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Welcoming and caring for senior pets
When it comes to providing proper care to older dogs and cats, client education is key in helping to detect early signs of illness.
I primarily manage advanced dental cases, many of them involving older dogs or cats. That’s why I tend to get overly excited about new puppy or kitten appointments, because they typically allow technicians to spend extra time reviewing everything, from vaccinations and diet to elimination training.
You might not be as thrilled to see new senior dog or cat patients, especially if they have multiple problems or comorbidities—leaving you with one 20-minute slot at the end of the day to diagnose and treat every ailment. But these animals deserve (and typically need) all the extra time and care we can give them. So, what’s the best way to welcome senior pets into your practice?
Identifying senior pets
We need to get better at defining and identifying senior pets. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), cats are considered senior at age 11 and geriatric at age 15. Senior dogs are more challenging to identify, because larger dogs age faster than smaller dogs. A giant breed might be considered senior at age 5, but a smaller breed, like a Chihuahua, might be considered senior at age 11.
Additionally, targeting patients for a senior care program is not easy. When a senior pet is identified and acknowledged, client education helps with transitioning these patients into a senior health program. Discussing life stages from an early age with clients can better prepare them for when you start using terms like “senior” and “geriatric.” As your patients reach milestones, additional, more frequent care is needed. Subtle changes may be signs of a potential disease, rather than instances of pets “just getting old.”
Diagnosing health conditions
For new or current clients who might be unaware of senior pet problems, it is important to provide additional time for more detailed history or focused questionnaires and a thorough physical examination (likely diagnostic testing and in-depth discussion of management or follow-up steps). If your allotted time is too short, a follow-up appointment might be necessary.
When asked, most practices encourage examinations twice a year, along with diagnostic work-ups involving bloodwork and urinalysis. Blood pressure measurement is sometimes mentioned, but often forgotten, and radiographs typically are only taken if there is a specific reason. Because studies have shown that many issues can be identified in apparently healthy pets, these diagnostic tests should be used as baseline levels to detect trends or changes before clinical signs are recognized. There are several guidelines you can use to help monitor disease stages including the ABCDs of canine cardiology (Cardiac Education Group), the International Renal Interest Society’s Staging of Chronic Kidney Disease guidelines, and the cognitive dysfunction syndrome evaluation tool (DISHAA).
Several questionnaires can also help assess behavior, pain, mobility, and overall quality of life in senior pets. Providing a list of potential issues may also alert the client to a problem they may not have suspected otherwise. Helping clients become more cognizant of gradual changes can help with early detection of many health issues. Try giving clients a senior folder with pockets that can hold veterinary visit information, diagnostic results, and a section for current medications.
Encourage clients to make quarterly or monthly observations of their pets, including how much and what they are eating and drinking, their activity levels, their elimination habits, and behavioral changes. They can take sequential photographs of their pets for body condition scoring comparisons, with a lateral view and a “skyline” view. They can also take photographs of any unusual or suspicious mass or tumor (with an object next to the mass for size comparison)—this will help you determine any rapid changes and help locate the mass for removal.
All of these efforts help identify senior pets who need additional care and attention. As we look at these patients more closely and regularly, we can detect issues and diseases at earlier stages, thus helping improve their quality of life and hopefully extending their time with clients.
Having a solid veterinarian-patient relationship during these golden years can help you continue to be your patient’s advocate when it’s time for the client to make the difficult decision of euthanasia. These senior pets have often been loved family members for years and they deserve their final years to be as happy and comfortable as possible.
Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC, is a veterinary dental expert with Main Street Veterinary Hospital and Dental Clinic in Flower Mound, Texas.