By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Practicing medicine is a life-long commitment to constantly educating yourself and pursuing the art of healing at the highest level every day. Veterinary students and new graduates are often advised by practicing veterinarians that veterinary school provided a small portion of the knowledge they will need to be great doctors and the rest will come with experience and continued education. Health care as a whole has changed so much over the past century that the way medicine was practiced 100 years ago would be considered barbaric, even verging on malpractice, to the doctors of today. However, the doctors 100 years ago were working with the knowledge and tools available to them. As doctors understanding and knowledge improved, so did the care provided. Average life spans increasing as a result is seen on the human side of medicine as well as the veterinary side. As our pets are able to live longer through improved knowledge, even more is needed to address problems we did not face with shorter life spans. That is why doctors have to remember that with new knowledge, comes new responsibility and our responsibility is to provide the best care possible for all animals in all life stages. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All diseases run into one – old age.” However, I choose not to look at age as a disease, but simply as a new stage of pet’s life.
Due to the advances in medical technology, diagnostic testing capabilities, and new medications available, veterinarians are routinely seeing a much larger population of geriatric pets. With older pets comes a wide-range of medical and behavioral problems which may be unique to that life stage. The entire veterinary field rejoices that the life-span of our patients has dramatically increased – the thought of a cat living for 34 years would have been a joke before, but it is now a reality. Now that pets living this long is a reality, owners and veterinarians must work together to ensure that senior pets are able to comfortably enjoy these extra years. For veterinarians this means not only providing the best medical care during all life stages, but also knowing and educating owners on the more common conditions seen in senior pets. Since we all know that pets cannot talk to us and tell us what is wrong, it is important for owners to know what signs to watch for with different diseases so it does not get dismissed as an “old age thing” when it is a medical condition we can manage.
Just a few medical conditions that owners should be more aware of and on the lookout for in their senior pets are problems with the senses (vision, hearing, taste, etc.), failure of different organ systems (liver, kidney, etc.), watching all new growths for signs of cancer, managing arthritis, and cognitive dysfunction. With pets living so much longer than they used to veterinarians need to educate owners about the importance of preventative medicine, more frequent veterinary visits and changes in their pet’s behavior that warrant concern and medical attention. Caring for a geriatric pet is new for our clients too and we need to help them understand the different needs and diseases of an older patient and that by working together we can allow our pets to age gracefully.
Some diseases that we are commonly seeing with older patients have clinical signs that are easier for owners to recognize because people are more aware of the change that they are seeing as signs of disease and not just part of the aging process. Diseases that center around the brain and nervous system have clinical signs that are much harder for owners to recognize because they often are confused with signs or behaviors that people previously thought were just part of getting old. Due to huge advancements in our ability to test and image the nervous system, we now have a much better working knowledge on how the nervous system functions. This has lead to discovering new neurologic diseases and gaining an even greater understanding of neurologic diseases in general. With this new knowledge, veterinarians have learned how to better diagnose and treat or manage these diseases. One of the most common neurologic diseases affecting our older patients is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is associated with the brain aging and it has become prevalent in our geriatric patients, much like dementia or Alzheimer disease in humans. Since this is a very common syndrome, but a syndrome that most people are not familiar with, education and increased awareness is key. This is especially true because the clinical signs associated with this disease often start out very subtle and can be mistaken for normal changes associated with aging. However, when owners know what to look for and that the signs they are seeing may be associated with a disease, it is more likely that they will seek veterinary care. Veterinarians can then perform further neurologic testing and can offer appropriate treatment or management options. By educating people that some “normal aging changes” are not normal and can be treated, pets gain an even better quality of life.
As a general rule owners should watch for alterations in awareness, decreased responsiveness to stimuli, and deficits in learning. Any changes in your pet’s personality or routine can signal a disease, not just negative changes. For example, instead of simply being grateful for the silence that has come after years of your dog standing at the window and barking at the cars, it needs to be noted as a clinic sign of a disease.
All pets, at any age, are unique and the treatment of diseases will be specific for your pet. As pet’s lifespan continues to increase, the veterinary field will continue to learn and grow. Feedback from owners is always helpful, so never hesitate to call with any questions, concerns, or updates. Also, please remember every patient responds to medications differently, and this can be especially true as your pet ages, so it may take trying a few different medications or combinations to find the one that works best for your pet. However, thanks to the constant advances in the medical field, the changes in older animals that used to be considered normal aging changes have now become clinical signs that owners can watch for and veterinarians can treat!