Our companion animals are able to live longer and healthier lives than ever before, in part due to advances in veterinary medicine and accessibility of these services to the general public. In addition, most owners have become more aware of the medical needs of their beloved pets and understand the benefits of preventive care as a component to longevity. Just as medical visits with a human physician become more important as we age, having your senior animal examined every six months can go a long way to ensure medical concerns are identified early to slow down disease progression. As our fuzzy friends age, there are many health conditions and ailments that begin to affect them. The list of ailments may look familiar to you. Many diseases that eventually affect our furry counterparts are similar to the diseases we all must face as we grow older: kidney, heart, and liver disease; high blood pressure; hormonal diseases, such as thyroid and adrenal abnormalities and diabetes; arthritis; and cancer. Less dramatically, older animals often experience a decline in their senses (sight, hearing, smell). Often their immune systems decline in function as well, making them more prone to various infections.
A common guideline is that pets age a relative 5-7 years for every human year. Smaller breeds of dogs tend to have a longer life expectancy than larger breeds, and cats tend to live longer than dogs. As such, individual animals reach their golden years at different periods of time than others. Generally, a pet is considered to be mature at about the age of 7 years. Often times, our pets will show very few symptoms early in the process of a disease. Accompanied by the large amount of changes that occur health-wise within a very short period of time, the recommendation is to have your beloved senior pet examined by your veterinarian every six months. A current history will be taken along with notation of any changes in behaviors or appearances, a thorough physical examination will be performed, and laboratory testing may be advised. In this manner, illness can be identified and managed, BEFORE your pet begins to feel, act, or look ill. Annual recommendations for laboratory testing include the following:
Complete Blood Count (CBC) - This is a blood test that determines red blood cell, white blood cell, and platelet counts. It can help to diagnose things such as anemia (too few red blood cells), inflammation or infection (too many white blood cells), and bone marrow response, among others.
Serum Chemistry Panel- This is another blood test that looks at different enzymes, electrolytes, and chemicals in the body to help determine the health of various body organs including the kidneys, liver, and the pancreas. This panel often includes glucose (a sugar) to help diagnose diabetes.
Thyroid Level - This is measured from a blood sample. Many senior cats become hyperthyroid (overactive thyroid function) whereas many senior dogs are faced with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).
Urinalysis- This is a laboratory test that examines urine. It tests for how dilute or concentrated a urine sample is which brings clues as to how well kidneys may be functioning. Certain elements within the urine are examined, as well, which help indicate the status of the kidneys, liver, and bladder, such as sugar, red blood cells, white blood cells, and bacteria. A microscopic exam looks for crystals, abnormal urinary tract cells (i.e. cancers), red blood cells, and white blood cells.
Fecal Examination- This is a laboratory test used to help diagnose intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and giardia. Similarly, microscopic examination of the feces help to reveal abnormalities such as the ability to digest properly and note any blood in the sample to indicate intestinal bleeding.
Additional testing may be recommended, such as taking radiographs (x-rays), having an ultrasound performed, or more specific blood work, such as pancreatic lipase levels, heartworm testing, or feline leukemia virus/ feline immunodeficiency virus testing.
Early intervention is a key component for prolonging the life of our furry friends. Minimizing weight gain and establishing consistent rituals of exercise will go a long way in maximizing comfort and stimulating the body and mind. Many options exist to help control discomfort in our aging animals which can occur with different diseases and arthritis. We are lucky to be living in an era where our pets can experience long, healthy, comfortable lives through early disease detection and prevention. Twice yearly examinations with your friendly veterinarian can help guide you and your favorite senior furry friends along the way.