Sunday, May 1, 2011


Last week, Helpful Buckeye gave you some suggestions for how to know when your pet is approaching its "Senior" years.  As we discussed, it is almost never an overnight occurrence but rather comes on more gradually.  Not only that, but when the senior part of a pet's life shows up can vary quite a bit between large and small dogs as well as between dogs and cats.  You might be able to detect these changes at home simply from observing your pets' activity level, appearance, and behavior.  In conjunction with regular, semi-annual visits to your veterinarian for wellness exams, you should be capable of determining pretty well just about when your dog or cat is making the transition from its "mature" years to its "senior or geriatric" years.

As this realization hits you, that you now have a senior pet on your hands, your next question will usually be, "What health issues or changes can I expect to see?"  A list of the more common changes you might detect comes from the ASPCA:

There are many health issues more common to aging dogs, including:

Symptoms to watch out for and promptly report include incontinence, lumps, constipation or diarrhea, shortness of breath, coughing, weakness, unusual discharges, changes in weight, appetite, urination or water intake, stiffness or limping, increased vocalization and uncharacteristic aggression or significant behavior change.  If you notice any unusual symptoms, please don’t wait for your regularly scheduled checkup to see your vet.

Several diseases and/or medical conditions may also start showing up (compiled from the ASPCA and the American Animal Hospital Association):

  • kidney and liver disease
  • more frequent intestinal problems
  • prostate disease and testicular cancer 
  • breast cancer and infected uterus
  • diabetes
  • arthritis and degenerative joint disease
  • cognitive problems
  • Sustained, significant increase in water consumption or urination

Granted, most of these signs could appear in dogs of any age but they are more likely to be seen in older dogs and, of course, would require a quicker response.  Some additional considerations from the St. Louis Beacon:

• Sudden weight loss or gain
• Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than two days
• Significant increase in appetite
• Repeated vomiting
• Diarrhea lasting over three days
• Difficulty in passing stool or urine
• Change in housebreaking
• Lameness lasting more than five days or lameness in more than one leg
• Noticeable decrease in vision
• Open sores or scabs on the skin that persist for more than one week
• Foul mouth odor or drooling that lasts more than two days
• Increasing size of the abdomen
• Increasing inactivity or amount of time spent sleeping
• Hair loss, especially if accompanied by scratching or if in specific areas (as opposed to generalized)
• Excessive panting
• Inability to chew dry food
• Blood in stool or urine
• Sudden collapse or bout of weakness
• A seizure (convulsion)
• Persistent coughing or gagging
• Breathing heavily or rapidly at rest

Just like humans, older dogs succumb to cancer, kidney disease and cirrhosis. As veterinary oncology becomes more accepted, pet owners have many treatment options, including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Dr. Stephen Brammeier says about 30 percent of his patients opt for some type of cancer treatment, but the main objective is always the comfort of the dog.

Older dogs may also develop Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, a condition that has been compared to Alzheimer's disease or senile dementia in humans. "They get disoriented. They get more distant. Housebreaking breaks down," Brammeier said. Other symptoms include restlessness, pacing and getting "stuck" in corners or under furniture. While not curable, he said, there is medication for this condition.


Cat owners might be wondering if they should watch for anything like these signs in their cats.  Yes, cats do show a lot of these signs, as well as some others.  The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers this list of "senior" concerns for cat owners:
  • Decreased skin elasticity
  • Decreased digestion/absorption of fats
  • Reduced stress tolerance
  • Altered sleep/wake cycle
  • Decreased hearing
  • Decreased sense of smell
  • Decreased vision capabilities
  • Brittle nails
  • Stiffness in lower spine
  • Constipation
  • Dental/periodontal disease
  • Thyroid swellings
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cognitive decline
  • Heart muscle deterioration
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • High blood pressure 
Once you've realized that you are starting to see some of these health changes in your older pets, you might ask, "What lifestyle changes might help my older pet?"  Again, the ASPCA addresses this question:

Dogs, especially older ones, tend to love routine. But for the sake of their health, your vet may recommend the following changes:

Aging animals undergo metabolic and body composition changes. Some of these are unavoidable, but others can be managed with diet. Dog foods formulated for seniors should be lower in fat, but not lower in protein (ask your vet for a recommendation).  Since smaller dogs live longer and don't experience age-related changes as early as bigger dogs, size is used to determine when it’s time to feed your canine a senior diet:
Small breeds/dogs weighing less than 20 pounds—7 years of age
Medium breeds/dogs weighing 21 to 50 pounds—7 years of age
Large breeds/dogs weighing 51 to 90 pounds—6 years of age
Giant breeds/dogs weighing 91 pounds or more—5 years of age

More frequent feedings are easier on a dog’s digestive system than one or two large meals a day.

Some vets feel that aging dogs benefit from the addition of dietary supplements, also known as “nutriceuticals.” Common nutriceuticals added to senior food formulas include glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene and extra vitamin C and vitamin E. Speak with your vet about whether your dog needs additional supplements for specific health issues.

Some further advice from veterinarian, Marty Becker:

People flip over puppies, but to me, a well-loved older dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. An older dog has a nobleness about him, a look in the eyes that speaks of years of the special love that only a pet can give – trusting, nonjudgmental and unwaveringly true.

Your dog's health as he ages is not entirely in your control, but you can have a real impact on his attitude. Your dog doesn't know he's getting older. His gray hairs concern him not, nor does he worry about the other visible effects of time – the thickening of his body, the thinning of his limbs. He doesn't count the number of times he can fetch a ball before tiring and compare that to his performance when he was a young dog in his prime.

A dog lives in the now. Just as he doesn't reflect on his past, he can't imagine his future. Your dog takes his cues from you. When you're upbeat, encouraging and loving, he'll be at his best, no matter his age.

This time can be a special one for both of you, and it's up to you to make the most of it.

As your dog ages, increase the frequency and diminish the intensity of his exercise. Instead of taking your dog to the park once a week to chase tennis balls until he's exhausted, take him for a long walk daily. If your dog is having problems with physical activity, talk to your veterinarian. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may help, as may supplements such as glucosamine and omega-3 oils, or complementary treatments such as acupuncture. Your veterinarian can also prescribe medications that may address the confusion and anxiety some old dogs experience.

More information from Dr. Brammeier, in the St. Louis Beacon:

The pet food industry, too, has adjusted formulas to accommodate older pets by adding fatty acids, extra vitamins and extra protein to help the less-efficient digestive systems of older dogs absorb nutrients, said Mark Roos, director of Global Nutrition and Communications at Purina.

"The general estimate is that, versus 10-15 years ago, dogs and cats are living an average of five years longer," he said. Market share of senior pet products is growing.

"We're starting to see more and more of the senior products being used," he said, though some owners are apparently reluctant to buy "senior" food, because they don't wish to see their pets as being old.

Dr. Brammeier's tips for keeping your senior dog healthy:

1. Pay attention to dental health. Have your dog's teeth cleaned, and brush them regularly. Dental problems and excessive dental infection can reduce the length and quality of a dog's life. (Imagine a mouthful of toothachy teeth). For dogs who cannot have their teeth cleaned, vets can prescribe "pulse periodontal antibiotics," which help control infections in a dog's mouth, especially under the gum line.

2. Maintain routine medical care. Have your senior dog examined by a vet every six months. The vet should test for parasites, heartworm, liver and kidney function, check thyroid and examine the eyes for glaucoma. Keep all vaccinations current, as an older dog may have a weaker immune system.

3. Continue to give your dog moderate exercise, such as a 30-minute walk twice a day. When dogs become arthritic, they are in pain and may limit their movement, reducing muscle tone. Brammeier gives his arthritic patients NSAIDS or acupuncture to help them keep moving freely.

4. Feed your senior pet the best possible food and avoid table scraps, especially if the dog is overweight. Excess weight is especially hard on the joints of aging dogs.

For a good review of how lifestyle changes can help your aging dogs, take a few minutes to listen to this podcast from the American Veterinary Medical Association about keeping your geriatric dog happy and healthy:

Next week, Helpful Buckeye will conclude this topic of pets facing the toughness of getting older.


For only the 4th time in NBA history, an 8th-seeded team knocked off a #1 seed in the playoffs.  Unfortunately for Helpful Buckeye, the San Antonio Spurs were that team that got eliminated by Memphis.  This continues a run of 4 teams that Helpful Buckeye follows that have been eliminated on their way to a championship in 2011:  The Pittsburgh Steelers, Ohio State and Pitt men's basketball teams, and now the Spurs.  Perhaps I need to reconsider my allegiances?  Or, as Desperado keeps reminding me, they must all be pretty good teams to begin with or they wouldn't keep making it to their respective playoffs.  And, as we all know, only 1 team can ultimately win it all.  On to next year for all of them.  For the next several months, I'll be pushing the LA Dodgers to play better and make a decent showing in the National League west division.


Helpful Buckeye was able to steal another outside bike ride this week...unfortunately, this was also the same day the Forest Service chose to conduct a "controlled burn" of part of the forest where I ride.  For much of my 28-mile ride, I was pretty much surrounded by smoke still was better than riding the stationary bike at the athletic club.

With any luck at all, Desperado and Helpful Buckeye will be enjoying this location while over in California.

Pismo Beach and Pier

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~


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