As our pets age, we can expect some of the same ailments to occur that we see in ourselves – minus the wrinkles! Regular physical exams and blood work are crucial in early disease detection. I will briefly discuss some of the vital geriatric concerns.
Arthritis: Most of our furry family members are living long enough to develop arthritis. Initially, we may see this as difficulty rising after rest, stiffness after exercise or refusing to use stairs. With time these signs worsen and cause enough pain that our pets no longer want to get out of bed. Once diagnosed, there are many things we can offer to help. Medications for pain and inflammation, supplements to help improve joint health, special booties for traction and even referral for an underwater treadmill and laser therapy can be very beneficial.
Dental Disease: This is one of the most severe concerns an older pet often has. If you think about our dental care, we regularly visit the dental hygienist 2-3 times a year for regular cleanings, AND we brush and hopefully floss daily. Even with this, the hygienist stills finds tartar on our teeth (especially under the gum line). Can you imagine never brushing your teeth? Think of all the bacteria, tartar and resultant gingivitis! It is true when dentists say “Your mouth is the gateway to overall health”. Dental disease can cause pain but also can affect overall health. There is a constant shed of bacteria into the bloodstream which can affect the heart valves and liver. In older pets, a routine dental cleaning should be done at least once yearly if not twice. Homecare with daily brushing, use of a mouthwash-type product, water additives and dental diets/treats can help keep your pet’s mouth healthy.
Early Disease Detection: Your veterinarian will often suggest performing routine blood and urine testing once your pet is a senior citizen. This will allow us to look for common diseases that occur more frequently in older pets. Blood work will evaluate your pet’s kidneys, liver, electrolytes, pancreas, check for diabetes, and evaluate both the white blood cells and red blood cells. The urine test will look for urinary tract disease/crystals but also can help us diagnose diabetes and stage the level of kidney disease if present. Often this initial blood work needs to be followed up with additional testing for specific disease diagnosis. If medications are required, then blood tests are run to obtain a baseline level.
Abdominal Palpation: As part of your pet’s yearly physical exam you have likely noticed your vet palpating the different areas/organs within the abdominal cavity. We start this at a young age to get your pet familiar with a deep palpation as well as to get us familiar with your pet’s natural reaction (are they tense typically etc.). Sometimes during the palpation, we can detect unusual tenseness which could indicate pain and unfortunately, sometimes we can feel a mass within an organ. This is an essential part of the overall exam because most often cancers do not cause changes in the bloodwork but can be felt during palpation. If anything is noted on our exam, we proceed with radiographs or ultrasound.
Chest Auscultation: As part of the routine yearly physical exam on young as well as senior pets we will listen (auscultate) the heart and lungs. Just like in us, our pets can develop age-related heart disease. Some pets and people are born with a murmur and these need to be monitored yearly or more often if changes occur. Some breeds are prone to genetic heart disease, and these patients are monitored more closely. If a senior pet has a new heart murmur detected, then we will recommend baseline diagnostics (chest radiographs or even an ECG). We often don’t expect to find any abnormalities, but we use this initial x-ray as a baseline to compare to as things progress. Occasionally we need to refer our heart patients off to a veterinary cardiologist for further testing. These specialists appreciate when we have baseline diagnostics to compare to. Also, we unfortunately sometimes find lung cancer in our patients. Cancer doesn’t make a noise so often we find it on a chest radiograph when we aren’t expecting it. Pets are prone to the effects of secondhand smoke as well as just plain bad luck that can lead to the development of cancer. Specialists recommend taking radiographs of both the chest and abdomen every six months in “healthy” senior pets.
This is just a brief outline of some of the more common ailments we look for during our senior pet exam. Hopefully, we have many regular visits but if not in most cases it is better to detect a disease early on when we can extend both the quality and quantity of life.
To learn more about senior pet exams check out our Senior Pet Exam Video
Written by Dr Ashley Kirkham