Tackle Common Health Problems of Senior Dogs and Cats

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By Steven L. Wheeler, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (Internal Medicine) Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado (VRCC)
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Our dogs and cats are living longer lives, thanks to improvements in nutrition and advances in veterinary medicine. As you and your furry friends grow old together, here is some information and tips on some of the most common things to watch for in dogs and cats.

Obesity

Obesity is defined as body weight exceeding ideal by at least 20% or development of health problems due to accumulation of excess body fat. Obesity is associated with orthopedic diseases, elevated triglycerides in blood, diabetes, urinary incontinence, and respiratory problems in dogs. In cats, it’s associated with diabetes and constipation. Increased incidence of cancer may also be associated with obesity in dogs and cats.

Older dogs and cats are less active and have lower caloric requirements. Ideally, senior dogs should either be fed smaller amounts or changed to a lower calorie diet to prevent obesity from developing. Once obesity has occurred, changing to a lower calorie diet and gradually increasing activity at the same time is most effective in promoting weight loss.  Work with your veterinarian to provide specific dietary and exercise guidelines. Overweight cats may achieve weight loss with low carbohydrate, high protein diets. The goal should be to achieve ideal body weight over a four to six month period.

Arthritis

Arthritis is commonly seen in older dogs. While arthritis is not life threatening, it adversely affects quality of life.  

Management of arthritis is best accomplished by using several methods simultaneously. If your pet is overweight, weight loss is a good place to start. Veterinary physical therapists are helpful in promoting non-weight bearing exercises such as swimming and underwater treadmill training. Acupuncture can also be very beneficial in managing arthritis. While the effectiveness of glucosamine in dogs is controversial, some dogs may show improved comfort with this therapy. There are also a variety of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) that have been developed for dogs that can be very helpful in alleviating arthritis-associated pain. While these medications are much safer than aspirin, they should only be given under the direction of your veterinarian. 

Dental Disease

Dental disease is very common in senior pets. Signs of dental disease include odor to breath, inflamed or bleeding gums, visible dental tartar, and less commonly decreased appetite. Daily tooth brushing and regular dental cleanings are very helpful in preventing periodontal disease and tooth loss. Your veterinarian can also prescribe specific dental chew treats and prescription diets that are helpful in preventing dental disease. 

Cancer

Cancer is more commonly encountered in senior pets. Since cancer can affect any of the pet’s organ systems, there are a wide variety of signs including poor appetite, weight loss, lethargy, difficulty urinating or defecating, skin masses or sores, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing or cough, seizures, and sneezing especially with one-sided nasal bleeding. All skin and subcutaneous masses should be pointed out to your veterinarian and regular six-month checkups are helpful in diagnosing cancer early in senior patients.  Just like with us, early diagnosis makes it easier to treat.   

Diabetes

Senior pets have been demonstrated to be at increased risk for developing diabetes. Symptoms include increased thirst, increased urine volume, and weight loss. Some diabetic dogs may develop ketoacidosis that can results in poor appetite, vomiting, and lethargy. Management of diabetes in dogs requires twice daily insulin injections and is best managed by feeding two low carb meals daily. And there’s another possible complication—diabetic dogs can potentially develop cataracts, however surgery may restore their sight.

Diabetic cats are frequently overweight. As in dogs, increased thirst and urine volume are the main symptoms. Fortunately, ketoacidosis is less commonly encountered in diabetic cats but if seen the condition must be treated aggressively. Diet is key to management of diabetes in cats. Newly diagnosed nonketotic diabetic cats fed a low carbohydrate diet and treated with twice daily insulin injections have a 60% chance of not requiring insulin within 2 to 3 months. Fortunately, diabetes is not associated with cataracts in cats. 

Kidney Disease

This is very common in both dogs and cats. Signs include increased thirst, increased urine volume, decreased appetite, vomiting, odor to breath, and oral ulceration. Performing lab work (CBC, serum chemistries, and urinalysis) ideally every 6 months but even annually is helpful in diagnosing kidney disease at an early stage. Abdominal ultrasound is helpful in assessing screening the urinary system for stones and masses.

Prescription kidney diets that are lower in protein, phosphorus, and sodium are helpful. When changing to a prescription kidney diet, the new diet is better accepted if the change is made gradually over a week’s time. There are many different prescription kidney diets available for dogs and cats.  Some finicky pets will accept homemade kidney diets and you can get recipes from your veterinarian.

Pets with more severe kidney disease may require initial hospitalization for IV fluid therapy. If diagnosed early, many dogs and cats with kidney problems can be successfully managed for years.

Heart Disease

If you have a smaller breed dog, it’s at increased risk for developing a heart condition called mitral regurgitation. In mitral regurgitation, degeneration of the mitral valve leads to leaking of blood within the heart. Over time, enlargement occurs. In more severe cases, congestive heart failure can occur and fluid can develop in the lungs.

Signs of congestive heart failure include cough, shortness or breath, and decreased stamina. Ask your veterinarian for chest radiographs and an ultrasound of the heart to make the diagnosis.   With the proper medication, many dogs with mitral regurgitation can live for years with a good quality of life.

Hyperthyroidism

If your cat is eating well but getting thinner, hyperthyroidism may be to blame. Other signs of hyperthyroidism in cats include agitation, excessive appetite, vomiting, and increased stool volume with softer stools. Treatment options include radioiodine, medical therapy, surgery and a change in diet.  Ask your veterinarian about methimazole. It is effective but must be given for the rest of the cat’s life. 

Remember, early detection is key. If you are an observant pet owner and make regular visits to your veterinarian your senior pet can live a much more comfortable, healthy and happy life.