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:: Caring for Your Pet


Man and Dog on Dock by WaterOur role as advocate, caregiver and decision maker for our pets is an important one. For many of us, we consider our pets to be members of our family and an unexpected diagnosis can be devastating. As effective advocates, we want to understand how to navigate illness, treatment options and goals, and how to preserve quality of life for our animal companions.

It is our responsibility as advocates for our pets to become more informed and participate in our companion animals’ care. Your veterinarian is the primary resource for having discussions about developing an understanding preventive care, illness and treatment; changes in aging animals; and palliative and hospice care.

At PawPrints Network, we are committed to supporting all advocates and caregivers. The Internet is a powerful tool, but we recommend that you also consult with your veterinarian for credible sites and sources of information.

Excerpt from “Age Is Not a Disease: What an Owner Thinks of as ‘Just Old Age’ Is Often a Treatable Illness,” Reprinted with permission from The Whole Dog Journal, January 2010

Aaron Epstein’s 14-year-old Australian Shepherd-mix, Sam, was losing weight and his appetite wasn’t the same. “I just thought he was getting old because in addition to not eating with the same vigor, he was slowing down a bit, wasn’t able to walk as far, and sleeping a little too much,” Epstein recalls. The once 45-pound dog had shed close to 15 pounds -30 percent of his body weight -before concerned friends could convince a reluctant Epstein to get Sam to the veterinarian for an exam and blood work, both long overdue.

At the clinic, Sam was found to have an enormous mass growing on his spleen. The pressure from the mass made eating physically uncomfortable for Sam. Epstein followed the veterinarian’s recommendation and opted to have Sam’s spleen removed, as well as a number of other small tumors around his pancreas. Sadly, the veterinarian also discovered that the cancer was malignant. Although the prognosis for Sam was limited, he was home a few days later, eating like a horse and acting more like his formerly happy-go-lucky self.

From roughly age seven years on, a dog is considered senior, or geriatric, and it’s important that owners realize that old age is not a disease! If your senior dog is losing weight, drinking and urinating more than he used to, can’t walk as far as he once did, or is exhibiting other changes in behavior, he’s not “just getting old” -he’s not well! Changes in our geriatric dog friends are usually indicators of early chronic disease.

Aging is a natural process that is the result of the net effect of negative changes in physiology over time. In a chapter of Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat, William Fortney, DVM, writes, “A common characteristic of aging body systems is progressive and irreversible change. The effects of disease, stress, malnutrition, lack of exercise, genetics, and environment may hasten this change.”

There are common metabolic and physical effects of aging, but these should not be confused with chronic disease. Older dogs can be expected to experience a decreased metabolic rate, decreased immune competence and greater susceptibility to infection, and reduced thermoregulation. In addition, each organ system undergoes changes as dogs age. Examples of some of the physical changes that naturally occur with age include:

  • Digestive system: Gastric mucosa atrophies, hepatocyte (liver cell) numbers decrease.
  • Endocrine system: Pancreatic enzyme secretion decreases, hyperplasia of pituitary or adrenal glands.
  • Integument: Skin becomes inelastic, footpads hyperkeratinize (get thicker), claws become brittle, muzzle grays.
  • Cardiovascular system: Lungs lose elasticity, vital capacity (volume) decreases, cough reflex and expiratory capacity decrease, cardiac output decreases.
  • Genitourinary system: Kidney weight decreases, prostate gland enlarges, testes atrophy (intact dogs), prepuce becomes pendulous.
  • Musculoskeletal system: percent of body weight represented by fat increases; muscle, bone, and cartilage mass are lost; bones become brittle; bone marrow becomes fatty and hypoplastic.
  • Nervous system: number of cells decreases; reduced reaction to stimuli; altered memory; diminished visual acuity, hearing, taste perception, and smell.

Although it is possible that one of these effects might lead to deterioration in body function, each alone is simply a result of the natural aging process. It’s when one or more of these changes progresses that we begin to see chronic disease. If even one of these changes occurs in your dog, it’s worth mentioning to your dog’s veterinarian to confirm whether it’s a normal aging change, or a preliminary sign of disease.

For the complete article, click here to read the full article “Age is Not a Disease: What an Owner Thinks of as ‘Just Old Age’ Is Often a Treatable Illness,” originally featured in the January 2010 issue of the Whole Dog Journal.