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Does my old dog really need expensive tests?

By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network
Keeping your pets active can prevent illness and keep them healthy.
Keeping your pets active can prevent illness and keep them healthy.
  • Owners have to acknowledge that their pet may be a senior to seek proper tests
  • Blood tests and X-rays help determine if your pet is suffering any internal ailments
  • Consider a different diet for your pet and try to keep your pets active

(Mother Nature Network) -- During their daily walks in St. Louis, Kelly Jackson and her pint-sized Shih tzu, Meeko, used to run into plenty of pet lovers. But as soon as the conversation turned to Meeko's age, it was Jackson who got feisty.

"I'd give his age and they go, 'Awww,'" Jackson says. "I don't want sympathy. Meeko may be 12.5, but he's a force to be reckoned with."

After years of anchoring a morning news show, Jackson decided to follow a different path and launched to help people identify and prevent health issues that can shorten a pet's life span. Meeko died earlier this year, but Jackson's beloved pooch serves as inspiration for stories, photo galleries and even adoption information featuring older pets.

"People who parent senior pets don't realize that their pets are seniors -- or they don't want to admit and accept that their pets are seniors," she says. "I was even that way with Meeko when he was 8 or 9, which is considered a senior for a small breed. Once they do get into the senior stage, you really should start taking measures to address issues early on."

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Preventative measures include scheduling veterinary exams that may involve additional blood work to check for potential age-related problems. Dr. Arhonda Johnson, owner of The Ark Animal Hospital in Atlanta, offers clients a senior package that emphasizes dental care and blood work.

2010: High tech pet health care
2010: Important pet vaccines
  • Pet Health
  • Pets

However, the first step in providing preventative care involves understanding specifically when your pet is considered a senior. Dogs that weigh less than 20 pounds reach their senior years around 7 to 9 years old, Johnson says. Giant breeds like Great Danes reach their golden years around 6 or 7 years old.

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"All dogs are geriatric when they reach the double-digits," Johnson says, "but we start having the senior dog conversation at 7 for large-breed dogs."

Thanks to trends in veterinary medicine -- as well as their sheer feline craftiness, cats live a lot longer these days. According to, the life span for an indoor cat is 12 to 18 years, with felines reaching their senior era around age 9. Cats that spend time outdoors face greater risk of injury and illness, which can cut their life span to about 4 or 5.

Here are a few things to consider if your pet is reaching its senior years.

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Watch those chompers: Countless hours of fetch, gnawing on chew toys and destroying other household items (my dog Lulu is partial to expensive shoes) cause a dog's teeth to wear down over time. Without regular brushing, chunks of hardened tartar accumulate along the gum line, requiring professional cleaning. Like their human companions, dogs also run the risk of developing gingivitis. Gum disease can lead to serious health issues because bacteria travel from a dog's mouth to its heart.

Get a thorough veterinary exam: To detect and monitor age-related health conditions, your veterinarian may recommend additional blood work and other tests. Johnson suggests that older pets undergo a senior profile to check their kidney, liver, pancreas and thyroid function. She also requests blood work to monitor white and red blood cell counts, along with a chest X-ray to ensure that the heart is at a normal size and that lungs are free of masses.

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"Older pets are likely to have different types of cancers that go into the lungs," she says. "I recommend chest X-rays once a year or every other year, along with regular checkups and teeth cleaning as well as a senior diet," she says.

If your dog is moving a little slower than usual, an X-ray also allows the vet to identify signs of arthritis or inflammation of the joints. With a thorough exam, your vet also can recommend supplements such as glucosamine or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

"Some [pets] need to be on pure pain meds such as tramadol on top of nonsteroidal medication to keep inflammation down," Johnson says, noting that the treatment can vary. Some dogs respond well to water therapy while others have had success with a drug called Adequan, which has been used successfully in horses.

"It's not a cookie-cutter approach," she says. "You have to find what provides relief and quality of life."

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Consider a different diet: Since older pets tend to be less active, Johnson advises pet owners look for low-fat options that contain high-quality proteins and beneficial supplements like glucosamine for joint health.

"Make sure that the diet is on point, and you are not feeding a bunch of garbage -- like a 50-pound bag for five bucks," she says. It's also important to monitor the amount of treats you offer to older pets. Those calories add up, and extra pounds on a slow-moving pet can exacerbate joint issues.

Encourage pets to move: "People think dogs that get older shouldn't exercise," Johnson says. "Even with older people, it's important to move. You don't have to run a triathlon, but it is important to move."

Jackson is a fan of toys from Planet Dog's Old Souls line, which features softer chew toys that have bright colors, super-absorbent "Slobber-Wick" technology and even louder squeakers.

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"Their jaws don't have the same chewing action and some may have dental issues, which is a big thing, too, for seniors," Jackson says. "Meeko, who stopped playing with toys, had a Planet Dog minty bone and he loved it."

She also suggests toys that keep pets mentally stimulated. But some pets need additional tools -- ramps, diapers or steps -- to make life easier as they become what Jackson calls older statesmen.

"Pet owners are a little leery because that makes them have to accept a pet's age; it's like the equivalent of walkers for our parents, but we really have to accommodate our pets," she says. "A friend of mine has a dog that has incontinence issues. Now the dog uses zebra-print doggie diapers at night."

Watch for signs of aging in dogs -- and cats: As dogs age, they are prone to thyroid issues, which can cause hair loss. Cataracts, cloudy eyes and hearing loss also are common, along with longer naps. And, yes, some dogs become a bit senile, but medications can help.

Not surprisingly, cats are much better at hiding health issues, Johnson says. If your cat isn't as active or misses more jumps than it lands, arthritis rather than clumsiness may be the cause. You also may notice that the cat has changed its gait. A thorough exam -- complete with blood work, a dental cleaning and heart scan -- help determine more serious problems.

"Medicine has changed way we look at our pets," says Johnson, whose 7-year-old Chihuahua Pete is approaching his senior years. "Now they are part of the family and people spend thousands to make sure they are OK."

With a little extra TLC, you won't have to spend quite so much to protect that relationship.

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