Many of us dog lovers have had an aging pet in our life. Their muzzle starts to turn gray and they begin to slow down, but their love remains strong.
As dogs age, we expect some changes along the way. But what if we could intervene with some of those changes? What if some of those "she’s just getting old" changes could be addressed proactively, resulting in a longer, better life?
Over the years, the geriatric population of dogs has increased. This is likely due to a variety of factors, the most significant being more frequent veterinary care and better nutrition. We know that early diagnosis and intervention is key to prolonging the life of our pets. While we encourage this throughout a pet’s life, even during their younger years, the importance cannot be overstated as they age.
You have likely heard your veterinarian say "age is not a disease". This is absolutely true. However, with age, it becomes more difficult to retain physical and sensory function, and the risk of underlying disease becomes greater. The good news is many of these diseases are preventable or can be better managed with early diagnosis and treatment.
Annual, if not bi-annual, wellness exams are critical to detecting underlying disease. These exams, combined with an open discussion about any possible behavioral changes and senior wellness screening, have the opportunity to greatly improve the quality and length of our canine family members' lives. Unfortunately, dogs are great at hiding illness until it has become advanced. Subtle signs often are not detected or are dismissed as being "caused" by old age.
A change in behavior is often one of the first hints of an underlying medical condition. However, one study found only 12% of survey participants reported talking to their veterinarian about behavior changes. Cognitive changes occur slowly, so if recognized and addressed early, there is great opportunity to intervene. These changes may be a result of cognitive dysfunction, but they may also suggest other conditions common in senior dogs such as systemic disease, osteoarthritis, heart disease, vision loss, and/or dental disease.
Behavior changes that should be investigated:
- Change in appetite or food preference
- Change in the ability to chew food
- Change in sleep pattern
- Change in mobility/activity level
- Change in grooming
- Change in temperament
- Wandering, anxiety, irritability, or becoming more vocal
At each annual exam, senior wellness screening is highly encouraged. Early detection of kidney disease is one of the most common benefits of senior wellness screening. Did you know a dog has to lose 75% of his kidney function to start showing clinical signs you may recognize at home? In addition to kidney disease, however, this screening can also detect early anemia, leukocyte and platelet abnormalities, liver disease, diabetes, and adrenal dysfunction.
In the end, aging is inevitable. But many of the negative consequences of aging are not inevitable. Let’s not regard these changes as "just getting old". Instead, let’s do everything we can to make our pets' lives as long, healthy, and comfortable as we possibly can. Because every dog deserves a longer, better life.