Vet Insights: Living with Your Senior Pet

Living with Your Senior Pet

By Dr. Julianne Porter

One of the most difficult aspects of being a parent to our four-legged family members is that they don’t live forever. However, the average lifespan of our pets is lengthening, and special attention and care are paramount in their “golden years”.

Older dogs and cats are prone to various health issues such as arthritis, heart disease, dental disease, metabolic disorders (thyroid disorders, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, etc.), and even cognitive dysfunction. Keeping our pets happy and healthy for as long as possible means frequent exams and blood work as they age. Early detection is key – many issues are easier (and less expensive) to prevent than they are to treat.

Arthritis often goes unrecognized until it is advanced. Our pets can communicate with us, but they can only say so much. A thorough physical examination and radiographs are typically needed to see that there is some degree of degenerative joint disease. Signs at home can include: stiffness (often after rest), not jumping up, trouble with stairs, and aggression/irritability. Cats with arthritis may not groom, have trouble with the litter box and may hide. Unfortunately, we cannot cure arthritis, but we can take measures to slow its progression and keep our pets comfortable. Keeping your pet lean will prevent unnecessary strain on their joints and muscles that can lead to faster progressing joint disease. Joint supplements (including glucosamine, chondroitin and polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) are aimed at protecting the cartilage by slowing the destruction and providing building blocks to cartilage and joint fluid formation. Physical therapy and rehabilitation techniques are aimed at strengthening muscle and keeping joints flexible. As arthritis progresses, anti-inflammatory and pain medication may become necessary.

Cognitive dysfunction is another age-related ailment that is under-diagnosed, often because it is associated with other diseases or just our pets “getting old”. This is a neurological degenerative disorder similar to types of dementia in people. It causes brain atrophy, amyloid plaque buildup, and neurotransmitter imbalances. This can manifest as disorientation (wandering, staring into space), memory loss (forgetting familiar faces, accidents in the house or outside of the box), altered sleep-wake cycles (waking up at night, acting restless) and increased anxiety. Diagnosis is based on clinical signs, ruling out other medical causes, and demonstrating a positive response to therapy. As with arthritis, this is not a curable disease, but steps can be taken to improve cognitive function and slow the progression of the disease. Environmental enrichment such as regular exercise and offering new toys, as well as providing a diet high in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, mitochondria cofactors, and medium chain triglycerides, have been shown to be effective methods of battling cognitive decline. In addition, there are several medications and supplements/nutraceuticals with promising results. These include Selegiline (Anipryl), S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe), melatonin, dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), feline appeasing pheromones (Feliway or similar), anti-anxiety medications and even anti-inflammatory medications. [It is important to note that there are no published studies evaluating these treatments specifically in cats – potential options are extrapolated from studies in dogs and humans.]

With our pets living into their senior years, they can be met with many different ailments. It is up to us to recognize these as early as possible to provide them with a happy and comfortable life.

Should you have any questions, comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us by phone at 845-876-6008, or by e-mail at

Thank you for choosing us to be part of your pet’s healthcare team!

With warmest regards,

Your friends at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital

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