Common Senior Pet Health Issues

Just like older people, senior pets can become afflicted with myriad diseases. Things that you may think are just signs they are getting older may instead be a serious problem.  On the other hand, age is NOT a disease.  We want to catch problems early when it is more successful and less expensive to manage them, but don’t want to write them off just because they have a few gray whiskers.  Here is a brief discussion of some common conditions to watch for and a few suggestions to help senior pets age gracefully.

Vision deficits

Vision deficits are common in our older pets. Things to watch for: changes in the appearance of your pet’s eyes, such as dilated or constricted pupils, squinting or cloudiness. Also, monitor your pet for vision deficits at night, and note if he has trouble navigating or bumps into objects or furniture. If you notice any of these things, it’s time for a visit to your veterinarian. Your vet will perform an ophthalmic exam to determine whether your pet has a problem that needs to be addressed.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss is another common problem in senior pets. Sometimes it is challenging to determine if our pets have hearing loss or if they are just ignoring us. Some signs that a pet may not have optimal hearing are startling easily when approached from behind, being unreactive to the doorbell or other sounds that he or she previously responded to, and going the wrong direction or turning the wrong way when called. Again, if you are noticing these things, a visit to your vet is important.

Additional problems — such as excessive wax buildup in the ear canals or untreated ear infections — could be contributing to hearing loss. Even hair buildup in the ears in breeds that are predisposed can be a contributing factor.

Cognitive dysfunction

Cognitive dysfunction is a condition associated with brain aging. This condition often begins with subtle changes, but the first thing many people notice is disorientation and confusion. The dog or cat becomes confused easily, even in familiar environments. They may pace aimlessly or get stuck in corners. Sometimes house-training deteriorates and pets urinate and defecate inappropriately. You may notice changes in the animal’s sleep cycle and random vocalization.

If your pet is displaying these behaviors, consult your veterinarian. Your vet may perform a neurological exam and check your pet for other diseases that exhibit similar signs. There are some new drugs that your vet may prescribe to help with this disease. He/she may also recommend some dietary changes; some improvement has been noted in pets consuming diets high in antioxidants and betacarotenoids, which are found in fruits and vegetables, as well as essential fatty acids.

Kidney disease

Kidney disease also commonly affects older pets, particularly cats. In the early stages of kidney disease, you may not see any signs of illness in your pet.  This is why routine lab work is so important. As the problem progresses, you may begin to be aware that your pet is drinking more water than normal and urinating more.  This is an important sign of many diseases such as diabetes and Cushing’s disease in addition to kidney disease and should be checked right away. You may also notice weight loss, vomiting, lethargy and mouth ulcers or odor. If your pet has any of these signs, your vet will check blood work and a urine sample. Your vet may recommend a special diet and fluid supplementation. There has also been promising research on the benefit of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in pets with kidney disease.


Older pets have a higher incidence of growths and tumors. Keep vigilant watch on any lumps and bumps on your older animals and have them checked by your vet annually. If you see rapid increase in the size of tumors and growths, or masses that suddenly appear, have your vet check these earlier rather than later, as it could indicate a more severe form of cancer. If your pet starts losing weight or has a marked lack of energy or appetite, cancer screening tests and an exam by your vet are recommended.


Arthritis is the main cause of chronic pain in elderly dogs and cats. An older pet may have intermittent pain or stiffness after rigorous activity. You may notice your pet having difficulty getting up and down, alterations in gait and/or limping. If you see these signs, talk to your vet about taking radiographs to evaluate your pet’s joints for arthritis. Consider glucosamine supplementation, as well as chondroitin sulfate, aminoglycan and essential fatty acid supplements.

If your pet is overweight, losing some pounds often improves arthritis pain dramatically. It is also important to continue moderate exercise, since it maintains your pet’s muscle tone, preserves range of motion in joints and actually relieves pain by stimulating specific nerve fibers. Ask your vet about integrative therapy options, such as acupuncture or footwear to provide improved traction.  When the pain is significant, there are some very good anti-inflammatory drugs available to make your pet more comfortable.

Heart Disease

Heart problems are fairly common in senior dogs, especially small breeds, but cats and large breed dogs can be affected as well.  This is because although the heart is a very complex muscle, it IS just a muscle, and as your dog grows older his body won’t function as well as it used to. But if you’re worried about witnessing a sudden dog heart attack, don’t be. Dogs generally don’t have ‘heart attacks’ the way people do. That’s the good news.  The bad news is that frequently their heart valves wear out and start leaking.  Your veterinarian can pick this up in the form of a heart murmur during the yearly exam, and with a little diagnostic testing, can prescribe a treatment to delay the onset of heart failure, so that Fido gets to spend more time enjoying his life with you.

Abdominal Masses or Enlarged Organs

Have you ever noticed your veterinarian palpating (squeezing) your pet’s abdomen?  She is checking the size and shape of the organs to make sure everything feels normal, and to make sure there are no unexpected masses present.  This is one way we help make sure the liver, kidneys, spleen, intestines and bladder are healthy.  Any abnormalities can be checked out and dealt with rather than waiting until there is a sudden crisis.

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