There's still plenty of life left in that old dog - or cat!

Published 23/07/2013 | 05:42

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Cindy was a twelve year old Labrador who had stopped going for walks, preferring to lie around at home. She was slow to get up, and her breathing was noisy when she exerted herself. She loved her food, and had put on weight. Her owner felt that these changes were inevitable: she was just 'getting old'.

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Murphy was a fifteen year old cat. His coat had become scraggy and unkempt. He had lost weight, yet he always seemed to be hungry, miaowing loudly day and night. His owner felt that his problems were just part of what was to be expected: he was suffering from "old age".

In both these cases, the owners were wrong: their pets had conditions that could be treated, and with the right input, they could be given years of extra good-quality life.

If you draw a graph showing the number of visits to the vet needed by most pets over a lifetime, it is a U-shape, with a very long plateau at the base of the U. Young pets need to visit the pet frequently, adult animals tend to be healthy, and older animals require a higher level of veterinary input.

It's obvious if you think about it. All puppies and kittens need to visit the vet a few times when young, for vaccinations, worming, and spay/neutering. After that, the need to visit the vet reduces: a once yearly health check and vaccine assessment is enough. Of course there are exceptions- accidents can happen at any time, and some younger animals develop serious life-long illness. But for most pets, the adult years are healthy.

The situation changes with old age: the body begins to fail due to wear and tear. A range of problems become common. In the past, these changes were often bunched together under the general term 'old age'.

More recently, this approach has been revised: 'old age' is a bucket term which implies that not much can be done. It's more accurate to say that certain problems become more common in old age. With proper analysis and assessment, it's possible to specify the issues, and to give appropriate treatment for each one. If this approach is taken, a pet can be given a longer and healthier life.

Cindy the dog and Murphy the cat happened to suffer from some of the most common illnesses linked with old age.

When Cindy was brought to see me, I found three main problems. First, she was suffering from advanced arthritis of her hips, knees and elbows.

Second, she had a condition known as 'laryngeal paralysis', where the muscles around the airway weaken, causing the breathing passage at the back of the throat to become narrowed. It was no wonder that she was labouring to breathe: the sensation must have been similar to somebody continually squeezing her throat half-closed.

And third, Cindy's weight had ballooned by 25% compared to three years previously. Her obesity was aggravating her other problems

Treatment for Cindy started with a surgical operation to artificially widen her airway. Within a week, her breathing was completely silent again: she had been cured. She was put onto a patchwork of treatment for arthritis, including pain relief and cartilage-modifying drugs, and she began to want to go for walks again.

She was also put onto a prescription-only low calorie diet: within three months she had almost returned to her normal weight. Her owner told me that "she was like a young dog again". The truth was that she was older than she had ever been: the difference was that the diseases that had been troubling her had been treated effectively.

When I examined Murphy the cat, I found that not only was he very thin, but his heart was racing far faster than it ought to be, and he had a small nodule on the underside of his throat.

When I measured his blood pressure, it was too high. I sent a blood test to the laboratory, and this confirmed that he had elevated thyroid hormones. He was suffering from a combination of an overactive thyroid gland due to a benign tumour in his neck; this was causing the weight loss despite his huge appetite, and it was also contributing to his high blood pressure.

We put him onto blood pressure medication and carried out an operation to remove the thyroid tumour. Six months later, he had put on weight, and had stopped yowling for food. We also treated the painful dental disease that was stopping him from grooming himself, and he began to look after his coat again. Again, his owner told me that he was 'like a young animal again'. In reality, he was the same elderly cat, but his illnesses has been cured.

There are many other illnesses that can cause animals to show signs that owners describe as 'old age'. Examples include diabetes, Cushings Disease, other hormonal diseases, liver and kidney problems, inflammatory bowel disease and animal Alzheimer's.

In each case, once a diagnosis has been made, appropriate treatment can be given. There are also more serious illnesses that cannot be cured, such as certain types of cancer, but nearly always, some sort of palliative care can be given that improves the pet's quality of life.

So if you think your pet is suffering from "old age", think again and take that animal to the vet. You may be surprised to discover that there is still plenty of life left in that old dog - or cat.

Wexford People

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