1. Avoid obesity
Carrying excess weight into old age puts additional stress on the musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory systems, which can make any clinical condition worse. For example, if your pet has arthritis, pain and lameness may be worse if your pet is overweight. In addition, obesity can increase the risk of your pet developing diabetes (especially in cats) and may reduce life expectancy. So, keep your pet lean throughout its life by controlling food intake. In dogs, controlling food intake can increase lifespan by 18 months and delay the onset of age-related diseases by 2 years. Your vet practice can advise you on how to avoid obesity in your pet and, if necessary, help with a weight loss programme so that your pet achieves its ideal weight for remaining healthy. It is a good idea to weigh your pet each month and regularly assess its body condition using a scoring system.
As your pet gets older, changes in its body composition (an increase in body fat and a reduction in lean muscle mass), as well as any reduction in exercise due to arthritis or cardiovascular disease, means that less energy is needed and the risk of obesity developing is higher if calorie intake is not decreased. So, a reduced calorie diet is often desirable, unless your pet is already underweight or losing weight. A range of diets (usually called “senior” diets) specifically formulated for elderly pets has been developed. These diets restrict some nutrients to avoid unnecessary excess intake, but may include other nutrients to help with age-related problems (e.g. glycosaminoglycans, chondroitin, green-lipped mussel extract or omega-3 fatty acids for arthritis). Your vet may recommend a different type of food if your pet is losing weight or if it has a specific disease. Special diets are often recommended in the management of age-related diseases, including diabetes, kidney disease, lower urinary tract disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, liver disease and cancer. Whatever main ration is given, it is very important that you do not provide too many treats, snacks, table scraps or nutritional supplements to your pet without discussing them with your vet practice
Always make sure your pet has enough fresh, clean water to drink – and never restrict access, especially if your pet is drinking or urinating a lot.
4. Keep teeth clean
Dental disease causes pain and difficulty eating. In addition, the bacteria involved can spread to other organs in the body via the bloodstream and, although rare, death has been reported following the spread of infection to the heart. Keep your pet’s teeth clean throughout its life by brushing or through the use of special diet – your vet practice will be pleased to recommend strategies to suit you. Sometimes teeth may need to be descaled and polished or extracted under general anaesthesia.
5. Maintain vaccination status and treat regularly for worms, fleas and ticks
There is a common myth that older pets do not need to be vaccinated regularly. THIS IS NOT TRUE. As your pet ages, its immune system becomes less able to fight infections and so it is very important to keep your pet protected against serious, potentially life-threatening, infections through vaccination. Worms, fleas and ticks carry and transmit a range of diseases, so regular preventive treatment is important. BSAVA Scientific Committee advises the following preventive protocols:
6. Report any lumps that you notice as soon as possible
Most lumps that develop in or under the skin of pets are benign and are not serious (e.g. fatty tumours called lipomas, warts or sebaceous cysts). However, your vet should examine them to be sure: sometimes tests such as biopsy or fine-needle aspiration (removal of a few cells from the mass) are needed to confirm the diagnosis. Tumours that develop near the mammary glands are particularly important to have assessed because these can become malignant and spread rapidly to the other parts of the body, such as the lungs, even while they are still quite small.
7. Report any lameness as soon as you notice it
Do not assume that lameness is simply due to old age. Lameness usually means that your pet is in pain and it is important to get this assessed so that pain relief can be given and treatment for any underlying condition, such as joint instability, started. In most cases, the cause may not be very serious; however, in large and giant breeds of dog sudden-onset lameness can sometimes be due to bone cancer – and the sooner this is diagnosed and treated the better.
8. Report any changes in behaviour or any odd signs to your vet as early as possible
For most diseases the sooner it is diagnosed, the quicker treatment can be provided and the better the prognosis – so do not delay in contacting your vet if your pet develops any unusual signs.
9. Regular exercise
Maintaining exercise is important in old age, but your pet may not be able to keep up the same pace as when it was younger. For elderly dogs, it is often advised that several short 10–15 minutes walks may be preferable to longer walks. For those cats and dogs that are reluctant to move, exercise can be encouraged through play – if your pet responds to toys, these can be a good motivational tool.
10. Geriatric/senior healthcare screening
If your vet practice runs a geriatric or senior health clinic – sign up for it! These may be run by nurses and/or vets and provide an opportunity for your pet to have a full health check. Urine and blood tests may be requested as part of the screening process.
There is a slight increased risk of complications developing during general anaesthesia if your elderly pet has to undergo a procedure, especially if it has liver or kidney disease. However, this is not a high risk and modern anaesthetic protocols are relatively safe. The vets and nurses at your vet practice are skilled at assessing elderly pets to minimise any risks.
12. Seek professional advice early
If you notice anything different about your pet or its behaviour – contact your vet practice as soon as possible for advice
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