Old pets have usually been with us for a long time - they’ve shared our lives through thick and thin. As a result, they deserve a comfortable retirement! However, as animals (like people) get older, their medical needs change, sometimes quite dramatically. As a result, regular “check-ups” are even more important than in a young, healthy adult - or even a puppy or kitten.
What causes aging?
Aging in any mammal (dog, cat, horse, mouse, rat, human) is exactly the same process, all that’s different is how long it takes! It’s driven by two factors: “wear and tear” on organs and body systems throughout life; and a “countdown” coded into the DNA. Every animal cell has a “genetic clock”, driven by the breakdown of structures called telomeres on the ends of the chromosomes. The older the cell is, the harder it finds it to divide and replace damaged or dead cells, and the more likely it is to make a mistake when dividing. Over time, this causes the signs we see as aging.
What are the effects on the animal?
They do, of course, vary from species to species, and even individual to individual! We’ve all know, for example, people who went grey in their twenties, and others who kept their natural hair colour into their fifties or sixties - so there is some natural variation. However, in general, we’d expect to see:
● Reduced fitness and muscle mass, and increased recovery times after exercise
● Reduced elasticity of skin
● Greying, usually around the muzzle, as the reserves of pigment cells are used up
● Reduced efficiency of the internal organs, especially liver, kidneys, immune system and sometimes the heart and lungs too
● Increased difficulty learning new tasks or tricks
Does this cause disease?
This is a complicated one. It is of course perfectly possible for an old dog, or cat, to be very fit and healthy with no medical problems. However, the older they are, the more likely it is that they will suffer one or more degenerative disease condition; and old age is one causative factor for many of these “diseases of old age”.
What are the common diseases of old age in dogs and cats?
There are a number of diseases that are much more common in older animals; the most important and common ones are probably:
● Arthritis (dogs and cats) - wear and tear on joints is really common in older pets who tend to stiffen up, slow down, and struggle first thing in the morning. In cats, this condition is often subtle and easily missed, meaning regular vet checks are really important!
● Cancers (dogs and cats) - most cancers are a function of old age, caused by mistakes when cells divide. The older a cell is, the more likely such a mistake is. Keep a close eye out for odd lumps or bumps, or unexplained symptoms, such as weight loss, and get your pet checked if you detect anything unusual - it probably won’t be a problem, but the earlier cancers are diagnosed, the better the outcome is likely to be.
● Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (dogs and cats) - this is very similar to dementia in humans. It is characterised by abnormal behaviour, loss of learned responses and fixed, unchanging behaviour patterns. Fortunately, there are medications for our pets that can be highly effective in minimising the symptoms.
● Dental disease (affects dogs and cats equally) - this is a big deal with old age, as mild tartar develops into gingivitis (gum disease) and then periodontitis (rotten teeth). Many older dogs and cats are in constant pain because of their teeth - but regular brushing and veterinary dental care can easily control the problem!
● Heart disease (seen in both dogs and cats, although they get different types of heart problem). Dogs tend to develop leaky valves (e.g. Mitral Valve Disease) or big baggy hearts (Dilated Cardiomyopathy), whereas cats are more prone to overgrown heart muscles (Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy). In either case, however, early diagnosis and treatment is the key to giving them a long and happy life, despite the condition.
● Hyperthyroidism (really common in older cats) - causes hyperactivity, hunger, and severe weight loss. In the early stages, the only symptom may be a subtle swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck and an elevated heart rate at rest. There are effective medicines and surgical options for managing and treating the condition, but if untreated it is eventually fatal as it causes progressive heart failure.
● Kidney disease (sometimes dogs but very common in cats) - with age, the kidneys become less efficient and struggle to filter the blood, causing increased thirst and urination, dehydration, and sometimes a metallic smell on the pet’s breath. Although this cannot usually be cured, it can be managed with medication and special diets.
Why are regular check-ups so important?
Because our vets and nurses are specially trained to pick up the very earliest signs of these conditions, and to distinguish between normal “slowing down because of old age” and “this is a symptom of a disease that needs treating”! In addition, preventative healthcare is of more and more importance as a pet gets older - vaccinations because their immune system is less efficient, worm/flea/tick treatment because they have less body reserves to cope with parasite infestations, and dental care to manage decaying teeth.
If you have an older pet, make an appointment for an “old faithful check up” this month!