Common Old Age Conditions


Tooth And Gum Problems Are Common

While smelly breath is common in adult pets, broken teeth and gum disease are almost inevitable in the elderly. Gums recede, bone is lost around tooth roots and teeth fall out or cause pain and need to be removed. Toy dog breeds suffer from these problems earlier than large breeds but regardless of the pet’s size, if you can smell bad breath and see plaque on the teeth there’s a guarantee that each time your pet chews food bacteria enter its bloodstream. Fortunately, the immune system remains remarkably efficient and usually kills off these invaders within 30 minutes but occasionally the bacteria escape destruction, circulate and cause a ‘septicaemia’. An affected pet usually is off her food and has a slight fever. The immediate problem is controlled with antibiotics but the only way to eliminate the condition is by clearing up the mouth infection, by scaling the teeth, draining the infection and removing rotten roots. In our experience, slowing down in older pets is far too often attributed to “ageing” when in fact it’s caused by chronic, treatable mouth infections. Pets seemingly gain “years” in strength and vigour after these infections are attended to.

Digestion Deteriorates

Lack of muscle tone in the bowels, reduced bowel activity, diet, less exercise, there are many reasons why older pets, especially cats, are more likely to suffer from constipation. Regardless of its cause, constipation causes discomfort, even pain. Some dogs have changes to their gut flora leading to increases in gas producing bacteria. Faecal incontinence is yet another inevitable for some elderly pets. For most of these conditions, we recommend a variety of diet changes and medications.

Muscles Weaken

There are many causes for weakened muscles – reduced lung capacity, less efficient digestion, circulation or filtration, less exercise - so an accurate diagnosis is needed before it’s possible to reverse muscle loss, arrest it or at least slow it down. When you see an old pet getting up gingerly, walking slowly or limping, it may not complain but it’s certainly in pain. Osteoarthritis is virtually inevitable if a pet lives long enough. By eight or nine years most large dogs have x-ray visible osteoarthritis. Surprisingly most cats do too by 12 years of age. Weight and pain control are at the core of improving quality of life. We usually treat pain with non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs and supplements with high levels of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. These are components of marine fish oil and linseed oil.

Old Hearts Can Become Inefficient

Watch your pet’s breathing. Does it tire more readily? If it’s a dog does it cough? Exercise tolerance naturally drops with age but cardiovascular diseases are as common in older pets as they are in us. Heart disease is the most common cause of death in older dogs accounting for almost 23 per cent of fatalities. The early stages of heart conditions are often picked up during preventative annual health check-ups.

High Blood Pressure Is Dangerous For Cats

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is common in older cats and can damage blood vessels. The retinas of the eye are particularly sensitive to hypertensive damage. Affected cats appear confused and disorientated, with widely dilated pupils. Retinal detachment is an emergency situation as blindness will become permanent unless the retina reattaches within a few days. Hypertension also damages the kidneys, the heart (causing a thickening of the walls as the muscle has to work harder pumping against high resistance within the blood vessels) and the brain, causing small blood vessels to rupture. If your cat has high blood pressure we will dispense drugs that lower blood pressure. Unlike in us, primary hypertension is rare in cats. There is almost always a specific cause or causes such as hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease and these need attention for treatment to be effective.

Heart Failure In Pets Is Sudden

By the time we see a dog or cat with breathlessness, loss of appetite and lethargy, its longstanding heart disease has reached a crisis. These clinical signs appear typically over a few hours or a day. The inefficient heart is no longer able to meet the demands for pumping blood around the body. Fluid leaks into or around the lungs preventing them from functioning normally. That’s what causes breathlessness. Dogs often cough although coughing is not a major sign of heart failure in cats.

Cats Develop Blood Clots

A dramatic complication of heart disease in cats is that blood sits longer in the heart and clots. Bits of this large clot break off, get pumped through the circulation and get trapped in smaller arteries, most often where the blood supply to the two hind legs and tail divides into three arteries. The resulting obstruction causes sudden excruciating pain and loss of the use the hind legs and tail. You may think their cat has been hit by a car and has a broken spine. With immediate treatment, some cats recover the use of their limbs but the long term outlook is often terribly bleak.

Urinary Problems Are Common

Loss of control of the bladder – urinary incontinence – occurs frequently in older female dogs who, with time, lose sphincter muscle control and dribble urine when sitting, lying down or sleeping. Many people, especially those with elderly female relatives, assume this is an inevitable part of growing older but in many if not most instances, the nuisance of urinary incontinence in older dogs can be controlled or eliminated with one of several licensed medications. Treating urinary incontinence in older male dogs is more difficult but when licensed products don’t work other drugs can be tried.

Kidney filtration works surprisingly well throughout the lives of most dogs but for many cats, their renal filtration eventually falters. If your pet is drinking more because of failing kidneys it has already lost most of its renal function. Potential kidney problems can be discovered well before they become clinically serious by having routine biochemistry tests done annually on a blood sample.

Increased Urinating Has Many Causes

Increased urinating is often caused by advanced kidney failure but there are many more reasons why older pets drink more and urinate more. All of these are either immediately or potentially dangerous. If your pet is drinking more than its normal quantity of water it should be seen by one of us. Bring a recent urine samples along. That speeds up a diagnosis. Conditions that cause an increased thirst include:

  • Sugar diabetes
  • Pituitary diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Overactive adrenal gland in dogs
  • Pain, fever or altered behaviour
  • Drugs or diet change
  • Kidney disease

Tumours Are Common In Older Pets

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in pets. Almost 16 per cent of our pets succumb to one form of cancer or another but don’t assume that all old age lumps and bumps are cancers. They’re not. Many skin lumps are just cysts, which are no more than blocked sebaceous glands. These are common is certain dog breeds such as the Pekingese. Other growths are unsightly but not dangerous warts, medically called papillomas. Technically, these are tumours, abnormal growths but they’re not cancers, abnormal growths that invade local tissue or spread to other parts of the body. The most common lumps in older dogs are fatty tumours called lipomas. These too are almost invariably benign. They don’t invade surrounding tissue or spread to other parts of the body but just keep growing in size. Skin tumours in cats are more likely to be malignant cancers than in dogs. (See CANCERS)

Unexpected Weight Loss Is Worrying

Unless a pet is intentionally being dieted, it shouldn’t lose weight. If it does, there’s a problem, sometimes a serious one. If your aging pet is picky with its food see us. Gum disease, deteriorating teeth, diminished taste or smell or underlying disease are common causes of finicky eating. If your oldie has lost weight because of illness and now needs to regain weight and strength, it may benefit from a high energy food. A variety of these are commercially produced and tastiest when they are warmed up. Warmth enhances flavour and releases natural aromas, the most powerful trigger to stimulate a pet to eat.

Overactive Thyroid Glands In Cats

Hyperthyroidism is almost exclusively seen in middle- to old-aged cats, and is rarely seen in cats less than seven years of age. Siamese cats seem to have some inherent protection so suffer less from this condition. The typical signs of hyperthyroidism are increased activity, restlessness, and irritability or clinginess, with an increased appetite but weight loss. Some cats have mild to moderate diarrhoea. Others vomit more than usual. Some seem to become super sensitive to heat and seek out cooler places to sit, and some pant when they are stressed. When the disease is advanced a cat becomes weak, lethargic and loses its appetite. The coat may appear matted or greasy. In most instances it is caused by a benign tumour called an adenoma.

Complications Are Common

The effect of thyroid hormones on the heart is to stimulate a faster heart rate and a stronger contraction of the heart muscle. Eventually, the muscle of the largest chamber in the heart (the left ventricle) enlarges and thickens. This can result in heart failure in untreated cats. Fortunately, once hyperthyroidism has been controlled, the physical changes often improve or resolve completely.

High blood pressure is another common complication and can cause damage to several organs including the eyes, kidneys, heart and brain. Following successful treatment for hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure often spontaneously resolves.

When you visit we will examine your cat's neck area for enlarged glands, check its heart rate and blood pressure. Most cats with hyperthyroidism have elevated levels of the thyroid hormone T4 in their bloodstream. Both T4 level and routine blood chemistry is undertaken to check how the kidneys are functioning. Because hyperthyroidism predisposes a cat or is associated with other conditions, its general health especially the heart and kidneys is evaluated.

Medical Treatment

Anti-thyroid drugs such as methimazole or carbimazole act by reducing the production of thyroid hormone. These medications, given for life, provide either short-term control before surgery or long-term control of hyperthyroidism. The drugs are relatively inexpensive but some cats hate being given tablets. A few cats experience temporary side effects, include vomiting, lethargy or loss of appetite but these usually resolve within a few weeks. Routine blood tests will continue during treatment, to evaluate the effectiveness of the medication and to monitor kidney function.

Surgical Treatment

Removal of the thyroid glands- thyroidectomy- is a relatively straightforward surgical procedure with an excellent success rate. The advantage of surgery is that it produces a long term or permanent cure in most cats, and eliminates the need for life-long pill giving. To reduce complications, hyperthyroid cats are stabilised with anti-thyroid drugs for several weeks before surgery. Any associated heart disease is also treated.

Radioactive Iodine Treatment

Radioactive iodine is administered as a single injection given under the skin. The iodine accumulates in thyroid tissue and destroys it but does not damage the surrounding tissues or the parathyroid glands. Most treated cats have normal thyroid hormone concentrations restored within three weeks of this safe treatment. The cat must remain at the facility licensed to use radioactive isotopes until the radiation level has fallen to within acceptable limits, anywhere from two to six weeks. Because of strict treatment guidelines, most facilities don’t allow visitors.

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