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October 19, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Veterinary Q&A: Health issues facing aging dogs

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Dr. Karen Weeks, a veterinarian at Frontier Village Veterinary Clinic in Lake Stevens, answers questions this week as part of a series of Q&As on the health issues facing aging dogs. She is shown, above, with her 12-year-old dog, Riley.

Question: What age is considered senior?

Answer: Eight years old is generally considered senior, however, this number is about as arbitrary as designating humans seniors at age 65.

Larger dogs, like Great Danes, may be considered seniors at about 7 and generally have a shorter life span than smaller-breed dogs. Smaller breeds, like Yorkshire terriers, may be considered seniors at about 10 or so.

Question: What kind of special health issues do you most commonly see in your senior patients?

Answer: The most common are dental disease, osteoarthritis and obesity. Other common problems are diseases of the endocrine system, itchy skin, ear infections and cancer.

Dental disease: Oral health in dogs is as important as oral health in people. Tartar, gingivitis and periodontal disease often can be painful and affect the whole body.

Think of it as an infection in the mouth. Much of that tartar is comprised of bacteria. When the gums become inflamed, the bacteria can cross into the blood stream and travel throughout the body, including to the heart, liver and kidneys.

The best way to prevent dental disease is to brush your dog's teeth. Using dog toothpaste and brushing for 10 seconds a day can make a huge difference in preventing tartar accumulation and gingivitis.

Osteoarthritis: Dogs can lose mobility for many reasons -- osteoarthritis, neurologic degeneration, or both. Osteoarthritis is very common and is often diagnosed based on history, physical examination and radiographs.

Most pets can be treated with medical management and have a very good quality of life.

We have many modalities to treat pain secondary to osteoarthritis.

First and foremost, clients whose dogs are overweight should put their pets on diets. This makes more difference than any other treatment option available when dealing with osteoarthritis.

Older pets with mobility issues should get plenty of low-impact exercise. This helps lubricate the joints and keeps them moving.

There are many kinds of pain medications available, from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories made specifically for dogs to pain blockers. Many human anti-inflammatories can be very dangerous when given to dogs, so please consult your veterinarian before giving any medication to your pet.

I am also a big believer in supplements like fish oil and glucosamine. Fish oil has natural anti-inflammatory properties, and glucosamine can help support and protect articular cartilage from breakdown secondary to the enzymes produced when the joint is inflamed. Studies have shown these treatments can really help, and I have seen it first hand in my patients.

Finally, don't forget other modalities, like acupuncture and laser therapy.

Obesity: Obesity is a major health issues because of the many consequences it can have on the aging dog's body. It adds stress to the dog's joints, makes the heart work harder, makes it more difficult for the dog to move and exercise and can exacerbate respiratory problems.

I always tell people that they should easily be able to feel their dog's ribs (without seeing them), and most breeds should have a defined waist.

Monitor your dog's weight more frequently. If the pounds start creeping up, you will be able to address the problem sooner. Most veterinarians will let you bring your dog in to be weighed at no charge.

Finally, limit high-calorie treats and substitute them with playing, walks and attention. If people really want to give treats, try carrot sticks, apple slices, green beans or even using a small amount of the dog's regular food. Most dogs are so happy to get a treat that they don't care what it is. Of course, if you feed treats of any kind, reduce the amount of regular food you give. Every calorie counts.

Diseases of the endocrine system: The endocrine system deals with hormones.

Diabetes in dogs is usually from a lack of insulin production by the pancreas. Insulin moves glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, so diabetes is essentially a state of hyperglycemia.

Hypothyroidism is common in dogs and is a lack of thyroid hormone being produced by the thyroid gland. The thyroid hormone is involved in metabolism. Dogs deficient of this hormone can have a slower metabolism. Often these dogs are middle aged to older, overweight and have skin disease.

Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is an overproduction of corticosteroids by the adrenal glands. This disease is common and can cause increased drinking and urination, panting and skin disease. Sometimes the dog may have a potbellied appearance.

Itchy skin and ear infections: This isn't a problem that is specific to senior dogs, but I see chronic skin disease so often in older patients, that I feel they have to be mentioned.

What many owners don't realize is there is always an underlying cause to itchy skin, skin infections and ear infections. These things don't just happen on their own.

Some underlying causes include allergies, metabolic disease and parasites.

The stress of chronic infection and constant itching can be hard on the older dog, as can some of the medications commonly used to deal with the itch and inflammation (steroids).

Your veterinarian can help diagnose the underlying cause in hopes of preventing the secondary infections, rather than just treating the animal and the secondary problems time after time.

Cancer: There are many kinds of cancer that can affect dogs of any age, although I do diagnose cancer more often in older dogs. Common signs of cancer can include weight loss, collapse, coughing and lethargy. Often cancer will be diagnosed based on a combination of physical exam, blood work/urinalysis, radiographs and ultrasound.

Cancer treatment in dogs is a huge topic, but it is important for owners to know there is a lot veterinarians can do to treat cancer and keep a dog comfortable. Some treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Many clients worry cancer treatment will cause their pet to suffer. This is a very valid concern, and quality of life always has to be our primary goal. However, there is a misconception about chemotherapy in dogs: Often the dog does not experience the same level of illness secondary to chemotherapy as people do. That's not saying there are no side effects, but these should be discussed with your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist.

Question: Is there any testing (blood, urine, exams) you routinely recommend? What are the advantages to do these kind of workups? How often should they be done?

Answer: Physical exams and fecal testing (for parasites) should be done yearly for all dogs. Once a dog is 8 years old, I recommend annual blood work. This may include urine testing.

At the time of the yearly physical exam, I will re-evaluate what type of blood panel should be run. Blood panels run from basic liver and kidney testing to comprehensive blood counts, electrolyte testing and thyroid testing.

By doing regular physical exams and fecal/blood/urine testing, vets can get a baseline for a pet and possibly uncover any emerging health problems.

For example, I often get blood work from older dogs that have increased liver enzymes. Sometimes this indicates a problem, sometimes it doesn't, but it always warrants monitoring.

Diseases like cancer, hepatitis and Cushing's disease can cause increased liver enzymes, but so can certain medications and aging. We have to interpret the results in light of the clinical history and physical examination of the patient.

Another important reason to do annual exams and testing is to make sure any medication a dog may be on is appropriate.

An example would be testing thyroid levels in a dog being treated for hypothyroidism to make sure he or she is on the right dose. Another example would be testing liver and kidney enzymes in a dog before and after starting nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories for osteoarthritis to make sure the animal does not experience a rare idiosyncratic liver toxicity secondary to the medication.

Question: What about the loss of sight or hearing?

Answer: A lot of people are very concerned with their pet's quality of life without these senses, but dogs can adapt very well to loss of vision or hearing. Some adjustments need to be made, but these dogs can still live very happy and comfortable lives.

When you suspect your dog is losing vision, it is important to keep the animal safe -- block the stairs, don't let him or her into the road and don't move the furniture around.
It is similar when dealing with deaf dogs. Don't let them get into a situation where you need to recall them from afar. If they can't hear you, they could get lost or hurt.

Question: Some vets do not recommend booster vaccines and rabies after a certain age, maintaining (sometimes via titer testing) that the dog's immunity is satisfactory. Are there specific problems with vaccinating older dogs? What protocol do you recommend?

Answer: Vaccinating older dogs is a controversial subject. In theory, if a dog has had a good lifetime history of vaccination, he or she may have high enough antibody titers against the disease that re-vaccination is unnecessary.

The problem is that to know this, we would have to do blood titer testing, which tends to be too expensive for many people.

Because many people don't want to test titers, they have to decide to vaccinate or not to vaccinate. This is a decision that needs to be made with your veterinarian, based on the health of your dog, its vaccination history and its risk of contracting a certain disease.

There is no set vaccination protocol for older dogs, and there are no specific dangers in vaccinating an older dog, as long as they are healthy.

Often, we will avoid vaccinating dogs if they have suppressed immune systems or any kind of immune-mediated disease as we do not want to challenge the immune system if it has other work that it needs to be doing.

Dr. Karen Weeks

Weeks graduated from Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. She joined Frontier Village Veterinary Clinic in Lake Stevens in 2009. Her special interests include dentistry, soft tissue and orthopedic surgery, pediatrics and obstetrics. She has served on the board of directors for Hope for Horses, a nonprofit group in Woodinville. Weeks has two cats, O'Malley and Cringer, and a spunky 12-years-old dog, Riley.

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Read our past Q&As:
Veterinary Q&A: Why blood work is necessary
Veterinary Q&A: Are prong collars safe for your dog?
Veterinary Q&A: Birth control for pets
Veterinary Q&A: How to find a good vet
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 1
Veterinary Q&A: Hyperthyroidism in cats
Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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