By Dr. Becker
Many veterinarians rely entirely on the owners of senior pets to report signs of age-related illness. (I’m not one of them, because my approach is proactive rather than reactive, and my focus is on preventing illness -- not waiting until it occurs.) Unfortunately, many pet parents don’t recognize the signs, or consider changes in their dog’s or cat’s health normal if the symptoms seem related to the animal’s advancing age.
In fact, in a study published recently in the Journal of Small Animal Practice1, it was revealed that the vast majority (80 percent) of owners of dogs older than nine years of age were not aware of at least one significant health problem with their pet.
Study Suggests Most Older Dogs Have Unaddressed Health Problems
The study involved veterinary consultations with the owners of 45 senior dogs. The vet sessions consisted of taking a history of the dog’s health and lifestyle, a full physical examination, and urinalysis.
The history taking was standardized so that the owners were asked the same questions about changes they had noticed as their pet aged. A prompted history taking was also completed using open questions, followed by appropriate closed questions. The physical exam evaluated all organ systems, and the urinalysis included a dipstick urine test and specific gravity.
The 45 dogs in the study were discovered to have an average of about eight health issues each, including ear infections, respiratory distress, arthritis, abdominal masses, heart murmurs or arrhythmias, and lung cancer. According to study authors, the dogs’ owners frequently did not recognize or report serious signs of disease, however, they did report symptoms like increased sleeping, hearing or vision loss, stiffness or lameness, “slowing down,” increased cloudiness of the lens of the eye, increased thirst and urination, pain, signs of osteoarthritis, and dental disease.
As a result of the screenings, 29 further diagnostic procedures were ordered including 10 dental procedures, seven medical treatments, two surgeries, and sadly, the euthanasia of two dogs.
How to Conquer Your Fear of Vet Exams for Your Aging Pet
I think it’s normal for owners of beloved older pets to grow more fearful of vet appointments as their dog, cat, or other animal companion ages. The more years on the pet, the more likely a serious health problem will be diagnosed during a veterinary exam. But I think this view is much more prevalent in clients of traditional vet practices, because the conventional veterinary community is trained to wait for full-blown illness before intervening in an animal’s health.
In my proactive wellness-oriented practice and others like it, long-term clients are less fearful when they bring their elderly companions in for checkups because we (the pet parent and I) have worked as a team throughout the animal’s life to address potential health issues as soon as they arise.
My most vibrant, longest-lived patients are those whose owners not only provide a healthy lifestyle for their pets, but also bring them to my clinic for regular wellness exams – especially as they get up in years or if we are managing current medical issues. The frequency and regularity of their visits allows us to get to work on a developing disorder early in its progression, when there is the best chance for an excellent outcome.
We also review the animal’s nutritional, supplement and medication protocols at each visit and make adjustments as necessary. This allows us to, for example, know when the time is right to begin specific supplementation to prevent or slow the progress of age-related changes like loss of vision, osteoarthritis, and mental decline.
No matter your companion animal’s age, I strongly encourage you to find a wellness-oriented holistic or integrative veterinarian in your area (or at least within driving distance) – a DVM who practices a proactive approach to caring for your pet’s health. The two of you, as a team, can then set about taking steps to keep your furry friend healthy, rather than simply waiting in fear for a dreadful diagnosis.
Tips for Helping Your Pet Age Well
No matter your pet’s age, certainly the foundation for good health and vitality is a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet. The food your dog eats either builds up or tears down his health. His body needs an ideal energy source to promote the processes of metabolism, growth and healing. That perfect fuel is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous canine. And pets' nutritional needs change as they age.
To help with failing eyesight:
- Bilberries are a rich source of flavonoids with antioxidant properties. When taken in capsule form combined with Vitamin E, they protect the eye tissue of humans and halt lens clouding in 97 percent of people with early-stage cataracts. This herb is safe for dogs, so it’s certainly something that might help and won’t harm your pet.
- Leave a radio, television or other background noise on when your pet will be home alone. This will give her a reference point, and should also help mute noises that may startle her.
- Avoid moving furniture around, keep household ‘travel lanes’ clear, and minimize clutter. The easier it is for your pet to navigate through the house, the less likely it is she’ll become disoriented or injure herself. Cover up slippery floors so your pet will feel secure walking on them.
- Use natural scents like aromatherapy products (I use lavender oil) to ‘mark’ special spots in the house, for example your pet’s water dish.
- Don’t move your pet’s feeding station around, and if your companion is a cat, don’t move the litter box from place to place. A familiar environment and daily routine are especially important to elderly pets with diminished faculties.
For arthritic pets:
- Maintaining your dog at a healthy weight and insuring he’s physically active throughout his life will help control arthritis and degenerative joint disease in his later years.
- Cover slick floors (most tile, linoleum, hard wood) with non-skid rugs or runners to prevent dogs from slipping.
- Chiropractic adjustments, massage, stretching, aquatic therapy, laser therapy and acupuncture are therapies that can make a world of difference in the mobility of your pet as he ages. Talk with your holistic/integrative vet about supplements you can add to your dog’s diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage. Some of these might include:
- Glucosamine sulfate with MSM and eggshell membrane
- Omega-3 fats (krill oil)
- Supergreen foods like spirulina and astaxanthin
- Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)
- Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis
To keep your dog mentally sharp:
- Enrich your dog's environment with regular exercise, mental stimulation and socialization with other pets and people. In a two-year study of senior beagles, researchers found dogs that engaged in regular physical exercise, playtime with other pups and stimulating toys, did better on cognitive tests and learning new tasks than their less active counterparts.
- Give your dog a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement. SAMe is a safe and very effective way to stall or improve mental decline. In one recent study, dogs with age-related cognitive decline given a SAMe supplement for eight weeks showed a 50 percent reduction in mental impairment. Consult your pet's veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog.
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older dogs. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.
- Other supplements to consider are resveratrol (Japanese Knotweed), which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine – a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Again, I recommend you consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.