Wellness Care for the Senior Dog and Cat

Brian E. Smith, DVM
Updated 24Aug2017

I think most people have a general understanding that their pet’s wellness needs change as their pet gets older, and most people know that their pet is generally more likely to succumb to disease when they reach a “senior” life stage. The purpose of this blog is to cover some of the basic guidelines that veterinarians follow at Sienna Plantation Animal Hospital when treating a geriatric dog or cat. Hopefully, if you, the client, are armed with this information, you might better understand how you can best care for your senior dog or cat.

I will first give you a brief overview of the life stages of these two very different species. Outlining the life stage of a cat is somewhat more simplistic because their size and breed factors do not affect how doctors consider their life stage. Also, as a rule of thumb, an animals sex is relatively unimportant in considering the life stage of your pet, but it is obviously very important in looking at the overall well-being of your pet. If your cat is <1 year old it is juvenile, if it is 1-6 years old it is an adult, if it is 7-10 years old it is mature, and if it 11+ years old it is geriatric/senior. Generally speaking, I would classify a dog < 1-year-old a juvenile and 1-6 years old as an adult. However, large and giant breed dogs are doing some pretty heavy developing between the ages of 1-2 years old, so there is a bit of leeway there. Pretty much any dog over 9 years old is a senior citizen. However, I feel that certain large and giant breeds reach this life stage as early as six years old, while certain small and medium breeds probably qualify for senior citizenship at 8-9 years old. Why does it matter? (Hint: go read the first run-on sentence of this blog again)

To determine if your senior pet is healthy and what medical needs should be addressed, a thorough physical examination must be performed by a veterinarian at every life stage of your pet. If you sacrifice your pet’s physical examination by your veterinarian in order to save money, you are depriving your pet of the most important tool to keep them healthy. A senior dog or cat needs to be examined at least once a year by a veterinarian, and I will often recommend twice a year “check-ups” for my senior patients if I feel it is in the patient’s best interest. Those visits are in addition to any examination required for sudden illnesses that pop up during the year.

During a routine check up on a senior pet I will analyze certain things to get a better understanding of the pet’s health:

  • A fecal antigen test or centrifugation test needs to be run at least once a year on every single dog and cat on this planet. At least! We are looking for parasites that can harm the health of dogs, cats and…. people. If you bring your veterinarian a fresh sample of your dog or cat’s bowel movement you are a hero, not a weirdo; do it!

  • A yearly heartworm test should be performed on every dog in the United States. You may be unbelievably effective and consistent at giving your pet heartworm prevention, but we will still tell you to let us check for heartworms. Heartworm disease is simply too prevalent and too deadly not to run the test. And since I love my senior patients as much as I love my adult patients, they need the test too.

  • On senior dogs and cats, we will recommend more bloodwork than we will recommend at other life stages. Why? There are diseases that senior pets can get that are uncommon or absent in adult stage pets, and it is time to start testing for these diseases once a year when pets become geriatric. We will also recommend a urinalysis and we are able to package these tests together to make them more affordable. Your dog and cat are aging at least seven times as fast as you are aging, and so we need these tests at least as often as your physician would recommend on you. If we find the disease early, the treatment is significantly more likely to be successful.

  • SPAH veterinarians will also recommend other tests depending on how your pet’s physical examination looks. Frequent examples of tests performed on geriatric dogs and cats include x-rays, blood pressure, electrocardiograms, ultrasounds, certain eye tests, and echocardiograms. By the way, how convenient for you that we have created a high-quality place in Sienna Plantation where all of these tests can be done without you leaving the building!

Based on the physical examination and whichever tests your veterinarian feels are necessary, you will be given a plan of action to maintain your senior pet’s health and prolong their life. Here are a few things you can count on:

  • In this area, we will always recommend that your pet continue high-quality heartworm and flea prevention. These products that we recommend are unbelievably safe and are just as critical to protect your senior pet’s health (and yours!) as they were when your pet was a juvenile or adult.

  • Senior pet nutrition should be guided by a Veterinarian or a Veterinary Assistant depending on a pet’s overall health and the presence of any diseases. A veterinarian can often recommend supplements that will improve your pet’s quality of life as well.

  • You should follow the vaccination guidelines of a veterinarian that has actually examined your pet and who has come up with a wellness plan for your pet. Certain vaccination do not need to be given very often for geriatric pets and some that were given when your pet was an adult may be stopped altogether. However, there are others that may be important on a yearly basis depending on your pet’s lifestyle. Keep in mind, your pet’s immune status changes dramatically based on age and overall health, and vaccine recommendations should be made by someone who is trained and who knows your pet.

  • Medications may be needed on a regular basis depending on what is found during the examination and the testing of your senior pet. If there is a problem with your pet, your veterinarian can probably do something about it. That will seem like an obvious statement, but don’t overlook its meaning. So often during routine examinations, I uncover something during my client conversations that the client did not even consider treating. Off the top of my head, the most common include “He’s having a bit more trouble getting up and down these days….”, “He’s having a few more accidents in the house than usual…”, “He seems more confused and he wakes me up a lot at night….” “He drinks a ton of water….” “His breath smells like something died in his mouth….” These client statements are often concluded with “…but I just figured he’s getting old.” People, your veterinarian is on your side. We are here to help you. Bring us your geriatric pet. Don’t overlook things, don’t live in a house that smells like dog or cat urine, don’t watch your dog struggle to get off the floor, don’t let your dog wake you up at night; your veterinarian is here for you and your pet. I will say it again: your veterinarian can probably do something about it.

One of the great things about working at SPAH is that my clients demand the best care for their pets and they consider their dogs and cats to be family members. We work hard to make sure we are always practicing the best medicine for your pet’s needs. I hope you got one or two things out of this post and you learned something about how we strive to protect the health of your senior pets.

-Dr. Smith