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This month, Dr Mtry takes an in-depth look at allergens and allergies in pets – what to look for, how to diagnose the condition, and importantly ways to treat and manage the condition effectively …
By Dr Irene Mitry Head Veterinarian, Clyde Veterinary Hospital – Melbourne
Our pets are really not all that different from us, at a biological level – and they can be just as prone to suffer from allergic reactions – not a pleasant prospect, as any pet owner who suffers from an allergy themselves can testify.
Allergic reactions often operate in a cycle, with irritation of the affected area becoming a stimulus for your dog or cat to itch, which in turn can worsen any infection.
A slew of other health conditions can often develop as a result of your pet’s scratching the affected area, including hair loss, scabbing of the skin, and overall discomfort and associated irritation.
For these reasons, diagnosing the condition and identifying the allergen as quickly as possible is vital for their effective treatment.
Unfortunately, most allergies do not have a “cure” per se – in most cases, management of allergic conditions comes down to simply managing the symptoms and reducing contact with the offending allergen as much as possible.
As we move into the summer months downunder, we begin to see more and more dogs (and to a lesser extent, cats) presenting at the hospital with allergic reaction symptoms, and one recent study showed that skin conditions are actually rated as the #2 overall reason for pet trips to the vet.
So I thought now would be a good time to take a look at what you can do as a pet owner to help prevent your dog or cat from getting stuck in an allergic cycle, and maintain their quality of health if they do.
Allergic Reactions – Signs to Watch For
Because our pets can be masters at avoiding displaying any sign of disease or weakness (remember they are genetically wired this way), it is important for pet owners to always keep a close eye on their pet’s daily behaviour, and take careful note of any changes that persist for more than 24 hours.
The main way for owners to differentiate allergies in their pets from regular influenza or a ‘cold’ is the itch factor.
Owners should look for signs of itching and irritation, typically in the form of redness, sensitivity, or inflammation of their dog or cat’s skin.
If you notice your pet is excessive scratching, licking or chewing at one particular area, it’s a good sign that some form of allergic reaction may be present.
Importantly, take note of the actual area that are tending to itch at – is it one particular area of skin, or maybe one or the other of their ears?
This can indicate the presence of an ear infection, which requires a very different treatment to allergic dermatitis of the outer skin, while a dog itching their back near the base of the tail is oftentimes a sign of flea allergy.
Try and give your vet as much information as possible about any allergic response – how long they have been experiencing it, where exactly it is located, and exactly what behaviour is being exhibited.
The most common areas affected by allergens in dogs and cats are the face, ears, feet, belly and armpit area.
Acute Allergic Reactions
Perhaps the most alarming of all pet allergies is an acute allergic reaction. Pets can go into anaphylactic shock if they have a severe reaction to an allergen, which can be fatal if not treated quickly. Fortunately there are quite rare and usually caused by bee stings or responses to vaccines.
The most troubling anaphylactic symptoms to watch for are
Wheezing and difficulty breathing
Increased heart rate or a weak pulse
Excessive salivating or drooling
If your pet is showing one or more of these symptoms, this should be a red flag that you need to get them to their veterinarian urgently and without delay.
In some cases, your pet may also develop hives or facial swelling in response to an allergen. Swelling of the face, throat, lips, eyelids, or earflaps may look serious but is rarely fatal, and your veterinarian can readily treat it with an antihistamine.
Pets that continually itch without relief may have allergen-induced atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is a condition that involves severe irritation of the skin usually due to inhaled or been in contact with the allergens.
If atopic dermatitis is left untreated, it can then lead to secondary infections due to an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria, so again you should see your vet as soon as possible with any concerns.
In general, the following are the most common symptoms associated with allergic reactions in pets
Swelling of the face, ears, lips, eyelids, or earflaps
Red, inflamed skin
Chronic ear infections
Itchy, runny eyes
Readers will note that many of these symptoms could also be a sign of another veterinary condition. For this reason, only your vet can give you an effective diagnosis and treatment plan for the condition.
Types of Allergies
Allergies in pets generally fall under one of three main categories according to their cause – skin allergies, food allergies, and environmental allergens.
Skin allergies, also known as allergic dermatitis, are the most common type of allergic reactions in dogs and cats.
Flea allergy dermatitis is a specific form of allergy caused by an allergic reaction to fleabites. Some animals are allergic to flea saliva, which can make affected animals extremely itchy, especially at the base of the tail, and their skin may become red, inflamed, or scabbed.
You may also notice signs of fleas infesting your pet, such as flea dirt, or even see the fleas themselves if you brush their fur “against the grain” and inspect their fur closely. Flea allergies are most effectively treated by treating your dog or cat with a regular flea treatment.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause itchy or irritated skin, so don’t assume that just because your pet is scratching that the condition in necessarily skin-related.
The most common places dogs or cats with food allergies will tend to itch are their ears and their paws, and this may or may not be accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms. Again, make sure your vet has all the required information about all changes in their food in order to make an effective diagnosis.
Environmental allergens, such as dust, pollen, and mold, can cause an atopic allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis in pets.
In most cases, these allergies are seasonal, so you may only notice your dog or cat itching during certain times of the year. As with food allergies, the most commonly affected areas are the paws and ears (but also include the wrists, ankles, muzzle, underarms, groin, around the eyes, and in between the toes).
Diagnosing Allergies in Pets
If you have ever undergone allergy testing yourself, then you know that diagnosing allergies is an often complicated process, even with the best modern medical science has to offer.
But without an effective diagnosis of the actual allergen present, a tailored and therefore effective veterinary response is impossible.
The first thing your veterinarian may choose to do is rule out any other underlying condition that could be causing your pet’s symptoms.
If your veterinarian feels an allergy is the likely cause, they may propose allergy testing to try and determine the cause of the allergen that is causing the reaction.
However, keep in mind that even the best formal tests do not always return a positive response – diagnosis of allergic conditions is most usually an exercise in elimination and trial and error
Food allergies are often diagnosed using an elimination diet. A food trial consists of feeding your pet strictly one singular source of protein and carbohydrate for 12 weeks.
Veterinary Cytology – the ‘Gold Standard’ Test
Cytology involves examination of the cells from the affected area of the skin under a microscope.
Sampled fluid/ tissue from a patient is smeared onto a slide and stained. This is then examined for the number of cells on the slide, what types of cells they are, how they are grouped together and what the cell details are (shape, size, nucleus etc).
Fortunately, at Clyde Veterinary Hospital, we are equipped with the necessary tools for performing cytological exams right here on-site, allowing for the speediest possible diagnosis of your pet’s skin infection.
That’s why, as part of our Oct/Nov special allergies promotion, we are offering FREE cytology exams with any consultation (valued at up to $40).
Combine that with a discount of $20/bag off any necessary Hills Prescription (while stocks last), and Clyde Veterinary Hospital is the City of Casey’s #1 choice for the detection and management of allergic conditions in pets.
CLICK HERE to book online, or phone the clinic directly on 9052 3200 to have your pet’s condition seen to today.
The key to managing gum or tooth disease, whether in dogs, cats or humans is prevention.
And with research showing up to 85% of dogs or cats experience some form of dental health issue by just 3 years of age, it’s vital for their wellbeing that you do your utmost to prevent it developing.
And dental disease doesn’t just present tooth, gum and feeding/diet issues. It can also cause harmful bacteria to pass to your pet’s major organs and cause serious or even life threatening health complications.
There are a few simple steps you can take to ensure maximum dental hygeine in your pet, and what better time than “Dental Month” to run you through some of the basics.
1. Watch for Signs and Symptoms of Disease
As a secondary benefit of regularly brushing your dog or cat’s teeth, you will be routinely getting up close and personal enough with them to notice most emerging tooth or gum issues before they become serious.
Periodontitis has four main stages – progressing from minor plaque build up or mildly inflamed gums through to full blown gingivitis to mild or severe periodontitis – which can result in the loss of teeth or even bone tissue disease.
Dogs and cats both display similar symptoms when they are facing problems with their dental health. The most common early symptoms are bad breath or you may notice a yellowish-brown tartar forming on their teeth. These handy graphics will give you a good idea what to look out for and to judge how serious the dental problem might be.
A healthy pet’s mouth should show gums of a uniform light pink colour, with clear white teeth showing no discolouration or build up of plaque around the gums.
Gingivitis – the earliest stage of dental disease will usually present as a red discolouration of the gums – particularly around the base of or between the teeth.
If the disease advances to actual periodonitis, you will notice a more severe discolouration through larger areas of the mouth, and a yellowing of the base of your dog or cat’s teeth, and some bleeding from the gums may also be present, depending how advanced the disease has become.
You may also begin to notice a yellowing or darkening of the enamel on your pet’s teeth, which can lead to a serious and painful abscess, or even bone loss, if not treated promptly.
More severe symptoms include loss of appetite, excessive drooling, and your dog or cat licking up their food and avoiding chewing it, favouring one side of their mouth in eating, or using their front paws to regularly rub at their mouth.
See your vet urgently if your pet is displaying any one or more of these symptoms.
2. Clean Their Teeth Regularly
Few pet owners take the time to give their animal’s teeth a regular or dedicated clean, but this is without question the gold standard in preventative care.
Just imagine if you brushed your own teeth as infrequently as you do your pets’, the number of dental issues that you would be facing. Yet the processes of developing dental disease is exactly the name, no matter what the species.
We strongly encourage the use of a dedicated species-specific toothbrush or “finger brush” – which is a specially designed plastic overlay that you place over your finger and use to brush their teeth directly, and which gives much better tactile feedback and a better experience for your pet.
While using a dedicated dental paste is not essential, again this is really the gold standard. Dedicated pet-specific formulations are available which have a palatable taste for pets, and which provide additional benefits such as mouth freshening and prevent plaque buld up.
We DO NOT recommend using human toothpaste to clean your dog or cat’s teeth, as these can contain ingredients that can be harmful to dogs or cats if used over an extended period.
We do recommend products such as Oxyfresh Pet Dental Gel, which is completely odourless and tasteless and made from natural ingredients.
It’s important that you remain committed to a daily process of brushing in order to maintain the benefits of a regular dental regime, and it’s important to quickly get your pet used to the somewhat unnatural process of having their teeth brushed.
Start out by giving your dog or cat a small sample of the toothpaste to introduce them to the taste. And reward them afterwards with play, petting or a favorite activity, to positively reinforce the brushing process.
We recommend starting your pet out as young as possible while they are still puppies or kittens, as they will be far more receptive to brushing if you begin at an early age.
Start by gently lifting up your dog or cat’s top and bottom lip one side at a time and lightly rubbing their teeth with your finger once a day. Once they become used to this, you should begin use of the finger or tooth brush.
We recommend the following handy tips for the process of cleaning your dog or cat’s teeth at home
Lift their upper lip to expose the outside surfaces of your pet’s gums and teeth.
Brush with gentle circular motions to clean both the teeth and gums, exactly as you would your own.
Concentrate on cleaning the outside (cheek-facing) surfaces, as most pets will not allow you to brush the inside surface of the teeth.
Be sure to clean the back upper molars and canines, as these teeth tend to quickly build up tartar.
Here’s a great little video that walks you through the process …
3. Use Specially Formulated Dental Dry Food
A number of dog and cat food manufacturers now make several varieties of dry food formula which has been specially designed to abrasively prevent the build-up of plaque or tartar on your pet’s teeth and gums.
And during “Dental Month” at Clyde Vet, we’re offering a huge 15% off RRP on all Hills Dental Care Dry Food until August 31 – email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 9052 3200 to speak to our friendly staff about your needs.
4. Use Dedicated Dental Chews
Similarly, several manufacturers make dedicated dental chew treats for dogs, which are a great-tasting way to supplement a daily brushing regime, and provide a little reward for putting up with the hassle of brushing.
We’re such huge fans ofOravet Dental Chews for Dogs, that we’re also offering $10 off per bag of Oravet if purchased before August 31 – strictly limited to the first 20 purchasers.
That’s up to 25% off the recommended retail price until August 31 – email email@example.com or phone 9052 3200 to speak to our friendly staff about your needs.
5. Add a Specialised Dental Formula to Their Drinking Water
Oxyfresh have also come up with this extremely clever way of destroying bacteria and removing plaque – a dental additive solution you can mix in with their regular water – it’s completely colourless and odourless so they’ll never even know the good they are doing themselves every time they go to the water bowl – and it’s effective for both dogs and cats, or indeed any animal species.
We don’t recommend relying primarily on this as a preventative measure, but it can certainly help imrove the effectiveness of a more hands-on dental care regime.
6. Give Dogs a Raw Bone
Although this is one preventative measure your dog will truly relish, we recommend exercising caution with this. Importantly NEVER give your dog a cooked bone, as they are liable to splinter and can seriously injure your pet, and if possible supervise them while they are gnawing at it.
Always give your dog a human-grade meat bone (some preservatives used in inferior meats contain substances that can harm your dog), with enough meat still on to retain a degree of softness, and make sure the bone is large enough that they won’t attempt to swallow it.
Chewing on the bone’s rubbery surface can help remove plaque and tartar build-up and strengthen your dog’s gums, providing improved resistance to dental decay.
We recommend a maximum of 1-2 bones per week, and try to leave a minimum 3 day gap between treats.
7. See Your Vet Regularly
This one may seem obvious, but it’s important that your pet has regular dental checkups from an early age – you don’t want them having to live with a lifetime of tooth or other dental issues, which can lead to a loss of appetite, and restrict their enjoyment of life.
Only a professional dental check can properly diagnose and treat the often deeply hidden teeth or gum issues that can lurk deep within your dog or cat’s mouth.
Older animals will also benefit from occasional dental scaling, and your vet can advise if this would be appropriate and beneficial for your pet. Depending on the age of the animal and the level of build-up, they should only need professional dental scaling at 2-3 year intervals.
Ultrasonic scalers are handheld devices which use ultrasonic vibrations to remove hard, calcified deposits from your pet’s teeth. They also create shockwaves that disrupt bacterial growth, while also washing flushing the pockets between teeth and any exposed root surfaces with water.
The procedure is usually followed by a professional tooth polish, which smooths the surface of the tooth to minimise bacteria and plaque build up.
We do strongly caution against any lay dental practitioners who claim to perform dental scaling free of anaesthesia. For starters, the procedure can be painful and distressing for your pet, but just as importantly – it’s been shown to be ineffective as a preventative measure – in most cases, your pet is simply not going to allow anyone to insert anything deep enough into their mouths to provide for an effective clean.
As the cold Melbourne winter mornings set in, Dr Mitry takes a look at the preventative steps you can take to help diagnose and manage arthritis in our furry friends.
Arthritis in Pets – A Silent Epidemic
Our pets aren’t always the best communicators. Any sign that an animal is in pain can be interpreted as a sign of weakness by a competitor, so our furry companions try naturally to avoid displaying any outward pain symptoms. Cats are particularly skilled at hiding their pain.
But research shows that 80% of dogs experience some form of arthritis by eight years of age and a startling 20% show some symptoms at just one year, and the numbers are not radically different for cats. There’s no question that arthritis is one of the most under-diagnosed of veterinary conditions.
Arthritis can affect one or more joints anywhere in your pet’s body, but the most common joints affected in dogs and cats are the hips, knees, shoulders and elbows. Most of these joints depend on a layer of cartilage acting as a cushioned surface so the adjoining bones can move freely. This movement is assisted by the lubrication provided by synovial fluid in joints.
With arthritis the cartilage deteriorates and the synovial fluid loses its lubricating properties so that movement of the bones causes friction in the joint which registers as pain, and that pain will worsen as the joint becomes more aggravated.
Arthritis is an incurable condition, but the worst symptoms can be managed to give your pet a relatively pain-free old age, and the earlier the condition is identified the better the prospects for effective management.
Spotting Arthritis in Your Pet
Fortunately nobody knows them as well as their owner, and there are several obvious signs to watch out for as your pet ages. If your dog or cat is showing any of these possible symptoms of arthritis over a persistent time frame, we recommend seeing your vet as early as possible for a full diagnosis.
Slowness in getting up
Favouring a limb when walking
Hesitancy in actions they previously had no problem with (climbing steps, jumping up, running)
Decrease in activity or play
Laying down/sleeping more
A hunched back or abnormal spinal position
Cats may resist using their litter tray
Reduced or limited grooming behaviour
Irritability when handled, especially in cats
Dog owners can scroll down to the end of this article for an interactive online quiz that you can take to help assess the risk of osteoarthritis in your dog.
Managing Your Pet’s Arthritis At Home
As another Melbourne winter intensifies, the mornings are colder, and the potential for any flare up in your dog or cat’s arthritis is heightened. You can help out by making sure their bedding is warm and clean and well insulated from the cold floor. Some other things you can do to help manage the condition include;
Maintain a healthy weight to avoid putting excess strain on arthritic joints
Controlled, low-intensity exercise is essential, but make sure you carefully monitor your pet while they play, walk, or run. If possible, find a soft surface for activity such as a grassed area
Keep your pet warm and dry, since cold and damp conditions can aggravate arthritis.
Consider investing in a padded dog bed and apply warm compresses to painful joints.
Placing a hot water bottle or heated blanket under their bedding can also help relieve their discomfort
Most importantly, for dogs or cats with severe arthritis, you should consider what changes you can make to their home environment to reduce the stress on ageing joints – this could include re-locating their food and water bowls, or providing a ramp to help them access their bedding.
By Dr Irene Mitry Head Veterinarian – Clyde Veterinary Hospital
Unless you happen to own a Sphinx cat, the one common fact that ALL pet owners need to contend with is that your beloved companion is quite noticeably VERY FURRY.
This is great when it’s time for cuddles and pats, but we all know that fur presents its own unique problems. Their fur can tend to trap odours, house parasites and most importantly, it can obscure any emerging health conditions on your pet’s skin.
Most skin conditions are completely benign, and only represent a cosmetic threat to your pet’s well-being. But the MOST SERIOUS such conditions are very serious indeed – to the point of being life-threatening if not seen to immediately.
For this reason, it is vital for your dog or cat’s well-being that you check them regularly for any emerging issues and see your vet urgently if you find anything of concern.
That’s why at Clyde Veterinary Hospital, we strongly recommend that pet owners take just five minutes a month to perform a regular MONTHLY EXAM of their animal’s skin as part of an optimal preventative care regime, and we’ve put together this month’s blog in order to walk you step by step through the best way to do this.
1. Scheduling the Time
One of the hardest aspects of the whole exercise is actually making sure that you build this systemically into their regular care regime.
If your pet is already taking some form of monthly medication, the most obvious solution is to make sure that you routinely perform this check immediately after giving them their medication each month.
One of the great things about this check is that because of the physical attention they get, it’s one of the few veterinary exams that your dog or cat will actually come to look forward to – and if they hate their medication, this can even be a little reward for their putting up with the tablet!
If you don’t have a regular monthly routine that a skin check can become a part of, we recommend building a little reminder into your existing calendar system – fortunately most electronic systems are great for setting a regularly scheduled reminder like this. Here’s a great list of some of the most popular digital calendar apps currently on the market for this purpose.
2. Performing the Check
There is no right or wrong way to perform a lumps and bumps examination, but it is important that you systematise the check in order to make sure you’re routinely checking the entire animal.
Cancers in particular can develop in some of the harder to reach areas between joints associated with the lymphatic system.
The two key elements that make up the check are really the “technique” you use to perform it, and the “route” you map out along the animal.
In terms of the technique, it’s important to note that simply running your hands along the surface of their fur is insufficient to identify anything but the largest or most obvious problems in dogs and cats.
The point here is that this is a SKIN CHECK, and you need to make physical contact with or otherwise inspect the animal’s actual skin to perform the check effectively.
Owners will need to get comfortable with stroking their fur AGAINST its natural “grain”, so brushing BACKWARDS towards the animal’s head, rather than their tail with your fingers is the most critical aspect.
It will be much easier for short haired breeds, but you should try as best as possible to get a look at the actual skin surface, where you are looking for any unusual discolouration as well as any obvious raised lumps or disturbances of the skin.
If you identify anything unusual, make a note of EXACTLY where on your animal you found the lump or bump, and if possible take a photo of it on your phone. This will allow you to easily show the vet the area of concern and allow you to compare any changes in colour or condition of the lump.
And while it’s not technically part of a lumps and bumps check – you should make a note if you spot any fleas, ticks or other parasites in the fur or on the skin in the process, as your vet should be informed of this also at your next veterinary checkup.
3. Start the check at the head
We recommend starting your pet’s skin check with your dog or cat standing upright, with larger animals on the floor and smaller animals on a bench if possible.
You should begin the skin check at your pet’s head, remembering that their fur is shortest here so this region is particularly prone to skin cancers. Growths can be lurking absolutely anywhere.
Check their head carefully all over – for dogs remember to check the entire muzzle, look in their nostrils. around eyes, and in and around their mouth, and don’t forget to lift the earn on floppy haired breeds and have a good inspect of the under ear surface and in the ear.
Once you’re sure you’ve covered your pet’s whole head, inspecting as much of the skin as possible, start working your way along their back to their tail, repeating the process, patting them constantly “against” the natural grain of their fur to raise it up and expose the skin before moving progressively along to the next section.
Make sure you inspect the whole tail – this is one part of the exam most pets are less than fond of, but it’s important to try and hold the tail as still as possible to allow you to at least inspect its length by touch.
You will then need to examine their underside, best done by rolling them fully on their back, and similarly inspecting their tummy fur. Pay special attention to their joints – lumps can often grow in these difficult to detect locations, and make sure you run your hands fully along all their limbs.
Conclude the exam by a close examination of the pads of all four paws, where in addition to lumps and bumps, burrs and other foreign objects can cause problems.
4. What If I Find A Lump?
Firstly, the most important thing is that you DON’T PANIC. The vast majority of lumps found on dogs or dogs turn out to be completely benign – even some quite nasty looking one. If you come across any of the following common types of lump, simply note and record the location and arrange to see your vet at the earliest possible opportunity.
Some Common Lumps to Look Out For
Fatty Tumours – you may notice these soft, fatty lumps appearing on your pet, and largening and sagging with age. They tend to be more common in obese animals. Not all tumours are serious, but they should all be seen to.
Melanoma: a pigmented tumour which most frequency occurs on areas of the animal that are exposed to sunlight. Often initially circular, they may grow into a more blotchy shape and discolour with time. Melanomas are malignant and should be seen to by a vet as soon as identified.
Mast Cell Tumour – comprising of up to 25% of all tumours. They’re most common in dogs of middle and older age. Mast cell tumours can look like many other tumours, but they are actually a fast-growing form of cancer, so it’s vital to have them diagnosed accurately and quickly by a vet.
Sebaceous Cysts – these look like, basically are, and are of no more concern than the common pimple.
Warts – largely a cosmetic issue, you may notice these hard, dark circular areas of skin appear particularly around the animal’s mouth. They are nothing to be concerned with unless its annoying your pet or they are scratching at it.
Abscesses – the buildup of pus under the skin, usually associated with a wound to the pet, and usually painful or tender to the animal.
Hives – a rash of round, red weals on the skin that itch and swell. They are generally caused by a reaction of the skin to allergens such as bee stings. They sometimes they require treatment with steroids or antihistamines.
Lumps That Are Of Most Concern
As you can see, not all lumps and bumps on your pet are equally serious. For complete peace of mind, you should have anything unusual seen to by your vet, but the issue is most pressing if the lump exhibits one or more of the following features which may indicate the presence of a cancerous growth:
Change visibly in size or shape between inspections
Ooze or break open
Are firm and tightly fixed in place
Are abnormally coloured like melanomas
Before Seeing Your Vet
Knowing the answers to these questions before you take your animal to the vet will help them diagnose your dog’s “lump” quicker
Has the lump or bump appeared suddenly or has it been there a while?
Has the bump or lump stayed the same consistency or had the same appearance or has it recently changed?
Does the lump seem to separate from the underlying tissue or does it seem fixed in place?
Is there only one lump that you have found recently or are there multiple bumps?
Finally, has your pet shown any changes in behaviour such as loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or a dramatic change in overall attitude?
Dr Mitry shows us how a little preventative care can help make your pet’s senior years as happy and healthy as possible.
I’m often asked exactly when a dog or cat can be officially considered a ‘senior’ animal – but the fact is it’s impossible to give a blanket answer to that question – you’re asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’
All animals ‘age’ differently and at different rates for a variety of reasons, some related to environment, some to lifestyle, some to size, some to species and genetics. So the word ‘senior’ is really only useful in this sense if we take it to mean ‘the age at which the animal’s health needs have become more acute’.
On average this will begin at around seven years of age in dogs and cats, but rather than worrying about a specific number, you really just need to know that the older they get, the more important it becomes to keep a stronger preventative eye on the sort of health problems that naturally emerge in animals as they age.
So, I thought it would be useful to have a quick run through the basic things you can do to spot, avoid and manage health and well-being issues in elderly dogs and cats (although the principles I’m talking about generally apply to any companion animal).
1. Ensure regular veterinary check-ups
You’ll note a common thread in many of the conditions I discuss below is that early detection and diagnosis is almost always key to making sure that the severity of non-preventable ageing issues is minimised so your dog or cat can continue to enjoy their senior years and you keep them happy and healthy by your side as long as possible.
Once your pet starts showing signs of any of the following chronic ageing issues, we strongly recommend following a regime of veterinary checkups every six months.
2. Ensure they get regular, appropriate exercise
As your dog or cat ages, you may find their enthusiasm for exercise declines, which can result in a tendency to develop obesity, diabetes, heart and even toenail and claw problems.
I recommend ensuring that your senior dog continues to get regular routine exercise, but in many cases, you will probably want to reduce the intensity of walks or play sessions as your dog ages.
For indoor cats in particular, exercise can be difficult to facilitate as they age. I recommend that you schedule regular routine play sessions with your cat’s favourite toys – chase toys are often the best for giving your senior cat a good workout.
Encouraging your outdoor cat to continue to enjoy their outdoor time is important, but in many cases, their urge to range so far from home will reduce as they age. Keep giving your cat outdoor time, and let them climb and range as far as they feel comfortable. They will be the best judge of their own limits. They might also start to feel more comfortable indoors as they start to feel anxious about not being able to mark/defend their territory.
3. Watch their weight and diet
You will be in the habit of regularly putting the same amount of food in your pet’s bowl every day, and your dog or cat will be expecting that same amount too! But as their activity levels decline with age and they are burning fewer calories, their appetite doesn’t necessarily decline at the same rate, which can quickly lead to complications from obesity – amongst the most serious of which is diabetes, which is potentially life threatening.
Managing your elderly pet’s diet becomes more important as they age – if you’re in the habit of giving them extra scraps or treats outside their regular feeding times, it can be a good idea to wind this back a little.
The easiest way to weigh your dog or cat is to pick them up in your arms if possible, weigh both yourself and your fur baby on a set of bathroom scales together, then weigh yourself and subtract your own weight. Doing this regularly can help identify any obesity problems – although weighing larger dogs can be more of a challenge, in most cases you will be able to spot your dog or cat putting on weight just by looking at them. Either way, regular vet checks mean your vet will be able to spot changes in your pet that might not be obvious changes to you, as you see them every day.
4. Ensure they are properly vaccinated & protected from parasites
Your pet dog or cat will naturally start to range less as they age – making them less prone to develop communicable diseases and pick up parasites. But that doesn’t mean you can rest easy, because their ability to resist and recover from any such diseases also declines markedly as their elderly immune system means their ability to fight off any infection is reduced.
As your ageing dog or cat starts to exercise less, they naturally wear their claws and toenails down less and less. Cats will generally self manage the issue – they trim their claws through sharpening, but dog toenails in particular can start to grow excessively long. If you feel comfortable trimming your dog’s nails, you should do so regularly, very carefully, just a small amount at a time – otherwise regular veterinary checkups can keep the issue manageable.
6. Watch for joint problems
Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of joint pain and stiffness in dogs and cats, and they will tend to experience symptoms related to this more often in the colder months. So, as winter approaches, it’s a good idea to have your pet checked for any developing issues because early identification before the condition becomes serious can be critical to managing it effectively without too much pain to your furry friends in their final years.
Keep an eye out for any difficulty or discomfort your dog or cat may have in getting up or down from a sitting or lying position, and see your vet immediately if you see any sudden deterioration. You should also notice that your cat is far less inclined to jumping than before – you may notice them meowing for assistance in situations they were previously comfortable with, or even injuring themselves mis-judging their jump.
It’s a good idea to make sure you provide your elderly pets with good comfortable, soft bedding – particularly in the winter months, and watch out for any obesity issues which can further strain ageing joints, while maintaining a regular, reduced intensity exercise regimen.
Poor diet can be a major contributing factor in the development of osteoarthritis, so it’s important to ensure your pets are getting an adequate, regular and nutrient-rich diet. A number of special formula foods are available, formulated to meet the needs of senior animals and their bone health in particular. Ask your vet about whether this would be appropriate if you have any concerns.
7. Check them for lumps and bumps
Cancer is a common concern for all elderly animals – and they become increasingly prone to developing unusual ‘lumps and bumps’ on their bodies as they age. Fortunately not all of these are cancerous, but you should conduct regular “hands on” inspections of your senior dog or cat from ‘tip to tail’ (this is one medical examination your pets tend to enjoy!) If you identify any new or unusual lumps during the inspection, you should contact your veterinarian immediately to have it diagnosed and treated as early as possible, just in case it does prove to be something serious.
8. Watch for hearing and vision loss
From a preventative perspective, as with humans there’s not a lot that pet owners can do to avoid the natural degeneration of their hearing and eyesight – other than avoiding aggravating factors like exposure to excessive amounts of loud noise. Consistently cleaning senior animals’ ears can help reduce the risk of any ear infection, which can be helpful as even mild infections can often compound your dog or cat’s natural rate of hearing loss.
It’s important that any potential hearing or eyesight issues in your dog or cat are identified as soon as they start developing so that a proper management plan can be put in place to ease the confusion and discomfort for your pets that can arise from degeneration in these vital faculties. This is one reason why we recommend senior dogs and cats over seven years of age receive regular, specialised and more frequent veterinary checkups than when they were younger.
Keep an eye out for signs of cloudiness in your dog or cat’s eyes as a sign that they may be developing cataract disease, as well as any signs they appear wobbly on their feet, start bumping into objects, or appear confused in familiar surroundings. Hearing loss can also cause them to appear occasionally confused, however the most obvious symptoms will be an apparent failure to hear or respond to commands from a distance or from the next room.
9. Watch for emerging dementia issues
Dementia often accompanies the ageing process in all animals – usually it is relatively mild and easily manageable, but in some cases the symptoms are severe. Like osteoarthritis, there is no cure for dementia in pets, but it can often be helped with certain specially formulated foods and medications.
If you notice that your senior animal is becoming confused in familiar surroundings, seems ‘vacant’ or significantly less responsive to commands than usual, or they appear to be making unusual vocal sounds to themselves or for no reason, these are often signs of the onset of dementia. If you observe any of these symptoms, you should contact your vet immediately, in order to put an effective management plan in place as soon as possible.
10. Watch for heart problems
Heart health naturally declines in all animals with age. Making sure they are maintaining an adequately nutritious but not excessive diet is important for avoiding obesity, which is a major contributing factor in the development of many heart conditions.
Heart conditions can be notoriously difficult to detect in dogs and cats. Keep an eye out for the most common symptoms – coughing, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance, loss of consciousness or unexplained vomiting in your senior pet, and see your vet immediately if you have any concerns.
Even though senior animals may have less exposure to the sort of outdoor areas where they are likely to acquire heartworm, we strongly recommend maintaining your pet’s heartworm protection regime into their senior years, ask your vet what’s most appropriate for them, based your animal’s unique circumstances.
11. Watch for gastrointestinal issues and incontinence
Elderly animals are increasingly more prone to develop gastrointestinal issues. Keep an eye out for any persistent vomiting or diahorrea in your senior dog or cat, which can be a sign of serious gastrointestinal problems. Nutrition and diet are obvious contributing factors, and many senior animals can benefit from switching to specially formulated age-appropriate foods.
If you notice any white or discoloured flecks in your pet’s stool, these can also be a sign that worms are present. It’s important to maintain your elderly pet’s worming regime, even though they are less likely to be exposed to risk factors as they roam less.
Older animals can sometimes experience toilet ‘accidents’ as the muscles controlling their bladders weaken, but incontinence can also be a sign of a bigger problem like a urinary tract infection. Accidents can also be an indicator of possible dementia or arthiritis.
If you see any of these signs in your senior pet, it is best to talk to your vet as soon as possible to get a clearer diagnosis of the issue.
12. Watch for kidney issues
Aging kidneys tend to lose their function as dogs and cats get older, and can be tricky to spot without a formal blood test by your vet. While chronic kidney failure can’t be cured, it can be managed with proper treatment, significantly reducing the effects, and improving your pet’s welfare in their final years. The correct diet can also assist in the management of any kidney issues.
Thyroid disease and/or high blood pressure are other common causes of renal failure whose risks also increase with age.
Excessive drinking or increased urination are two key symptoms to watch for – but the best way of ensuring any problems are diagnosed in a timely way is through regular veterinary checkups. At Clyde vet, we run an early kidney failure test to ensure any emerging kidney issues are quickly diagnosed and treated.
There are of course a million other little ways that you can give your dog or cat the preventative care regime they deserve – but following these twelve broad principles (none of which are hard work – it’s really just a matter of paying them a small amount of regular special attention) will ensure you’re across all the major issues that could possibly arise.
Consider after all the love and care they’ve given you down the years, that little bit of extra work is the least you can do. The reward is they’ll be happy and healthy by your side for many years to come.