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"I could tell you that when you have trouble making up your mind about something, tell yourself you’ll settle it by flipping a coin. But don’t go by how the coin flips; go by your emotional reaction to the coin flip. Are you happy or sad it came up heads or tails?"
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  Volume No. 16 Issue No. 6 June 2019  

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Dr. Jim Humphries

  It happens to all of us — aging pets B
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   In my practice, I see many aging and very senior dogs and cats. Many are not getting good care. I often hear things like “they are just getting old.” Yes, so am I! But I am not ready for “the home” or certainly not ready for “the shot.” I need exercise, better nutrition, meds for aches and pains; and I need to see a variety of doctors to help me manage all of this.
   But what about pets? Recently, one of our dogs, the bird dog Great Dane cross, who has been so active and athletic all her life, has been slowing down, showing serious aches and pains. She is starting to get lost and not hear as well, and she even had a very short seizure. This has all happened so fast that it has surprised her veterinarian “dad.”
   What is aging? How do we recognize it? What can we do to either prevent it or treat it? In recent years, there has been extensive research on the problems facing older pets and how their owners and veterinarians can best handle their special needs.
   When do they get old? It varies depending on the size, breed and the kind of care they’ve had all their life. Cats and small dogs are generally considered geriatric at the age of 7. At that age, they are about 54 in human years. Larger breed dogs have shorter life spans and are considered seniors when they are about 6. At that age, they are approaching 60 in human years. The oldest recorded age of a cat is 34 years. The oldest recorded age of a dog is 29 years.
   What kinds of health problems do our aging pets have? Well, I see this list every week and the first is cancer. Almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. This is followed by arthritis; the rest of the common ones are heart disease, kidney and bladder issues, liver disease, diabetes, dementia and weakness.
   Cancer comes in all types and it can be visible, like skin tumors or it can grow hidden in the chest, abdomen or elsewhere. Arthritis is so common there is hardly a very senior dog without it, and it can easily be treated today with good medications. Many dogs, but fewer cats, have heart disease. We also have good news, as there are new meds that can help heart cases.
   Unlike these problems, it is much harder to effectively treat pets with kidney and liver disease, but it should be caught early. With dementia, it usually comes on slowly with confusion, urinating in the house, circling, wandering, anxiety, getting lost in familiar surroundings — combined with pain, these dogs get to be “old and cranky” pretty fast. You need to keep a closer eye on your seniors to catch these things before they get too far along to treat.
   The only way to catch these things so you have a good chance of helping your pets age gracefully, with dignity and with the least amount of pain, is making sure you get them into a good veterinarian for senior blood monitoring, dental care, a good physical exam and any diet change or medications that will help your ole buddy live a life that he or she deserves.
   You definitely want to keep their weight on the lean side. It is easy to let your pets eat free-choice, or simply give them too many calories than they need each day. Then slowly and surely they become obese, and you find yourself with an arthritic dog that can’t exercise much to burn those excess calories. An overweight diabetic or heart patient just means complications and probably treatment failure. I like to feel; and, in some cases even see the ribs on dogs. They should have a “waist” when you look down on them from above. You will be doing your dogs a big favor by keeping them lean and resisting those extra treats and table food.
   For those with dementia, there are precious few meds out there that really help. Studies conducted in the early 1990s were the first to identify brain changes in older dogs that were similar to brain changes seen in humans with Alzheimer's disease (i.e., amyloid deposits). Laboratory tests were also developed in the 1990s to detect learning and memory deficits in older dogs. There is now work being done to identify this in younger dogs — all in an effort to treat/prevent this devastating common old dog problem. I do recommend high dose fish oil and a drug called Senalife® — along with a rich and stimulating environment to keep them from drifting into boredom and senility.
   Ask your veterinarian to show you how to do an at-home physical exam. This is the best way to find cancer and many other problems when they are just starting. If you have had your pet insured during its lifetime, now, when it is a senior, it really pays off to be able to have all the reasonable tests and treatments done without worrying about the cost.
Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian in Colorado Springs and also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.
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