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Old Age is Not a Disease

An older dog lying on a bed receiving acupuncture treatment

A new study came out earlier this year reviewing pet owners' and veterinary professionals’ attitudes to healthcare in senior dogs.(1) It revealed some significant differences in perceptions between the two groups and concluded ‘new educational initiatives and more effective communication are required’. The majority of my patients are elderly, and so I have a strong personal interest in improving care in this population of our animal patients.  So in the spirit of helping pet owners to be more aware of their elderly pets’ needs, this month’s blog is my contribution to that cause.

When is my pet a senior citizen?

In the veterinary sphere, dogs are considered to be ‘senior’ when they reach 7-8 years old, or in the case of shorter-lived breeds such as giant breeds, around 5 years old. For cats I was told at vet school 8 years, but this has recently been reclassified and now cats are considered elderly when they reach 11 years old. 

Just like with the human population, advances in medical care have not delayed the ageing process as such, they have merely delayed the point of death by supporting animals to manage chronic health conditions, and consequently much greater proportions of the population are living in ‘older age’.

So what are the healthcare needs of an older dog, cat or rabbit?

Statistic about prevalence of arthritis in cats

Well the first thing, obvious though it may seem, is that our pets cannot tell us when something feels wrong.  We have to rely on their behaviour to work that out, and this means educating ourselves around the signs that something might not be right. In addition, your pet may be a master of disguise and have learned to ‘cope’ with pain or mobility issues, for example, by subtle changes in their routine.  Not only that, but many signs, such as increased thirst in a cat with kidney disease, only occur when the disease is already well established and so ideally we would like to pick this up much sooner. In one small study veterinary examination yielded at least one previously unreported problem in 80% of senior dogs (2), indicating there is a lot we can miss if we are not actively looking.

What are the signs that my senior pet might be in pain or unwell?

The signs can differ in different species, and sadly a lot of people attribute them to normal signs of ageing. It is worth repeating one of my favourite mantras here:

‘Old age is not a disease’ 

If something has changed in your pet, stop and question yourself as to what that might mean. An animal will only change their behaviour voluntarily if they perceive some benefit from it.

Common signs that indicate there may be an issue are:

A checklist of signs to look out for in your older dog, cat or rabbit

This list is not exhaustive, and to be frank any changes you see in your pet should be a reason to consult your veterinary team for advice.

Does my pet need wellness checks in older age?

Statement about the prevalence of arthritis in UK dogs

Yes! As I mentioned above, we often only notice signs of a problem well down the line and your pet may well have been coping (suffering in silence) with a problem for many months if not longer.  This is actually true at any age and even more so as our pets age, and the risk of disease is increased.  This is why I am a fervent advocate of annual health checks with your veterinary team, even if you have reasons why you would prefer your pet not to have a vaccination.  In older age it is recommended by specialists that 6 monthly check ups are ideal - considering their relative lifespan this is only equivalent to an elderly person visiting  their GP every three years. Incidentally, many people feel that their pet does not need vaccinations in later life and particularly if their pet finds vet visits stressful, will stop attending annual health checks just at the time when they are more important than ever.

Statistic about prevalence of dental disease in rabbits

Many practices now run ‘senior clinics’ for pets, with reduced fees for screening tests such as blood tests, urine tests and blood pressure measurement. These can differ from the annual health checks because they focus on issues specific to older pets.  We can pick up early kidney disease, heart disease, eye disease or liver problems, mobility issues and sometimes even cancer well before anything is showing on the outside, meaning treatment can be commenced sooner and allowing your pet to live a better quality of life in their old age. 

Some handy resources

If you have an older pet and wish to become more aware of what they might need and what to look out for, check out the great Ageing Canine Toolkit provided by the BSAVA Petsavers charity.

International Cat Care is your one-stop site for all your kitty’s healthcare needs and their page is here:

A final note...

I’m aware that sometimes, owners might put off making a vet appointment for their older pet as they are concerned the vet might recommend euthanasia.  But this is only likely when the vet believes your animal has no chance of improvement in their suffering.  There are so many effective treatments, particularly with regard to pain relief (er…acupuncture anyone?!), and withholding veterinary treatment is not only illegal, it is unnecessary when there is so much we can do to make their lives better.  

We owe it to our older pets, who have given us their companionship and comfort through their prime, to ensure they can still live their best lives in their later years, and for that we need to work hand in hand, vets and pet owners together.

1)Wallis et al (2024) Cross-sectional UK surveys demonstrate that owners and veterinary professionals differ in their perceptions of preventive and treatment healthcare needs in ageing dogs

2)M. Davies (2012) Geriatric screening in first opinion practice – results from 45 dogs

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