As pets age, many health problems can develop that impact their quality of life. Awareness of the types of illnesses that affect older pets will help you recognize a problem if it develops. With early diagnosis and intervention, many diseases can be medically managed to help give senior pets additional years of quality life.

Arthritis

As your pet ages, so do her joints. The cartilage that lines joints can degenerate, leaving underlying bones susceptible to damage. Diseases like hip dysplasia cause long-term joint trauma, making arthritis even more likely. Although degeneration can occur in any joint, dogs often develop arthritis of the hip joints, while the vertebrae of the lower back area are commonly affected in cats. Signs of arthritis include:

  • Decreased activity
  • Limping
  • Hesitation to go up stairs or jump up onto furniture
  • Reluctance to be touched or petted on specific areas of the body
  • Vocalization or crying out, as if in pain

There is no reason for a pet to live in pain. Many medications and joint supplements are available that can be prescribed by our veterinarians to keep your pet comfortable. You should never attempt to treat a painful pet on your own, as many human medications—including ibuprofen, acetaminophen (Tylenol®), and naproxen (Alleve®)—are toxic to pets.

Kidney failure

The kidneys filter toxins from the blood and eliminate them in the urine. If they stop functioning correctly, toxins build up and poison the body. Failure of these essential organs is one of the leading causes of death in older pets.

Unfortunately, animals do not display signs of kidney failure until approximately 75 percent of function is lost. At this point, the disease is advanced and treatment will not be helpful. Fortunately, there is an early detection test that should be part of every senior pet’s annual blood work that will detect kidney disease in its early stages. Although kidney failure cannot be cured or reversed, if treatment is started early in the course of the disease, it can be slowed down. With proper treatment, pets with kidney failure can live comfortably for years.

Diabetes

After your pet eats, digestion breaks food down into basic nutrients—like glucose—that are used by her cells to make energy. Produced by the pancreas, insulin helps glucose enter the cells. There are two forms of diabetes that affect pets:

  • Insulin-dependent diabetes is caused by an insulin deficiency. Insufficient insulin production can be caused by pancreatic disease, but most often occurs without a known cause. This type of diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections.
  • Non-insulin-dependent diabetes develops when the body produces insulin in normal amounts but does not utilize it properly. Overweight cats are prone to developing non-insulin-dependent diabetes, and treatment relies on diet and activity modifications.

Signs of diabetes include:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Excessive drinking
  • Increased urine production
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Weakness of the hind legs

If you notice any of these signs in your pet, seek veterinary care immediately, as diabetes can cause damage to many body systems. Routine blood testing can check glucose levels to diagnose diabetes and can also evaluate overall organ function.

Dental disease

Dental disease is the most common health condition to affect pets. Most pets will show signs of dental disease by 3 years of age if preventive steps are not taken. Daily brushing and regular teeth cleaning by a veterinarian can keep dental disease at bay and ensure good oral health throughout a pet’s life. If good habits are not started early, tartar accumulates on the teeth, gingival tissue becomes inflamed, and halitosis develops.

Dental disease is painful and can make eating difficult. By the time a pet reaches her senior years, unchecked dental disease can become quite advanced. If your pet is experiencing a decrease in appetite, is losing weight, or has bad breath, call our office. A dental cleaning under anesthesia can be safely performed even in most older pets.

Cancer

Cancer is an unfortunate part of aging for approximately 25 percent of pets and can develop in any part of the body. It can be isolated to a single mass, can affect specific organs, or can even affect the blood. A few forms of cancer can be prevented—such as mammary cancer by spaying female dogs early in life—but most are completely unpredictable. Many advances have been made in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in pets, and the prognosis for many cancers is better than it once was.

You know your pet best, and you are the most likely person to detect when something is off. As an owner, the best thing you can do for your pet is to report any changes in behavior, appetite, or overall health to our veterinarians. With early intervention, cancer can often be treated to gain quality time with your loving companion.