This is a comment that we frequently hear. What exactly does “just getting old” really mean? Does it mean that the ailments of older pets shouldn’t be a concern? We hope not!
Pets are unable to communicate that they are hurting and will instinctively hide their pain as a survival mechanism to prevent other predators from viewing them as weak or vulnerable. A behavior that’s protective in the wild can be problematic in the home, making it difficult for owners to know when a pet is in pain.
For years, people mistakenly assumed that because pets didn’t show pain, they didn’t feel pain. Now we know that simply isn’t true. Their nervous systems are relatively similar to that of humans, so it stands to reason that what is painful for people is probably painful for pets.
Veterinarians are super sleuths! They can tell if a pet is hurting by putting together a few clues. For example, an examination may show that the hind leg muscles of a dog have become atrophied (shrunken) and that he is flat-footed in the front. This indicates that he is shifting the majority of his weight from his back legs to his front legs, which then cause his carpi (wrists) to hyper-extend. Even though he may not be whining or crying out, he is shifting the weight because his back legs are painful. In this case, the most likely diagnosis would be arthritis.
Those clues may be difficult for a pet owner to assess, but what about the following?
Does your older pet get up slower from a resting position? Is he unable to jump like he used to? Does he limp after exercise? Does he not want to walk as far or sleep more than usual? Any one of these signs could point to arthritis.
Luckily, there are many treatment options now available for dogs and cats suffering from arthritis.
• Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): Rimadyl, Metacam, Deramaxx. These reduce inflammation and provides pain relief.
• Supplements: Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Omega 3 Fatty Acids. These support the structure and function of joints.
• Other Pain Medications: Tramadol, Gabapentin. These should be used in conjunction with NSAIDs for additional pain relief.
• Therapy: Laser, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy. These preserve the mobility, strength and use of joints; produces endorphins.
Arthritis is just one of the many conditions that we share with our pet companions. Other conditions include diabetes, Cushing’s, Addison’s, cancer, pancreatitis, urinary tract infections, bladder and kidney stones, allergies to environmental allergens, dental infections with pain, tumors, arthritis, trauma, deafness, blindness, ear and skin infections, corneal ulcers, glaucoma, and the list goes on and on.
What other clues should you be on the lookout for?
• Drinking and/or urinating more than normal (accidents in the house)
• Exercise intolerance (gets tired quickly after walking or exercise)
• Vomiting and/or diarrhea
• Difficulty chewing
• Tumors (lumps/bumps)
• WeightlLoss (always significant if it is not intended – especially in cats)
Dental disease can be a major contributing factor of weight loss in elderly pets. Many of these pets won’t show any evidence that their mouth is painful because they compensate by chewing on the other side. In fact, after thorough dental procedures to resolve the pain and infection have been performed, many owners often report the emergence of a “different” pet. They just hadn’t realized how much their pet had been hurting.
As with humans, our elderly companion pets need and deserve more care and comfort in their golden years. We have so much more to offer them…and them to us!
Kim Donovan, D.V.M., is an associate veterinarian and medical director at Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital in Seminole with 16 years experience and a special interest in feline medicine.