Aging in Companion Animals - part 1


Hello friends of YVH, and welcome to our first blog post! My name is Dr. Muir, and I wanted to start out by talking a little bit about one of my favorite life stages - geriatric pets. I love grey muzzles - I’ve got two senior dogs at home right now and while they are only approximately 1 year apart, they have aged quite differently. Casey (the fluffy black and tan mix) is 13 years old and acts like she’s ancient, while Midnight (the black cocker spaniel) is 12 years old and other than a touch of gray on his muzzle and a few warts has barely seemed to age since he was 4.


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Midnight and Casey doing what they do best.


Senior pets really make wonderful companions. Sometimes we have them since they are puppies and kittens, and we have a lifetime of memories and knowledge of their personality, and other times we adopt senior dogs and cats when we are looking for a more laid back companion than a puppy or kitten might be. Older dogs and cats still have plenty of love to give either way! However, as cats and dogs age, they become more likely to develop diseases. Often the symptoms of these diseases can start very gradually, and aren’t very obvious at first. This is the stage when we like to catch those diseases, because the earlier you can identify a disease, even if there is no full cure, often you can find a way to slow it down and manage it so that your cat or dog can still enjoy a good quality of life for as long as possible. The clues that we as veterinarians and technicians hear in the office can sound like:


“She’s not using the litter box anymore”

“He seems to get out of breath on walks”

“She’s been vomiting more often - not just hairballs”

“He has trouble getting up in the back end, and can’t do stairs anymore”
“She just feels bony all of a sudden”

“He pants all the time now”


Now of course, some slowing down is often normal in older dogs just as it is in some older people. But, things to watch for would be avoidance of stairs, difficulty rising, missing landings when jumping, limping, avoidance of high-walled litter boxes, or change in gait. There can be a number of causes for these symptoms - most people assume it’s just arthritis, and it certainly can be, but other things to consider would be torn ligaments, neurologic weakness from degenerating nerves or nerve compression, disc disease in the back, cancer of bone or cartilage, lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases (especially in Connecticut). Some of these things we can treat and maybe fully reverse, such as the tick-borne diseases, or torn ligaments and disc disease if the cat or dog is a good surgical candidate. Other things can be managed symptomatically with medications for pain and inflammation or alternative therapies such as therapeutic laser, or acupuncture, or physical rehabilitation. There are some conditions that we don’t currently have ways to intervene in, but medicine is evolving everyday so it’s always good to get it checked out! Sometimes we can even recommend joint supplements or other things preventatively - if your dog or cat is middle aged or older, talk to your veterinarian about the proper time to start a glucosamine chondroitin supplement such as Dasuquin Advanced or Phycox.


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One of Kathy Grasso’s geriatric Danes receiving laser therapy.

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One of Dr. O’Callaghan’s patients receiving acupuncture.


One thing that we check for when we examine every animal is weight loss. Weight loss isn’t always fat loss, sometimes it’s from muscle wasting. In older animals, metabolism shifts to a balance that favors break-down of muscle, which leads to a more “bony” appearance. This is a change that can happen very slowly and isn’t always noticeable to the owner until there has been a drastic change, so that’s one reason why it’s important to bring senior vets in to see the veterinarian either once or twice a year (and any time a concern pops up). Muscle wasting can be the result of a disease process such as kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism (in cats), dental disease, heart disease, liver or gallbladder disease, diseases of the adrenal glands, cancer, degenerative myelopathy, or other conditions. With all those possibilities, getting a full exam is key to help us determine what the cause could be! We might recommend bloodwork or imaging (x-rays or ultrasound) to investigate the cause so we can offer medical intervention if necessary. Some of these conditions can be very common - for example, one recent statistic that I heard at the last veterinary conference I attended is that somewhere between 30-50% of cats will develop some level of kidney disease as they age. That’s a huge percentage! And that’s a condition that we can try to slow down with diet change and potentially the addition of fluid therapy. Kidney values are something that show up on blood screens, so this is an easy one to catch early if exams and blood work are done regularly. Symptoms of kidney disease don’t show up until at least 80% of the kidneys are affected, so catching it before there are even symptoms is the best way to slow it down.


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Our old hospital cat, Marshmallow. We miss you Marshy!


There are some diseases that result in weight gain, or at least what looks like weight gain. Dogs and cats can develop a “pot bellied” appearance when they have certain conditions. Heart disease and liver disease can cause fluid to “back up” into the abdomen. Cancer can cause abdominal masses or produce fluid or blood that spills into the abdomen. Cysts, inflammation, or infection can also cause the belly to look enlarged. When the adrenal glands don’t function properly, you can get conditions where the belly looks large and the skin and fur quality may be poor - this often is accompanied by a low energy level. You may also see weight gain in a dog when the thyroid isn’t functioning well - even if their appetite decreases. Hypothyroid dogs may have a poor skin/coat quality too.


That concludes part 1 of Aging in Companion Animals! Stay tuned for part 2 - lumps and bumps, bathroom habits, coughing and exercise intolerance, and brain changes.


As always, if your dog or cat shows any signs of coughing, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea, straining, decreased energy or appetite, or changes in urination, please come and see us so we can make him or her feel better!


--Dr. Dana Muir-Preston


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