Ruth McPete, DVM, works in private practice and at an animal shelter in San Diego. She is also a board member of Friends of County Anumal Shelters (FOCAS). She does a regular pet segment for San Diego's NBC affiliate, KNSD.
Most parents complain about how quickly their kids grow up. Within the blink of an eye, it seems, children go from diapers to diplomas. Now, imagine squeezing an entire life span into just 13 years, which is, on average, about how long dogs live. (People, on the other hand, have an average span of 77.6 years. ) Because dogs age nonlinearly, one human year can be equivalent to seven to 10 dog years. This means not only that puppies grow both physically and socially at a blazing speed, they also become senior citizens at an accelerated rate. And like their human counterparts, diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis, dental disease and cancer become more prevalent with increasing age. While we cannot stop the aging process, there are measures we can take to ensure that our pets live long, healthy lives.
No one likes going to the doctor, and dogs are no exception. Nonetheless, geriatric dogs—defined as those seven years or older—should have routine veterinary examinations every six months. This may seem excessive, but it isn’t when you consider that six months is the equivalent of three dog-years. A yearly exam for a dog is equivalent to an exam every seven to 10 years for a human, and no medical doctor would advise seeing elderly human patients so infrequently. These routine exams are important, as they make it more likely that problems can be diagnosed and treated before they become more difficult to manage.
During these visits, the veterinarian will perform a complete physical and oral exam, and will also ask you about any changes you may have observed in your dog’s behavior or activity. Since dogs cannot tell us their symptoms, it is important that we observe them as we go about our daily routines, because changes in appetite, thirst, behavior and weight may signal the onset of disease.
Diagnostics Make a Difference
Studies have shown that 22 percent of apparently healthy senior dogs actually have some level of clinical disease, which is diagnosed through the use of screening tests. Diagnostic tests, like blood panels and x-rays, are used commonly with people; doctors rely on the results of tests such as prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels, cholesterol levels and mammograms to diagnose disease early. Similarly, using their patient’s blood and urine samples, veterinarians can screen for diabetes; anemia; and liver, kidney and thyroid disease. Radiographs, or x-rays, are used to look for arthritis, cancer and heart disease.
While dental disease is not unique to older dogs, it is usually more advanced in seniors due to years of neglect. Just imagine what your teeth would look like if you never brushed them. And it’s not just cosmetic—untreated dental disease can lead to more than just bad breath, but can result in difficulty eating, pain, tooth loss and the spread of infection throughout the body. A proper dental cleaning requires general anesthesia. While anesthesia in older animals may sound scary, age alone is not a risk factor. Here again, screening tests are important, since older animals are more likely to have conditions that require special care when using anesthesia. Your veterinarian will determine if your senior dog needs a dental cleaning and is healthy enough to undergo this procedure safely.
Lumps and Bumps
In between veterinary visits, check your pet for new lumps or bumps. Cancer is the number-one cause of death in dogs and is found predominantly in older pets. All lumps are abnormal, but not all endanger your pet’s health. Benign tumors are generally less of an issue, as they usually grow slowly and do not invade surrounding tissues. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are more aggressive; they grow faster, invade surrounding tissues and often spread throughout the body (metastatic disease).
The shape, appearance, size and location of the mass can give your veterinarian clues as to whether the mass is benign or malignant. However, only a pathologist (who examines the tumor cells with a microscope) can make a definitive diagnosis. Your veterinarian will want to get a specimen, which can be obtained with fine needle aspiration or incisional or excisional biopsy, and send it to pathology. Once the mass is diagnosed, your veterinarian can discuss what treatment—if any—is needed.
The subject of cancer is as scary in pets as it is in humans, but fortunately, there have been significant advances in cancer treatment for our canine companions. Like us, our dogs can benefit from better imaging, such as MRIs and CT scans, and advanced treatment options, which include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Ultimately, the key to fighting cancer is early detection. Monitor your furry companion carefully.
Getting old is a normal and inevitable part of life. Though we cannot stop aging, we can take measures to ensure that our dogs’ senior years are truly their “Golden Years.”