Pets are living longer than ever before due in large part to vast improvements in nutrition, the development of vaccines against common diseases, and improvement in the typical pet’s living conditions. I firmly believe that modern veterinary medicine holds the keys for adding significantly more quality time to pets’ lives. Keeping pets lean, regular dental care, and early detection of metabolic changes have all been shown to extend not only the time our pets are with us, but the quality of life they lead.
One of the most important times to enact early detection screening programs is during a pet’s “senior” years. The term “senior” is a bit misleading, but my profession has yet to reach a consensus on a better term. We are talking about the portion of a pet’s life that corresponds with a fifty to seventy-five year old person. These are the years when early detection of a problem is most likely to make a dramatic impact in successfully and economically addressing a health concern.
Most people understand this concept from their own medical care. Cholesterol screening can lead to treatments that prevent heart attacks. Regular mammograms, colonoscopy, and prostate evaluations can catch cancer in very early, treatable stages. Thanks in large part to the success of routine screening, people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before.
Regular screening tests can have the same benefits for our pets. The major questions are when should we start screening older pets, what tests should we run, and how often should we run them? My answers to these questions are based on guidelines published by the American Animal Hospital Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Of course, they are also based on my personal opinion and experience.
Pets should begin regular senior screenings when they reach the rough equivalent human age of fifty. There have been several “senior at seven” campaigns to improve awareness of senior pet care. The age of seven is similar to a fifty year old person for many dogs. However, giant breeds age more quickly and toy breeds age more slowly. Cats reach a similar age equivalency around age ten.
When pets enter the “over fifty” crowd, pets should graduate to more thorough laboratory screening tests than younger pets. Complete blood counts can detect chronic inflammatory conditions, platelet problems, anemia, and even some cancers. Serum chemistries can detect diabetes, liver conditions, kidney impairment, digestive problems, hormone imbalances and more. Frequently, a thorough serum chemistry panel will be our best chance of catching illnesses in their earliest stages. A urinalysis provides important information on kidney function, bladder health, and can even detect liver problems or diabetes.
Specialized screening for high risk problems should also be a part of any early detection program. Abnormal thyroid levels are common in older pets. It is simple to add periodic thyroid testing onto your pet’s regular laboratory panel. Both dogs and cats can develop high blood pressure as they age. They can also suffer from increased eye pressure, or glaucoma. Regular measurement of blood pressure and eye pressure should be part of a thorough physical examination in older pets.
Every major professional organization that publishes guidelines for senior pet care recommends thorough examinations and laboratory tests every six months. Older pets age the equivalent of four to six years in each twelve-month interval. An issue that begins to develop a few weeks or months after a veterinary visit is likely to become an advanced problem before the next annual visit. Experts agree: a year is just too long.
Many early detection programs also include chest x-rays and electrocardiography (EKG). In certain breeds, or in pets with certain medical conditions, these tests may be recommended as an initial screening, prior to anesthesia, or on a regular basis. Some breeds are also prone to keratoconjuctivitis sicca, or “dry eye.” Ocular health can be protected if at-risk pets are screened with a simple tear test every visit.
As your pet ages, be sure to discuss with your family veterinarian the best way to protect her health. There is no doubt that the care of a ten-year-old pet should look quite different than the care provided to a two-year-old.