Blue Cross blog
Is your older pet just slowing down – or is it time to go to the vet?Posted on 13 Jun 2012
Growing older is an inevitable fact of life for us all, but how can you tell if your pet is simply slowing down or if they have a problem that needs veterinary attention? Blue Cross chief vet Caroline Reay has some advice to help…
Ageing isn’t much fun for anyone and for pet owners it often brings the additional burden of watching pets grow older too.
But don’t be caught out – Your pet may not be “slowing down” just because they are getting on a bit.
They could have a treatable problem and, although there may not be a miracle cure, there are plenty of older pets that have benefited from prompt detection and treatment of underlying health conditions.
Animals simply adapt their lifestyles to avoid activities which hurt or leave them out of breath but, nevertheless, their quality of life can be vastly improved if these problems are treated.
Signs of arthritis in pets
The first sign of arthritis may be mild stiffness when your pet first gets up after a rest, or limping on the way home from a walk.
Maybe they no longer climb the stairs or are reluctant to get into the car (remember they have to jump).
In cats it’s common to see reduced activity, especially jumping or climbing, or you may notice they are using their front feet to pull their body up, rather than springing with their back legs.
It’s a good time to visit your vet – maintaining muscle use minimises wasting, which helps joint support.
Do rest your pet if they are limping (if you’ve planned a weekend hike then make alternative arrangements).
Try to keep exercise constant from day to day and avoid vigorous activity that may put a strain on ageing joints.
Consider your pet’s weight. Are they a bit chubby? (ask your vet if you’re unsure). Just because it’s middle-aged spread it doesn’t mean it can’t be shed, which will help mobility.
Toilet troubles for older pets
If an elderly pet is having “accidents” in the house, many owners assume that it’s senility and has no remedy.
Sadly, some are even embarrassed. But some cases are caused by arthritis.
The animal physically can’t move to the back door in time or sometimes, especially in cats, they may either feel insecure toileting outside, or be unable to step up into a litter tray indoors.
Other physical problems can cause indoor toileting too. Pets which have diarrhoea (and digestion may not be so good with ageing) or who are drinking a lot will need to toilet a lot more too, and may need to go more urgently.
There are 101 causes of diarrhoea and excessive thirst (which vets call polydipsia) but some are curable.
Don’t suffer in silence and assume it has to be endured. Talk to your vet before the problem becomes intolerable. If you wait too long, your pet might retrain themselves to learn that the house is an acceptable toilet area.
Never think that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! Even if your pet is genuinely incontinent (owners may notice a wet patch remains where they’ve been lying), in many cases this can be cured.
Many pets get a misty, milky-eyed look as they get older but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have cataracts.
The lens of the eye is made up of layers like an onion. With age, the accumulation of layers causes a misty look, but it doesn’t affect vision too much.
Even if cataracts (which do affect vision) develop, it’s not the end of the world. The vast majority of animals cope very well in time, even with total blindness.
Hearing aids and spectacles for old dogs may not be available but pets don’t need to read or drive.
And the sensual world of the dog and cat is vastly more sophisticated than that of the relatively insensitive human race.
But, as an aid to pet-human communication, it makes sense to teach your pet both visual and auditory “commands”.
Not all hearing loss is total and some frequencies or pitches may still be detected. And beware – older pets (like older people) may learn that it’s sometimes an advantage not to hear too well.
Is your older pet lacking enthusiasm?
Reduced enthusiasm for games and walks can also be due to cardiac or respiratory problems.
Heart problems are commonly thought to cause a cough but in reality you are more likely to see shortness of breath or low tolerance for exercise (sitting down or dawdling during a walk).
A more common cause of coughing, especially in small dogs, is bronchitis. Both problems can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Some trial and error with medications may be required – and this is an acknowledged means of diagnosis.
Again, owners can help their pet at home. Animals with a cough should be kept away from respiratory irritants such as dust and smoke (and that’s good advice for owners too).
Being overweight is bad for both heart and lung conditions, and can radically reduce activity. Weight loss is a “natural” therapy that’s also cheaper than using lots of medications.
Each movement out and in of the chest wall equals one breath. If a heart problem is suspected you may be advised by your vet to count breathing rate.
Do it regularly and report to your vet if it’s getting faster – healthy animals usually take less than 30 breaths per minute.
Like older people, older pets may have smaller appetites and they can be more choosy as well. It's worth getting a health check as there could be an underlying problem, such as hormone disorders or dental problems.
Bad teeth often cause smelly breath and soreness may make animals paw at their mouths.
Older cats sometimes develop voracious appetites because of thyroid disease. It’s important to get this treated as it can bring on heart problems if left.
Cognitive decline in pets
Cognitive decline can be a difficult diagnosis to make, and there is no test to confirm it.
Disturbances in sleep pattern and restlessness are a common sign, but some medical problems (including arthritis) can cause this too.
In these cases it’s perfectly legitimate for your vet to suggest a trial with arthritis medications to see if these are beneficial.
Other signs include vagueness and confusion. Medications to slow cognitive decline can be used, but don’t expect overnight success. Most take weeks, or even months, to be fully effective.
There are also vitamin supplements and special diets available which are thought to be helpful.
All treatments work best in early cases, so watch your ageing pet carefully and if there is anything out of the ordinary, talk to your vet.
An observant and thoughtful owner can make a genuine contribution to the best outcome for their pet.
We have advice to help with cats, dogs, horses, rabbits and other small pets – see if our factsheets can help you with your pet problem.