By Joanna Mitzel
For this month’s blog post, I interviewed my trusted veterinarian, Dr. Irene Vanderwerff of the Value Pet Clinic in Kent, WA. She grew up in Kansas and graduated from Kansas State University in 2008. She practiced for four years in Wyoming before moving to the beautiful Pacific Northwest where she shares her home with a very spoiled cat. Dr. Vanderwerff provides excellent care for my four senior pets, so who better to talk with about some of the most common questions and concerns she receives regarding the care of senior dogs?
J: As my dog has gotten older, he spends less time at dog parks or places where he’d get sick or injured. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to load up the car and visit a veterinarian just for annual vaccines. Old dogs have had so many vaccines, do they still need them?”
Dr. V: The older they get, the less effective their immune system is. Just like in older people, they need vaccines more than ever because they are more susceptible to infectious diseases.
J: What types of health problems are to be expected in senior dogs?
Dr. V: Most commonly in older dogs we will see lumps and bumps, which should be checked for cancer when found. Arthritis as another common old dog problem that can be slowly progressive and subtle. Walking/running more slowly, or slow to get up after sitting and lying down are common signs. When caught early, many times there are treatments that can help slow the progression of arthritis and control arthritis pain.
J: We’ve all seen those familiar lumps and bumps on older dogs; Seems like it’s just part of the aging process. Should I really have that lump checked out/removed? He’s old and it doesn’t seem that bad?
Dr. V: He will be older and it may be worse later…he’s never going to be younger and that lump is never going to be smaller than right now. At least get it checked to see if it is something to worry about. If it is, better to fix it now. Most skin lumps are easily removable when small. And even if it is cancer, most of them are cured by complete removal, which is easier when they are small.
J: My dog seems fine. Is that test or procedure you’re recommending really necessary? Isn’t he too old for that procedure?
Dr. V: Age is not a disease. Older dogs are more likely to have underlying diseases that can make anesthetic procedures more risky which is why we recommend bloodwork and sometimes x-rays to screen for that. But if they are otherwise healthy, they are at no more risk than younger dogs. Age is not a disease.
J: I’ve noticed my dog is less interested in being active. He also seems to struggle to sit or get up from lying down. He probably has some arthritis but doesn’t act like he’s in pain.
Dr. V: If you notice signs of arthritis then there is pain. A dog doesn’t always (or even usually) whimper/cry/yelp with arthritis pain. They walk stiffly or get up slowly or take the stairs gingerly or limp occasionally BECAUSE there is pain. If there were no pain, there would be no noticeable signs. Treating for arthritis pain can greatly improve an older dog’s quality of life. And it lets them exercise more. Which is great for arthritis!
J: Every time I bring my dog to the vet, they tell me he needs his teeth cleaned. He eats and drinks just fine and doesn’t seem to be in pain. Does he really need his teeth cleaned? What about the anesthesia at this age?
Dr. V: We also see a lot of dental disease which can cause gingivitis pain and tooth abscessing. As long as your older dog does not have any underlying diseases, anesthesia is just as safe as in younger dogs. Most veterinarians will require some screening tests to ensure that anesthesia will be as safe as possible for an older dog. Dogs are good at hiding dental pain, so it is important to consult with your veterinarian about your dog’s teeth to determine what is best for your dog.
J: Last question. So ultimately, how do I help my senior dog stay happy and healthy?
Dr. V: Things you can do to help them stay happy and healthy are:
- Keeping up with vaccines: Just like in people their immune system worsens as they age so it is more important to vaccinate in the later years to ensure protection from serious infectious diseases.
- Have checkups at least yearly and ideally every 6 months to monitor for signs of age-related diseases.
- Make sure you spend time with your senior pet.
- As they age they can show signs of dementia. Keeping their minds interested and engaged in life can help combat this.