published 4/18
This is a great time to be a veterinarian. Thanks to preventative care, improvements in medicine and technology as well as easier access to specialized care, pets are living longer than ever. Indoor cats frequently live into their mid-to-late teens, even into their twenties. Dogs have a much greater variance in life expectancy, but it is not uncommon for us to see dogs that live to be 15 or 16, occasionally older. Pets are a much more intimate part of our lives than ever before. In fact, most owners consider their pets family members. I know we do. The good news is that we have more options than ever for our pets. The down side is that making the right decisions regarding our pets' health can be very hard. Awareness of our pets' heath and providing medical care when needed is the key to longer, healthier, happier lives for our older pets.
Preventative care is a must for older patients. Some recommend twice yearly exam for any pets over age seven. Because health can vary widely for those pets: some being very healthy, and some showing signs of age-related problems, I feel it is difficult to generalize, but every pet, whether six months or 15 years of age should be seen for a routine exam at least once a year. This allows us to keep up with changes your pet is experiencing and advise you on things to watch for that could become problems. Vaccination in older pets is also very individualistic. If your pet still goes camping with you, gets groomed or boarded frequently, it may require vaccines like bordetella and Lyme disease as well as rabies, which should always be kept up to date. Older pets may actually be more susceptible to infections than younger ones, even if they have been vaccinated their entire lives. However, if your pet has an auto-immune problem, we may recommend that vaccines are minimized or even stopped completely. Flea preventative in all pets and heartworm preventative in dogs should continue throughout your pets' life unless contraindicated due to specific problems.
Vigilance is another key to keeping your older pet healthy. Some of the most important things to look for are changes in drinking and urination, changes in appetite or changes in activity level. A change in weight without a change in diet can also be an important sign of a problem. If your older pet is drinking more than usual, it could indicate anything from a urinary tract infection to diabetes or kidney failure. Decreased appetite is also a nonspecific sign that occurs with many diseases associated with aging. Even increased appetite could indicate a problem like hyperthyroidism in cats or diabetes. A decrease in activity level could indicate arthritis or heart disease. An increase in activity can also indicate problems, too, such as hyperthyroidism and cognitive dysfunction or senility. Another big concern for owners of older pets is cancer. With cancer, we can see any of the signs above depending on the organ affected and the type of cancer. The earlier we are able to determine if a change in behavior is the sign of a problem and what that problem is, the better our chances of treating the problem and maintaining a good quality of life for our loved ones.
Older pets typically require more diagnostics, like bloodwork and xrays, than younger pets. If you have brought your pet in due to a change in its behavior, we will likely want to do bloodwork to determine how the organs are functioning. This could be to diagnose a problem or make sure that certain medications are safe to use for your pet. X-rays and ultrasound are also frequently used in older pets to determine the extent of a problem, and how best to treat it. Depending on the problem, a specialist may also be recommended. We frequently refer owners to veterinary surgeons, internists, cardiologists and oncologists to assist with difficult problems in older pets. At this point, the decision-making process can become more complicated, but there are many situations where a specialist is the right choice for an owner of an older pet.
Keeping up with recommended rechecks and medications is vital. Frequently, we will want to recheck your pet, especially if we have started a new medication or identified abnormalities. With many diseases associated with age, if we identify the problem early, we can keep your pet healthy for a long while, sometimes years. But these problems tend to be chronic, and identifying subtle changes can be the difference in your pet feeling great or becoming very sick. Rechecks give us the opportunity to assess if what we are doing is working or if we need to try something else. Medicating older pets can also be a challenge. Often, pets are on several different medications, sometimes with frequent dosing. Making charts with a schedule of when all medications need to be given is helpful. There are also ways to receive medication reminders electronically. If you go to your pet on our website, you can set it up for reminders for doses as frequently as several times a day or just once a month. Medications can also be compounded into several different forms: liquid, chews, mini-melts, powder, to make getting the medication into your pet easier.
With an older pet, loss is inevitable, but being aware of your pets health status, and knowing that you have provided the appropriate care for your pet, can make the loss a little more bearable. One of the most difficult aspects of my job is discussing end of life decisions with pet owners. If it is a pet I have been helping take care of for years, it is emotionally painful, but having that relationship with the owner and pet makes the discussion a little easier. Talking about choices and quality of life, cost and expectations with someone I have only seen a few times takes a much longer time, especially if the owner is emotional and not thinking clearly. Regardless of my relationship with a pet owner, one of the most important responsibilities of a veterinarian is to take the time necessary to answer questions and offer support to the owner so that they can make the best decision for their pet and their family.
Although our pets will never live as long as we would like them to, there are many things we can do to help them live long, healthy, happy lives. A good relationship with your veterinarian is an important part of staying on top of their health.