Aging Well

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By: Dr. Jack Stephens

Skeeter is nearing his fifteenth birthday. As Skeeter ages I am witnessing on a closer and more intimate the effects of aging on pets. It is not that I have not lived with older pets previously, but Skeeter shares my life nearly 24 hours every day, going to work with me and traveling with me. His aging has begun to affect how we relate with each other and has made me more sensitive to aging in general.

Older pets have similar problems as older humans-they get arthritis, have liver and kidney failure, obesity, gum disease, decreased thyroid function, blindness from cataracts, diabetes, dull hair coat and skin problems, loss of hearing, and even dementia from decreased cognitive function.

Decreased cognitive function can be demonstrated through an increasing reliance on you and concern over their immediate environment. In other words, they become more anxious and dependent, a version of separation anxiety.

With pets living longer due to better health care and nutrition, we are also witnessing much more cancer, a huge concern for our pets. It has been reported by a leading University School of Veterinary Medicine that 60% of dogs over six years of age will acquire some form of cancer. Today, cancer does not necessarily create a situation for euthanasia, as many cancers can be cured or controlled so that a pet can lead many more years of a healthy life. But, cancer in pets, like humans, has a high price tag. It creates a crisis for the pet owner both emotionally and financially. With Pets Best insurance, at least the financial concern is eliminated because you can afford the best care.

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Skeeter has lost his hearing completely, I now must “motion” to him when we need to move along or I want him to come to me. When he first started losing his hearing I was left to determine if he simply could not hear me or was ignoring me, as he could do at times. Finally, it was apparent that the verbal request was no longer an effective communication tool when he would not respond to the door bell or loud noises.

He is also developing cataracts, which are beginning to affect his vision. We have had his initial exam from an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) which indicates that if the retinal scan is clear that we can proceed with corrective surgery to remove the cataracts. My goal is to restore his vision and avoid blindness.

His bouts of colitis are more frequent if I am not careful what he eats. His hair coat is duller and turning the brilliant back sheen of his coat to a brown. Supplements and coat conditioners are now part of his regime.

Yet, despite his infirmaries, he is still more than willing to follow me everywhere, if he sees me move. He sleeps more soundly than he used to, and with his loss of hearing he can slumber long after I have moved off. Once he awakens he will patiently begin his search for me in all the usual places. There is no panic, yet he is definitely becoming more apprehensive if he cannot soon find me. His frustration quickly evaporates once I am found. He now lives for the moment and constantly reminds me to emulate his patient, stoic nature, which I seldom heed.

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Torrey has long since taken over the role of primary lap dog with her overbearing personality and strong will. Skeeter is content just to lie next to me or near me while I am working. Torrey is now the entertainer and dominant dog in the pack, despite her diminutive one and half pounds. Skeeter simply ignores her, although often, as Skeeter lays on the rug while I am showering, I see her rub up against him and walk under his chin, rubbing as she walks-just like a cat does when they rub up against you wanting attention. So much like a cat, I quite expect to hear her purring one day.

Although aging pets, like Skeeter, do not have the stamina they once did, they still can have a high quality of life. After all, after a decade or more of their enhancing our lives, we owe them continued loyalty and a willingness to change our approach to a more senior-care focus.

As your pet ages, you should be diligent with their exams from at least once a year to twice a year. A semi-annual exam should also include diagnostic test to screen your pet’s internal organ functions and urinalysis to test kidney function. These tests become even more important as a pet ages.

Teeth cleaning to remove tartar-which can accumulate and enter the bloodstream as micro emboli or as an infection-also becomes more important. As your pet ages, or if they are prone to heavy tartar build up on their teeth, you may need hand scaling of the teeth, with light sedation, once or twice a year and a deep cleaning with anesthesia yearly. Bad breath can be eliminated, but more importantly the overall health of your pets is greatly improved by keeping their teeth and gums healthy.

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Senior pets should receive a modified diet to meet different age-related requirements. Also consider vitamin and mineral supplementation. As pets age, just as in humans, vitamins and mineral supplementation become important again to prevent disease and maintain our immune systems. I was never a big fan of supplementation, but as Skeeter ages and we placed him on a senior vitamin supplement, I can definitely see an improvement in his coat, activity level and cognitive functions.

Older pets’ immune systems diminish with age, and they become more prone to disease and cancer. This weakened immune system encourages us to be more diligent through exams and early diagnostic testing, modification of their diet, and supplementation.

Skeeter receives a semi-annual exam with a blood test to screen his health, because I want to catch any problems early, before they become critical. As you know, pets age faster than humans. Large dogs age faster than small dogs, and small dogs age faster than cats; therefore, a year to a pet is like four to seven years for us as they age.

Follow your veterinarian’s advice and set up a senior program for your pet based on his or her assessment. Then your treasured pet, like my Skeeter, can live a long and relatively health life. Pets are good for you, be good to them.

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