By Dr. Bruce Little
Thanks to better care through education, research, technology and awareness of need, pets are living longer than ever before; however, as pets get older, they need extra care and attention. Conscious observance by the pet’s family can identify problems and subtle issues before they become major problems. Regular veterinary examinations can detect problems as pets age before they become advanced or life-threatening. These factors serve to improve the chances of a longer and healthier life for your pets as they live longer, bringing joy and happiness to our lives.
It has long been established that dogs and cats have a shorter life span than humans. That is true if we exclude accidents and serious illnesses in the human population. It is sometimes stated by pet owners, dog trainers, kennel operators and other caretakers of our pets that dogs and cats age at a rate of seven years for every human year. This assumption is not necessarily true. Dogs and cats do age more rapidly than their human counterparts; however, the span of time compared to human years of aging is not consistent over the life of the pet. Conventional knowledge tells us that both dogs and cats appear to be approaching “old age” at age seven years. A seven-year-old cat is thought to be approximately 44 years old in human years. A seven-year-old dog is thought to be 44 to 56 years of age in human years. Please note that in dogs, the comparative age in human years is given as a range depending upon the size, weight, and breed of the dog. Small dogs tend to have a longer life span than larger dogs. Large breeds of dogs are “senior in age” when they are 5 or 6 years of age. Dogs are usually categorized according to breed and size, and their expected life span shortens as they increase in size. Small dogs are those who are 20 pounds and under; medium dogs weigh 21-50 pounds; large dogs weigh 51-90 pounds and very large dogs are categorized as those that weigh more than 90 pounds. Obviously, the genetic make-up contributes to the size of the dog, so dogs can have a normal weight of anywhere between 5 pounds and 150 pounds in some cases.
Old age is not a disease! However, an aging pet can develop certain physical and mental changes that may lead to disease processes within the pet’s body. It is usually easy to spot the signs of aging in dogs such as grey hair around the face and muzzle and a slower, more calculated gait or pace. They may tend to put on more weight or to redistribute their body weight that shows drooping skin under the chin or abdomen. We must remember that a pet’s internal organ systems are also undergoing the aging process and are subject to changes. An older pet is more likely to develop heart, kidney, and liver disease, as well as diabetes, arthritis, or cancer. Cancer accounts for about one-half of the deaths in pets over ten years of age. Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, whereas cats have a definite lower rate of cancer incidence than their human counterparts.
Behavior changes are frequently the first signs of aging in pets. Arthritis is a common finding in older dogs and cats. A dog with arthritis may begin to show irritation when you touch or pet them, especially if you touch the arthritic joint. Dogs may sometimes become grouchy and even bite at the person touching them in these instances. Just like dogs and people, cats commonly develop osteoarthritis as they age. The signs of arthritis in cats can be reluctance to jump, decreased grooming, urinating outside the litter box, hiding, and avoiding human contact. It is best to discover these signs of arthritis in cats early so you can alleviate this pain before more damage is done. If you notice these behaviors in your pets, it is best to take them to your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Veterinarians have many pharmaceuticals and feed supplements available to treat the symptoms of arthritis and alleviate pain. Behavior changes in your pet may also include cognitive dysfunction or senility. They may seem confused or disoriented, not respond to voice commands, show anxiety or nervousness with constant wandering and increased barking or meowing.
Many dogs that are considered to have reached old age will begin to lose some of their hearing or sight capabilities. Older pets can develop cataracts which impair their sight or have hearing complications that predispose them to failures to carry out your voice commands or instructions. Both dogs and cats are blessed with exceptional olfactory or smell senses that allows them to continue to be attracted to people and things even though they may not be able to see or hear them as well as in previous years. This can be especially evident at feeding time, whether it be feeding time for the pets or dinner time for the human family members. It is not unusual for a blind dog to be attracted to the kitchen or dining room when food is placed on the table. This extra sensory smell sensation can also allow those pets that have sight disabilities to recognize family members and known acquaintances with whom they come in contact. It is quite common for these sight impaired dogs to recognize a friend on an outing to the dog park or the bike trail.
Weight can have a tremendous effect on a pet’s health as it gets older. Obesity in pets as they age increases the risk of arthritis, difficulty breathing, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, skin problems, cancer, and other conditions. An overweight pet may not show any early warning signs of health problems, so regular visits to your veterinarian are recommended. Once your veterinarian evaluates your pet’s condition, they can recommend a proper diet and suggest other steps to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. Sudden weight loss in older pets is also a source for concern, especially in cats. Hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and kidney disease are common causes of weight loss as cats age.
We cannot control the aging of our pets. They are going to grow older much quicker than we humans; however, with good husbandry and regular visits to your veterinarian their quality of life can be maintained at a high level compared to a few decades ago. It is imperative that you schedule annual examinations with your veterinarian to assess the health condition of your pet for the best quality of life they can attain. These examinations offer the opportunity to bring all vaccinations and parasite control programs up to date under the watchful eye of your veterinary professional and keep all parasites at bay. Spay and neuter procedures prevent individual medical problems such as mammary or testicular tumors and uterine infections from occurring giving your pet a better chance for good health. A balanced diet will afford good weight management as pet food manufacturers have developed life stage pet food for your pet at any given time as it progresses through the stages of life. Pets should have a puppy or kitten diet when very young, followed by a diet a little higher in protein during the growing and development years, graduate to a maintenance diet through the middle years of their life, then a more easily digested senior diet as the pet grows older. Dental and oral health should be assessed annually. Malformations of the mouth and teeth can cause overbites, tumors, gum infections and other oral conditions that lead to compromised health conditions if left to persist without intervention. As animals age, their dietary needs, and their ability to digest certain foods changes. When pets grow older, they lose some ability to concentrate urine so they need to produce more, and therefore need more water intake to produce more urine. Proper diets for the age and condition of the pet can decrease the workload on the kidneys and help prevent diseases and health issues from developing.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) developed a chart to keep you informed about the age of your pets as compared to the human counterparts in the family. This chart is based on a medium-sized dog weighing 21 to 50 pounds. Other factors including weight, breed, and environment may influence the aging process. Pet ages are approximate calculations.
Determine Your Pets “Real” Age:
Courtesy: American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
Due to improved care from many sources pets are living longer today than they ever have. This enhanced care might stem from better living quarters inside the home with a controlled environment removing the dangers of climatic variances, greater attention to the health and well-being of the pets by the family members, vastly improved veterinary care, lessened threat of predators, researched and manufactured pet foods and pharmaceuticals, and greater awareness and compliance with preventive and wellness programs that curtails the incidence of disease or injury. However, due to the extended length of life in our pet family members, their owners and veterinarians are faced with a new set of conditions that must be taken into consideration to maintain a healthy state of life, both physically and mentally. Regular veterinary examinations can detect problems in older pets before they become advanced or life-threatening, and improve the chances of a longer and healthier life for your pet.
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