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A Wellness Program for Your Senior Pets

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When we pass from middle age to our senior years, we're accustomed to being told that it's time to have regular check-ups, electrocardiograms, and various other medical tests. This allows for the early detection and prompt treatment of many age-related diseases, often before symptoms actually appear.

Because dogs and cats age more quickly than people, their senior years tend to creep up and catch us off guard. It may not be until a pet falls ill that we become aware that it's getting on in years and may need special attention.

"Wellness," not just treatment

To preserve and enhance the quality of life for senior dogs and cats, the veterinary profession recommends a comprehensive approach to senior wellness. Rather than waiting for age-related illness to show itself, current veterinary practice calls for a proactive approach to the health needs of senior pets.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has produced a set of Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats outlining in detail "a working framework for veterinarians dedicated to enhancing the well-being of senior dogs and cats.'' Although the Guidelines are intended as a reference for veterinarians, they provide useful information for the pet owner as well. (A complete summary of the Guidelines, intended for pet owners, is available here.)

When does my pet become a "senior"?

There is no exact age at which a pet becomes a senior, any more than there is for people. Some of the smaller dog breeds are not considered senior until age 10-13 years, while giant breeds are thought of as senior well before that. The Guidelines suggest that pets that are in the last 25 percent of the predicted life span for their species and breed be regarded as "senior.'' Your vet can give you more specific information for your particular pet.

Health exams: the key to monitoring senior pet wellness

The foundation of a senior pet wellness program is to schedule regular veterinary examinations. Keep in mind that the shorter lifespan of your pet means that examinations should be more frequent than would be the case for people. So, twice-a-year examinations are best for the healthy senior pet, more frequently if there is a particular problem that needs to be monitored.

The senior pet wellness exam will include laboratory tests, such as a blood count and urinalysis, to determine baseline measures of critical values. Then, if your senior pet becomes ill, your vet will have a basis for comparison.

Laboratory tests: watching for changes

The AAHA Guidelines recommend that dogs and cats undergo a certain minimum of laboratory tests beginning at middle age. The frequency should increase to twice yearly when your pet reaches its senior years. At minimum, the following tests are recommended:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): The pet CBC measures levels of red and white blood cells and platelets, an increase or decrease of which may signal a health problem.
  • Urinalysis: This test is helpful in detecting kidney problems, diabetes, urinary tract infections and many other conditions in pets.
  • Serum chemistry panel: This measures the levels of electrolytes (eg, potassium, sodium, and magnesium) in pets, the elements calcium and phosphorus, as well as certain enzymes. This panel of tests provides information on the functioning of several organs, including the pet's pancreas, kidneys, and liver.
  • Parasite evaluation: By examining your pet's feces, your veterinarian can confirm the presence of a variety of disease-causing parasites, such as roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm. Additional fecal testing can also detect bleeding in the pet's intestinal tract and some pancreatic disorders.

Depending on your pet's particular condition, your vet may recommend other tests, such as heartworm tests, feline leukemia/immunodeficiency virus tests, as well as x-rays, electrocardiography, or ultrasound.

Diet and exercise: Making the adjustments for your pet

An animal's dietary requirements and exercise needs change with age. Check with your vet to see if an alteration in diet is appropriate for your older pet, particularly if it's gaining or losing weight.

Maintaining a good level of physical activity in the later years is as important for the health of an older pet as it is for older people. Keep your pet as active as the limitations of age will allow.

Vigilance has its rewards

If you stay on top of your senior pet's veterinary care, you will have the pleasure of knowing that your pet's later years are as healthy and vigorous as they can be. It's well worth the effort.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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