Is My Pet Just Getting Old?

Just like people, our pets live longer today, with better quality lives, than they ever have. They are better fed, better housed, and watched by more knowledgeable owners.  Owners have instant access to internet information about their pets’ health.  And, just like human medicine, modern veterinary medicine and technology deliver superior care when pets do have health problems.

The percentage of geriatric dogs and cats has risen over the last several decades.  Owners want their pets to live longer and are more willing today to invest in the care required to maintain a good quality of life for their dogs and cats.

Longer pet lives mean more opportunity for geriatric health problems to develop, and more opportunity for owners to see changes as their pets age.  As pets become geriatric, owners often quietly ask themselves “Is my pet just getting old?”

How Old is Old?

Historically, a rule of thumb was that each year dogs and cats age the human equivalent of seven years.  More recent guidelines help owners understand that small dogs and cats age more slowly than large dogs.  In general, large dogs are considered geriatric by age 6 and small dogs and cats by age 7.  By age 15, cats are the human equivalent of 77, small dogs 85, and large dogs 100.

Aging is Not a Disease!

Aging produces slow changes in pets, just like in people.  Geriatric pets show many of the same mental and physical changes that people experience as the years go by.  But aging is not a disease, and normal aging changes must be distinguished from specific health problems for which care is available.

What Are Some Indications My Geriatric Pet Has a Problem?

Aging changes tend to occur gradually, so any sudden change in a pet’s behavior, appetite, eliminations, or activity may indicate a problem.  Slower changes may be more difficult to detect.  Since our pets can’t communicate verbally and describe how they feel, owner should look for clues that indicate progressive change that may affect quality of life:

  • Irritability or not joining the family
  • Disinterest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Decreased appetite
  • Changes in eliminations
  • Stiffness, soreness, or a limp
  • Reluctance or difficulty in rising after lying or sitting down
  • Reluctance to go up or down steps or stairs or to get on or off furniture.
  • Changes in eye expression such as staring, having a vacant look, or squinting

Our pets’ historical survival (as predators that were also prey) depended on them appearing strong and healthy.  That instinct continues today with dogs and cats not always showing signs of illness or disease until quality of life has significantly reduced.

How Can I Really Know if My Pet is Just Getting Old?

Veterinarians today recommend comprehensive semi-annual physical examinations for geriatric patients.  During geriatric pet visits owner observations are an important source of information for the veterinarian.  Easy-to-use pain scoring scales should be a standard part of geriatric pet examinations. With a complete physical examination, including pain assessment, the veterinarian adds his or her observations.

New technology also contributes to accurate assessment of geriatric patients.  Most veterinarians now offer in-house clinical laboratories for quick analysis of blood and urine samples.  In-house imaging with radiographs is standard along with other imaging techniques like ultrasound, CT scans and MRIs.

Dorsal thermal image of a senior dog
Thermal images courtesy of Dr. Julia Morrow,
Family Pet Mobile Vet, Bolivar, Ohio.

Digital technology has made thermal imaging part of the veterinary geriatric examination. Thermal images are a visual representation of the surface body temperatures of a patient and give physiological information about what is going on below the surface.  Increased temperatures (hyperthermia) may indicate inflammation, infection, or malignancy.  Decreased temperatures (hypothermia) may indicate atrophy or neurological dysfunction.  Thermal images give the veterinarian a road map for additional diagnostics and therapy.

Using owner observations and the results of physical examination and technology, your veterinarian can help you know if your pets is just getting old.  Or if there is a problem that might be helped with medication, physical therapy, or treatment with an advanced technology.

Pet owners accept that aging produces change.  With regular veterinary examinations and advanced technology pet owners can be assured those changes are normal and not part of a disease process.  Regular examinations help geriatric veterinary care to be active and planned rather than reactive and unplanned.

Just getting old, or maybe there is a problem you can treat?  Don’t wonder.  Find out!