Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
There’s something special about living with an older dog or cat. After years in the family, senior pets know the household routine and seem able to read our thoughts. And because of advances in nutrition and veterinary medicine, pets tend to live longer than they once did.
Pets’ needs change as they age, and older pets need extra care. Regular veterinary visits and some household adjustments can help keep dogs and cats healthy and comfortable into their senior years.
How old is old?
The common belief that 1 dog year equals 7 human years isn’t really true. Dogs don’t all age at the same rates; small breeds tend to live longer than large breeds. Cats and small dogs are traditionally thought of as senior at about 7 years old (although since they can live well into their teens, 7 years may actually be middle age). Large dogs enter the geriatric stage a bit sooner. Check out these resources for more information:
What to watch for
Keep an eye out for gradual changes over time. Stiff joints, reduced vision, and picky eating are not necessarily normal effects of aging. They are often symptoms of medical conditions that can be treated.
As dogs and cats get older, their risk for arthritis, cancer, kidney disease, thyroid disease, heart disease, and many other problems increases. Watch for symptoms like these:
Dogs and cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year. Older pets may need to be seen more frequently. Many veterinarians recommend wellness checks every 6 months for senior animals. Think of it this way: if 1 dog year really were the same as 7 human years, then an annual examination for a dog would be the same as an examination every 7 years for you and me.
Some diseases progress for a long time before an animal shows any symptoms. Routine diagnostic testing can turn up evidence of chronic disease early in its course, when treatment is most effective. Your veterinarian may recommend these tests for your senior pet:
Preventive health care includes vaccination. Rabies vaccination is required by law in North Carolina for all dogs, cats, and ferrets over 4 months old (for good reason). Dogs’ and cats’ vaccination needs may change as they age, so talk with your veterinarian about immunizations that make sense for your pet.
Things you can do
Photo by Eric Han
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Summer is rapidly approaching, and it’s already hot outside. Even when the weather is moderately warm, the temperature inside a parked car can rise dangerously high. Heat and humidity put dogs at risk of heat stroke, which can be fatal.
Dogs rely mostly on panting to cool themselves (they sweat only a little from their paw pads). But panting isn’t always enough to keep a dog’s body temperature in the normal range, from about 100°F to 103°F. As the body temperature rises above normal, dogs can develop heat exhaustion. Heat stroke (in dogs) is defined as a body temperature over 105.8°F along with central nervous system dysfunction.
Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency and has a reported death rate of about 50% in dogs. It damages the brain, kidneys, heart, intestines, and other internal organs, and it causes blood clotting disorders.
Causes of heat stroke
Heat stroke is caused either by exposure to heat and humidity or by strenuous physical exertion. These are situations that commonly lead to heat stroke in dogs:
Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, an emergency veterinary medicine specialist, recommends not exercising with your dog if the temperature (in Fahrenheit) plus the humidity level is over 150. So when the temperature is 80°F and the humidity level is 80%, it’s too hot to take your dog on a run (80 + 80 = 160).
Dogs at risk
Although any dog can develop heat stroke, the risk is higher in dogs with these conditions:
Signs of heat stress
Dogs start showing signs of heat exhaustion before they develop full-blown heat stroke. Watch for the warning signs, which become more severe as heat stroke sets in:
If you see signs of heat exhaustion in your dog, carry him to a cooler place immediately; at least get him into the shade. Wet him down with cool water (ice is not necessary) and give him water if he’s able to drink on his own. Take him to a veterinary clinic right away if he has any of the more severe signs or if you’re not sure whether he’s OK after a few minutes. It’s much better to take in a dog who turns out to be fine than to delay treatment for a dog who has heat stroke.
Preventing heat stroke
Photo by Kasia Koziatek
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.