Originally published in Pet Business Magazine July 2008.
Thanks to advances in technology, medicine and nutrition, pets like people appear to be living longer healthier lives. According to the 2007 U.S Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the percentage of cats 6 years of age and older increased from 37.4% to 44.1 % between 1996 and 2006, and the percentage of dogs 6 years and older increased from 42.4% to 43.9% during that time period. Like people, as pets age their nutritional and healthcare needs change. With almost half of the U.S. cat and dog population being 6 years of age or older, pet retailers should recognize and cater to the special needs of this growing segment of the pet population.
How old is old in dog or cat years?
It may be a simple question but the answer is somewhat complicated. Here’s an example to illustrate the point. The average lifespan of a dog is 13 years compared to 77.6 years for the average American. If you do the math and define a “senior citizen” as being 65 years old, then a “canine senior citizen” would be approximately 11 years old. However, anyone who has owned a dog knows that dogs act older at a much earlier age. This is due to the fact that dog “age” nonlinearly when compared to people. Using physiological milestones to measure “aging,” dogs age at different rates throughout their lifespan. To further complicate matters, “aging” can be breed dependent as most of the giant breeds, like Great Danes, have shorter life spans and therefore age prematurely. On average small dogs live longer than large breed dogs, and cats live longer than small dogs. Without a clear-cut definition for a senior pet, most veterinarians define the average sized geriatric dog or cat as being 7 years old.
What role do pet retailers have?
Pet retailers not only provide pet products and supplies, they often provide helpful advice to pet owners. Besides their veterinarian, pet owners rely upon pet retailers for advice on almost every aspect of pet care. Sometimes, pet owners speak to pet retailers about health issues even before they see their veterinarians. Therefore it is essential that pet retailers know that geriatric animals have special needs. Pet retailers should be sure that all their staff are educated about the unique needs of geriatric animals so that they can provide knowledgeable advice to the pet owners that rely upon them. In addition, pet retailers should be sure they can offer pet parents products that can help their beloved senior pets age gracefully.
Getting old isn’t easy
Like their human counterparts, geriatric animals suffer from many of the same age-related diseases. Arthritis, dental disease, diabetes, kidney failure, and cancer, among other diseases, often afflict our aged pets. What are the signs and symptoms of these common diseases? Arthritis affects joint and causes animals to become less mobile. Pet parents often notice that their animals are less active or appear painful when they get up or lay down. Animals with dental disease may eat less, drool excessively, have bad breath, or only have swollen, red gums and tartar on their teeth. Diabetic animals often have a change in appetite and activity level, increased thirst, and increased urination. Kidney failure can also present with lethargy, increased thirst, increased urination, and unexplained weight loss. Finally, any new lump or bump on an older animal should be suspected as being cancerous until proven otherwise by a veterinarian. Dr. Brenda Phillips, veterinary oncologist at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego, states, “prognosis of many cancers depends upon the size of the tumor at diagnosis.” Therefore, early detection and diagnosis is expected to improve patient survival. Of course these are all just some of the most common symptoms associated with these diseases. Animals are good at hiding illness, and so many animals that suffer from kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, or thyroid disease never show any symptoms at all. Unlike humans, pets generally do not die from sudden illnesses like strokes or heart attacks. Instead pets more commonly die from chronic diseases. Therefore the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends senior dogs and cats be examined by a veterinarian every six months. Regular health examinations and routine diagnostics allow veterinarians to detect diseases early, when they are often more treatable. In addition to carrying products that can help pets with these health problems, pet retailers should be familiar with these common symptoms and AAHA’s recommendation of twice yearly veterinary exams, so that they know when it is appropriate to refer a customer to a veterinarian.
Arthritis is the most common age-related disease that affects animals. Arthritis results from the degeneration of cartilage in the joints. Cartilage normally provides cushioning and a smooth surface for the joint, but as the cartilage wears away and becomes uneven, mobility becomes painful and impaired. Arthritic animals can benefit from supplementation with glucosamine and chondroitin that may help replenish the cartilage and lubricate the joint. These supplements are available over-the-counter and are considered a first line treatment. When supplementation with glucosamine and chondroitin is not enough pets may benefit from medications that only a veterinarian can prescribe. The use of prescription medications in combination with oral glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, weight loss and controlled exercise is often the best treatment option for pets with severe arthritis.
Arthritic animals can’t move as easily as they once did when they were younger. Their limited mobility can affect almost every activity, and even simple activities, like eating or drinking from a bowl, can be painful to arthritic joints. Fortunately, there are a number of available products that can help animals cope with this disabling disease. For example, food and water bowl stands allow tall older dogs eat and drink without having to stoop. Arthritis can also make it difficult for cats to get in and out of the litter box. Low-profile litter boxes or litter boxes with ramps can help older cats having trouble with the litter box. Similarly, older dogs may have trouble getting into cars or on the bed. Fortunately, there are ramps available that can help them climb into the back of even the tallest SUV and padded pet stairs that help them access the bed. Harnesses are also available that can help dog owners assist their arthritic animals, especially when going up stairs or getting up. Finally, painful, arthritic joints need to have a comfortable place to rest. Be sure to stock well cushioned beds or beds with memory foam for older arthritic pets. These beds not only keep pets comfortable but they can also help prevent older pets with reduced mobility from developing pressure sores.
No one likes to go to the dentist, and pets are certainly no exception. But like humans, pets also need routine dental care. Imagine what your teeth would look like if you never brushed them. The American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS) reports that 80% of all dogs over 3 already have dental disease. While cavities are common in humans, dogs and cats primarily develop tartar. And tartar doesn’t just prevent pets from starring in commercials or lead to bad breath, it can lead to tooth loss, painful tooth root infections, difficulty eating, and even lead to kidney, liver and heart disease. So what can pet parents do? If a pet already has dental disease a complete cleaning by a veterinarian is required. This enables veterinarians to do a thorough oral exam, and clean not only the surface of the teeth, but also clean under the gumline where the majority of bacteria and tartar are found. Lastly pet’s teeth are polished to prevent bacteria and plaque from easily adhering again to the tooth surface. While most humans can sit still and tolerate this type of cleaning, must pets will not and therefore require anesthesia. Once a pet’s teeth are cleaned or if dental care is started at a young age, pet parents can maintain their pet’s pearly whites by providing routine home dental care. Ideally pet’s teeth should be brushed daily with pet safe toothpaste. While nothing beats brushing, oral rinses, dental chews and dental toys can also help reduce the bacteria and plaque that lead to tartar buildup. Having several dental products gives customers options but remember no amount of brushing will correct years of dental neglect. Pets with advanced dental disease need to see their veterinarian.
Another all too common condition that affects older pets is inappropriate elimination. Changes in aging pet’s organ function, weight and hormone levels can all hinder a pet’s ability to control their bladder function like they used to. Metabolic disease like kidney disease and diabetes which are often seen in older pets cause pets to drink more water, which in turn leads to more frequent urination. Unfortunately these can all lead to accidents. Because incontinence is not just a sign of old age it is important pet retailers suggest pet parents have their pets seen first by a veterinarian to rule out medical causes. Once treatment is under way pet retailers can help pet parents by offering helpful products like pee pads, pet diapers and doggie underwear. Automatic litter boxes can help cat parents deal with cats that are urinating excessively due to diseases like kidney disease or diabetes. By automatically scooping after every use they keep the box clean and odor free, which in turn may help prevent an unhappy cat from urinating elsewhere. They also help cut down litter box care, which can become quite a chore with cats that suffer from these diseases. Inappropriate elimination is one of the most common reasons cited by pet parents for relinquishment and it is often a reason many pets are euthanized. By providing and offering possible solutions for pets with incontinence you may actually be saving a pet’s live.
Advances in pet nutrition have contributed significantly to the increases in pet longevity. Pet food manufacturers are constantly researching the needs of pets and looking for ways to increase their live span. Food manufacturers have recognized that seniors have special metabolic and medical needs. As a result, they have formulated pet foods specially designed for seniors. These special senior formulas address the lower levels of activity and the various age-related diseases that affect geriatric animals. Senior diets limit unnecessary nutrients and nutrients that may be harmful to older pets and often add nutrients that have been found to be helpful to senior pets. For example, many senior formulations contain glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritic animals. There are also special dental diets that can help maintain clean teeth between dental cleanings. Low-calorie diets help animals fighting obesity. There are even more specialized diets for animals suffering from kidney disease and diabetes, though these are available only through a veterinarian.
Though there is no substitute for a healthy diet, medical science has found that supplementation with vitamins and antioxidants can provide additional benefits. This is not only true with people but with animals as well. Antioxidants are believed to lower the risk of cancer by protecting the body against the damage caused by oxygen free radicals. There is also compelling evidence that omega 3 fatty acids are good for brain development, skin, and protect people from cardiovascular disease. Dr. Phillips, recommends her clients give their pets “omega 3 fatty acid supplements from fish or algae based sources daily.” Fortunately, there are specially formulated vitamin, antioxidant, and omega 3 fatty acid supplements available for animals so that they too can benefit from these supplements.
Pet retailers fulfill an important role to pet owners. As geriatric pets become a larger segment of the pet population, pet retailers will need to cater to their special needs. They can accomplish this by carrying products that address geriatric needs and organizing their inventory so that it is easily accessible to customers. Having a senior pet section can help owners of older animals find products for their aged animals. Finally, pet retailers need to ensure that their staff is knowledgeable about the health issues that affect older animals. Besides providing pet products and supplies, pet retailers are a great source of information for pet parents. Retailers are often the first place pet parents go to ask questions about their pet’s care. Being familiar with senior health issues will enable your staff to provide an excellent and unique service to your customers and most importantly will enable your staff to recognize medical problems that need the attention of a veterinarian. Together veterinarians and retailers can work together to help senior animals age gracefully.