Our pets are a very important part of our lives. They provide unconditional love and companionship to us, may keep us more active, and give us a sense of responsibility; they are essentially our children.
However, our pets live a shorter number of years than we do, which means that every year that passes for us equates to several years for our pets (we have all heard the term "dog years"). The actual number of years that pass depends on the breed and size of the pet. Most pets will reach middle age after about six years, but in giant breed dogs, middle age occurs after just four years. This increased aging process means that regular physical exams with a veterinarian provide important health benefits for our pet families.
Wellness examinations should be the time that families get the chance to have open discussions with a veterinarian about their pet's general health and ask questions about the pet's health or day to day care. They are a great time for the veterinarian and support staff to discuss new information or review already established plans for keeping your pet in excellent health. Examinations are especially important for families with pets that have ongoing health conditions. Your veterinary staff will review medication questions and any changes that have been seen in your pet, including his or her behavior or activity level. The final part of the wellness visit is protecting your pet from contagious disease with vaccinations.
As our pets age it becomes even more important to establish a baseline of normal blood values and routinely check for any changes in these values. This is done through panels we call wellness testing. All wellness tests check blood cell counts (CBC), enzymes reflecting organ function, and electrolytes. Our more extensive wellness panels (called Senior Wellness Panels) also check metabolic function, urinary tract health, and thyroid function. Disease processes most often seen in aging pets that can be found from blood work changes include kidney disease, liver disease, pancreatic dysfunction, electrolyte abnormalities, diabetes mellitus, Cushing's disease, Addison's disease, and thyroid disease.
In addition to screening for these serious conditions with blood work, a physical examination of your pet allows the veterinarian to check for changes in pet joint function such as decreased range of motion, muscle wasting (atrophy), pain, or other signs of arthritis and neurologic dysfunction. Finding these signs early allows the veterinarian to work with the family, discussing treatments and activities that can improve joint flexibility and manage any pain associated with increased age.
Our goal with senior pet health care is to provide information to you and your family on improving both the quality and duration of the life of your beloved pet. Every pet we see inspires and teaches us as well, so we believe that by working together we can enrich the lives of pets, pet owners, and even ourselves.
Dr. David Walker is Chief of Staff at Armadale Animal Hospital. His veterinary interests include internal medicine and surgery.