AMES, Iowa -- Pets, like people, are spending more years as seniors. And, like people, they're feeling it.
Just as human life expectancies in the United States have increased, so have the life expectancies of our pets, says an Iowa State University veterinarian.
"Years ago, a dog would have been considered quite old at five to seven years of age," said Dr. Kim Langholz, a community veterinarian at Iowa State's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Now, depending on the breed, dogs can live into their teens. And many cats live well into their twenties."
When a pet has reached its golden years -- older than six or seven -- it should be seen by the veterinarian at least every six months, Langholz said.
"Pets experience a different rate of aging than humans do. One calendar year equals about six to seven years for your companion animal," Langholz said.
Like people, older pets need routine physical examinations, blood work to monitor internal health, X-rays and EKGs. Dental exams and cleaning also are important to prevent dental disease from developing into something more serious.
During a physical examination, the veterinarian will compare the animal's weight today to its last visit. If a cat loses one to two pounds in six to 12 months and hasn't been on a diet, the veterinarian becomes quite concerned. Is the cat hyperthyroid? Diabetic? Does it have some form of cancer? Are the cat's kidneys working properly?
"Many problems -- like cataracts or dental disease -- can develop in a six-month period and the pet owner may not notice the changes that are occurring," Langholz said.
"Although the changes associated with the natural aging process generally are not reversible, we can extend the animal's life and improve its quality of life through dietary changes, medication and modifications in the environment, for example," she said.
While it's important to work with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate health plan for your older pet, Langholz offers the following tips for dealing with some common conditions.
In addition to pain medication, environmental modifications may be necessary. Use a ramp so the larger dog doesn't have to climb stairs or jump into the car. A raised bed is helpful so the dog doesn't have to rise directly off the floor. A cat with arthritic hips might avoid the litter box if there are many stairs to climb to reach it, or the edge of the litter box is too tall. To minimize the cat's discomfort, try changing to a litter box with a shorter edge and place it on the same floor as her food and water dishes.
Many pets suffer hearing loss as they age. When outdoors, keep your pet on a leash to avoid disastrous accidents with vehicles. To avoid startling your pet while it sleeps, stomp your feet or tap the kennel. Let the vibrations awaken your pet rather than touching the animal. A pet may react to the sudden touch by snapping because it was startled and a bit fearful.
Vision may also deteriorate as the animal ages. A pet with cataracts could be a candidate for surgery to restore vision. For a pet with glaucoma, medication may control the pressure in the eyes or surgery could be required to make the animal comfortable. Pets with permanent vision loss compensate very well. They seem to accept and adapt to the change with little difficulty. Some owners aren't even aware that their pet is completely blind! If you have a pet that is visually impaired or blind, block access to stairs to eliminate accidental falls, serve as its guide during walks and avoid changing its environment.
Dogs and cats can develop a wide range of heart problems. Some breeds seem predisposed to develop cardiac problems, while others develop murmurs and other heart abnormalities as they age. When properly diagnosed with X-rays, electrocardiographs and cardiac ultrasound, most heart ailments can be managed successfully with medications.
Another aging change in animals relates to mental function. Older pets can start to have problems remembering previously learned skills such as basic commands and housetraining or litter box training. Your pet may not recognize you or may act disoriented, appear lost as it wanders around your home and/or may vocalize more often. A physical examination is a must. Using the physical examination findings and diagnostic test results, the veterinarian can eliminate other health concerns that could mimic diminished mental function. If your pet is dealing with cognitive dysfunction you and your veterinarian can discuss whether environmental modifications, medication, or both are needed to improve its quality of life.
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