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Looking after ageing pets, says Sugarloaf chief vet


Sugarloaf Animal Hospital’s chief vet Dr Katie Powell explains how the natural process of ageing means that pets can be disease-free, but still have a compromised quality of life, highlighting the importance of regular check-ups. 

Age itself is not a disease.

We can now care for our pets much better, helping them live much longer and healthier lives.

Unfortunately, that means they will have longer to suffer the ravages of time and be open to contracting some of the common diseases associated with old age.  

So, when do pets become “old”?

Pets grow up fast, becoming young adults in just one year for dogs.

We treat companion animals as “senior” at the equivalent of 50 human years: for cats and dogs less than 10kg, this means their eighth birthday.

For dogs between 30kg and 60kg, it’s their sixth.

Similar to humans, some signs are easy to spot, such as the emergence of grey hair, usually around the muzzle.

However, it is the internal aging that is much more likely to have an impact on a pet’s quality of life.

Organ systems are also ageing, so senior pets are more likely to suffer a decline in function of the heart, kidney or liver.

Owners start to notice more lumps and skin changes and unfortunately, the incidence of cancers increases as our pets age.

It is very important to understand that senior animals need more frequent assessment.  

Often what we see as “old age” can actually be your pet not moving round very much due to chronic pain or decreased eating due to dental disease.

Sometimes, senior pets may start to drink and urinate more, have accidents in the house or lose weight despite being ravenous. 

Your vet may discuss additional screening tests, such as blood pressure testing, urinalysis, haematology (blood work) and full biochemistry or testing for endocrine issues.

These tests help identify different disease processes more common later in life.

This will enable your vet to have a better understanding of any underlying processes to consider and if that impacts certain medications your pet may require.

Probably the most common problem we manage in ageing pets is Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) leading to Osteoarthritis (OA).

There is a lot we can do to help treat or manage these pets, where we change the entire course of the disease.

Diet, nutritional supplements, anti-inflammatory agents and new monoclonal antibody drugs, can all play a role in making the life of a pet with OA much more bearable.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a progressive and irreversible condition that involves the degeneration of the cartilage in the joints and the associated bones.

It is one of the most common causes of chronic pain in dogs and cats.

Dogs aged over 8 years have a >80% chance of developing osteoarthritis.

Causes are often multifactorial, and include congenital abnormalities, injury, or simply ageing wear and tear, while other conditions such as obesity or diabetes also are risk factors.

What are the signs of osteoarthritis?

The severity of osteoarthritis can range from mild intermittent disease to severe disability and pain that heavily compromises quality of life. 

Often the process has been chronic, so animals try to adapt to the pain. 

It isn’t until we can provide sufficient pain relief that we realise how sore they have been.

Signs your pet might have osteoarthritis:

  • Stiffness or lameness
  • Decreased level of activity, with animals becoming less playful and mobile
  • Loss of muscle mass (muscle atrophy), sometimes resulting in weight loss
  • Difficulty using the stairs, getting up, or finding a comfortable resting position
  • Changes in behaviour and mood, unexpected aggression toward other dogs or humans
  • Aversion to being handled or touched in certain parts of their body
  • Having accidents in the house as they have difficulty urinating and defecating

How do we treat osteoarthritis?

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis can only be treated but not cured, as changes are irreversible.

The goal of treatment is to alleviate pain, help maintain your pet’s mobility and interaction with the family and overall improvement to their quality of life.

Due to the many causes of osteoarthritis, we recommend a multimodal approach to treatment.  

  • 1) Weight management

This is one of the most important and most challenging issues presented for patients.

As osteoarthritis causes a reluctancy to exercise – weight gain is common.

Excessive weight increases stress on muscles and joints, which then leads to further weight gain due to inactivity.

Fat tissue may also contribute to osteoarthritis, as it has pro-inflammatory properties.

It is not a linear relationship between body weight and health issues:  

A little extra weight can have profound effects on joints and other parts of the body.

  • 2) Chondroprotective agents

Cartrophen/Pentosan injections help repair cartilage and reduce damage to them.

This involves a starting course of weekly injections for four weeks, followed by regular maintenance injections as recommended by your veterinarian.

  • 3) Oral supplements

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) have anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve pain.

  • 4) Pain management

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are commonly used to control pain and inflammation in animals with osteoarthritis and can greatly improve their quality of life.

However, as they are processed by the kidneys and liver, routine blood and urine testing is highly recommended to monitor the function of these organs.

There is an exciting new drug available in Australia, which is a Monoclonal antibody.

This targets a protein associated with pain. 

The drug is given as a monthly injection and does not require the kidney and liver to metabolise it, like other drugs, making it safer in older patients. 

A minimum of two consecutive doses are recommended to see a response to the drug.

This drug is available for both cats and dogs.

  • 5) Exercise and physical rehabilitation

Many of our treatments are designed to facilitate continuous exercise, given that it plays such an important role in our pet’s quality of life. 

Exercise is a critical factor in controlling excess body weight – animals don’t have to be morbidly obese for there to be health consequences of excess body weight.

Low impact exercise is important to strengthen muscles, promote flexibility in tendons and ligaments, aid blood circulation to joints and to prevent obesity or facilitate weight loss.

Swimming is a great exercise for arthritic dogs as there is less strain on the joints.

Physical rehabilitation is an excellent way to ensure your arthritic dogs get their exercise tailored to them, as well as to reduce reliance on medications to manage their pain.

Sugarloaf Animal Hospital can also discuss a rehabilitation program for your pet.

Please talk to one of our veterinarians about what we can do to diagnose osteoarthritis and assist your pet’s quality of life. 

All the vets at Sugarloaf Animal Hospital work to recommend choices that are going to provide the best quality of life for the longest time for any individual patient.

It is often said that the best measure of veterinary care is how to provide quality of life to a patient with a disease we are not going to cure.

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