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How to Care For an Elder Pet

From Prevention.com

Our vet's top tips for keeping your dog or cat healthy and comfortable through her golden years

Nowadays, it's not unusual for your pets to be a part of your life for a decade--or more! Thanks to improvements in veterinary medicine, our trusted companions are living longer than ever; as a result, you may notice health problems that are different from those of their youth.

Here are the top issues facing older pets--and breakthroughs that can help owners give them longer, healthier lives.

Bad Breath

It means: Your pets may simply need to have their teeth cleaned, or, more seriously, they may have dental disease, which can include problems such as severe plaque, gingivitis, bleeding gums, tooth loss, or ulcers. Untreated, oral bacteria from an infected mouth can spread to the bloodstream or even the heart valves, which can result in a life-threatening infection. If it's not a dental issue, your vet will rule out other possibilities, including cancerous oral masses or metabolic problems (like kidney disease or diabetes).

My advice: A dental cleaning will take care of dirty teeth and fend off more serious problems. Though that means anesthesia--which can be risky in older pets--keeping those pearly whites healthy is worth it. If your pet has dental disease, your vet may prescribe antibiotics, followed by a scaling (cleaning around the gumline) and even tooth extraction.

Lumps and Bumps on Your Pet's Body

It means: Your aging pets have imperfections that we vets dub "old dog warts." But be careful--while most are benign, there is the risk that some may be cancerous. Cats do not typically develop these lumps, so if you see them on a feline, they are definitely abnormal.

My advice: Get protrusions checked out by a vet as soon as you can--ASAP in the case of a cat. Your vet should do a visual exam and use a needle to sample the lumps and pull out cells (called an "aspirate") that will show whether your pets have a fatty benign tumor (lipoma) or an aggressive cancer. If the masses are benign, they typically don't need to be removed unless they become ulcerated or limit mobility because of their size and location (on a joint, for example). If they are cancerous, the doctor will want to schedule surgery or remove them immediately--before they metastasize.

Your Pet Has Trouble Finding His Way Around

It means: The clear part of the eyes (the lens) may have become hazy, a condition called lenticular sclerosis. Your pet may also develop cataracts, which are white "clouds" on the lens that block vision. The latter may cause your pet to have a harder time climbing stairs or navigating the yard.

My advice: Have the doctor evaluate your pet's vision by using a bright light to look at the lenses of his eyes. Lenticular sclerosis affects vision only at distances and in low light and generally does not require treatment. Cataracts, too, can often be left alone--provided they aren't blinding the animal.

5 Signs You Need to See the Vet--Stat!

As your pet ages, the chances increase for serious medical problems, such as kidney or heart failure, internal bleeding, or cancer. Sadly, people often notice the signs too late--which means an expensive ER visit and a poorer prognosis. If you notice any of these symptoms, get your pet to a vet as soon as you can:

  • Shivering or crying

  • Lethargy or an inability to stand

  • Breathing problems, such as coughing or panting

  • Eating issues, including vomiting, a swollen belly, decreased appetite, or weight loss

  • A change in urination or drinking patterns

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