Advances in animal medicine increase quality of life for older pets

September 11, 2000

If your pet is getting along in years, and you haven't kept up with recent advances in veterinary medicine, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Within the past five to 10 years, veterinary medicine has seen some significant improvements in treatments for the maladies commonly faced by aging cats and dogs.

"Owners should be aware that now we have some options for treating problems we couldn't treat very effectively as recently as five to 10 years ago," said Bill Fortney, a veterinarian at Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "In older animals in particular, although we may not be able to cure some of these problems, we can improve an animal's quality of life immensely due to advances in medication and other treatments."

Sometimes, older pets suffer from senility or dementia. They may fail to recognize friends or family members, or become confused even in their own homes or yards. Owners formerly attributed declining mental capacity to old age and presumed that nothing could be done to slow the ravages of time.

"Senility and dementia are common in older dogs and cats," Fortney said, "and some newer medications have been developed that can help. Many dogs benefit from a drug called Anipryl, made by Pfizer Animal Health. It acts on one of the neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for nerve to nerve communication. The drug slows the natural destruction of the chemical compound dopamine in the brain. Because the problem is progressive, even if the drug works initially, ultimately it will stop being effective. But it helps many pets for some time. We've been able to prolong quality of life for six months to a couple of years."

Another disorder that causes problems for older pets is urinary incontinence. A veterinary consultation is necessary to determine the cause. Sometimes a tumor or mass blocks the urethra. Surgery can correct this problem. More often, the animal lacks muscle control around the urethra -- a weak sphincter -- and has trouble controlling urine output. This form of incontinence often responds to hormone replacement therapy, estrogen in females, and testosterone in males, Fortney said. He also prescribes a drug called PPA, which may be used for either sex. "It is very effective, with very few side effects."

Arthritis is another common malady of old age. Arthritic pets may have difficulty in rising, especially after sleep; climbing stairs; jumping up into the car, or onto the bed or sofa.

"Owners may attribute these problems to old age and may not seek veterinary advice, yet we have some options that may help," Fortney said.

"We start with NSAIDS -- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. They provide a more predictable response, a faster response, but unfortunately they have some side effects, primarily gastrointestinal upsets. The two drugs most commonly used in dogs are Rimadyl and Etogesic. Very, very rarely, Rimadyl can cause liver problems, but I still recommend a blood test for liver function before treatment, and then again after about a month of treatment. Fortunately, the liver problems are very rare and the side effects are reversible once the drug is stopped." Fortney said there are drugs from the same group specifically for cats.

"Also available are chondro-protective agents. These are nutritional supplements that help support or build cartilage. Cosequin is the most commonly used product. Unfortunately, it may take one or two months to show results and not all cases respond. We also have access to alternative therapies such as acupuncture or massage therapy. K-State has a veterinary acupuncturist on staff and many pet owners have found that acupuncture treatments have relieved their pet's discomfort," he said.

There have been remarkable advances in cancer chemotherapy in the past few years, Fortney said. "We have the ability to do chemotherapy and radiation therapy at K-State. These modes of treatment can prolong an animal's life by six months to a year or more.

"It is in the area of cancer detection that owners can be especially effective as an active health care partner. I recommend periodic palpation of pets, massaging the pet all over its body on a regular weekly basis. "At the first sign of a lump, take the pet to the veterinarian. Treatment is most effective when started early."

Newer diagnostic tools, like an ultrasound machine, have improved diagnosis of heart disease. Veterinarians take an echo-cardiogram, which is a sonogram of the heart. These action shots help them visualize exactly how the heart is pumping and valves are functioning.

"Now we have top-notch medications to help patients who are in heart failure," Fortney said. "These increase the strength of the contractions of the heart and decrease the amount of work the heart has to do to pump the same amount of blood. We used to use digitalis, a drug we rarely use anymore. With it, there was a fine line between poisoning the dog and its therapeutic value. Even today, we are not curing the problem, just controlling it so the pet has a higher quality of life for a longer period of time."

If your pet is rubbing its eye, or showing other signs that the eye is irritated, consult your veterinarian. It may be a sign of glaucoma, or other eye problem. Today glaucoma can be treated with medication. There have been many advances in ophthalmology, so veterinarians are better able to treat cataracts and other problems, too.

Fortney also urges pet owners to keep aware of a pet's weight. Be aware of any changes in weight because that might be a sign of a problem. There are diseases associated with being overweight, yet some dogs have a tendency to get underweight as well.

For older pets, the annual veterinary exam may not be frequent enough. "If we look at one year in a dog's life to be approximately equal to seven years in a person, it's like a human going to the doctor once every seven years," Fortney said. "Older dogs might be better served by an exam every six months."

"We are offering the client more options instead of dictating to them," Fortney said. "Clients today are better informed and more involved in their pet's health care. Together, clients and veterinarians can improve the quality of life for aging pets. The owner is a critical member of the health care team. By being aware of any changes in the pet's body or in its actions will provide key information to helping the animal live a long and healthy life."
Prepared by Cheryl May. For more information contact Fortney at 785-532-5690.

Kansas State University

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