Originally published in BARK Magazine January 2006
Most parents complain about how quickly their kids grow-up. Within the blink of an eye their children seem to go from diapers to diplomas. Now imagine squeezing an entire life span into just thirteen years. On average, dogs live about thirteen years, compared to an average life span of 77.6 years for the average American. Dogs age nonlinearly and one human year can be equivalent to 7-10 dog years. While this means that puppies grow both physically and socially at a blazing speed, it also means that they become senior citizens at an accelerated rate. And like their human counterparts, diseases like diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis, dental disease and cancer become more prevalent with increasing age. While we cannot stop aging, there are measures we can take to ensure that our pets live long healthy lives.
No one likes going to the doctor, and dogs are no exception. Geriatric dogs, which are defined as being 7 years or older, should have routine veterinary examinations every 6 months. This may seem excessively frequent, but it isn’t when you consider that 6 months is the equivalent of 3 dog-years. Likewise a yearly exam is the equivalent to an exam every 7-10 years, and no medical doctor would advise seeing elderly human patients so infrequently.
Since many illnesses become more prevalent with increasing age, these routine exams are important. The goal of these visits is to diagnose and treat diseases before they become more advanced and more difficult to manage. Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical and oral exam to look for evidence of disease. They will also ask you about changes in your dog’s behavior or activity. Since dogs cannot tell us their symptoms, it is imperative for pet parents to note changes in appetite, thirst, behavior and weight that may signal the development of a particular disease. Veterinarians have the challenge of using every clue to make the right diagnosis, and this includes the physical examination, the history you provide, and the use of screening diagnostic tests.
Screening diagnostic tests, like blood tests and x-rays are used commonly with people. Doctors rely on prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels, cholesterol levels and mammograms to diagnose disease early. Similarly, veterinarians use blood and urine tests to screen for diabetes, anemia, liver, kidney and thyroid disease. Radiographs, or x-rays, are used to look for arthritis, cancer and heart disease. Studies have shown that 22% of senior dogs that appear healthy on examination actually have clinical disease evident with screening tests. Since dogs can’t communicate with their doctors, these screening tests become even more important and allow your veterinarian to diagnose medical problems early.
While dental disease is not unique to older dogs, it is usually more advanced in senior dogs due to years of neglect. Just imagine what your teeth would look like if you never brushed them. Untreated dental disease can lead to more than just bad breath; it can lead to difficulty eating, pain, tooth loss, and the spread of infection throughout the body. A proper dental cleaning requires general anesthesia. While anesthesia in older animals may sound scary, age alone is not a risk factor. Screening tests become even more important in older animals since they are more likely to have systemic diseases. Your veterinarian will determine if your senior dog needs a dental cleaning and is healthy enough to undergo this procedure safely.
In between veterinary visits pet parents should watch for any new lumps or bumps. Cancer is the number one cause of death in dogs and is found predominantly in older pets. All lumps are abnormal but not all endanger your pet’s health. Benign tumors are generally safe, as they usually grow slowly and do not invade surrounding tissues. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are more aggressive because they grow faster, invade surrounding tissues, and can spread throughout the body (metastatic disease). The shape, appearance, size and location of the mass may give your veterinarian a clue as to whether the mass is begin or malignant. However only a pathologist who examines the tumor cells with a microscope can make a definitive diagnosis. Therefore your veterinarian will need a specimen for pathology, which can be obtained with fine needle aspiration, incisional or excisional biopsy. Once the mass is diagnosed your veterinarian can discuss what treatment if any is needed.
The topic of cancer in pets is as scary as it is in humans, but fortunately there have been significant advances in cancer treatment for our canine companions. Like us, our dogs can benefit from better imaging like MRI’s and CT scans, and advanced treatment options including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Ultimately, the key to fighting cancer is early detection. Monitor any existing lumps and bumps for changes in size or appearance and notify your veterinarian if you find any new masses.
The relentless pace of Father Time waits for no one, not even our beloved pets. As our pets enter their senior years they are at risk for many of the same conditions affecting aging humans, such as diabetes, arthritis, and cancer to name a few. Fortunately, most of these conditions can be treated or managed, especially if diagnosed early. Early diagnosis requires regular visits to the veterinarian, screening tests, and recognition of the warning signs by pet parents. Getting old is a normal and an inevitable part of life. Though we cannot stop aging, we can take measures to ensure that our dogs’ senior years are their Golden Years.
 Brace JJ; Theories of Aging; Veterinary Clinics North America Small Animal Practice; 1981; 11:811-14.
 Hoyert DL et al; Deaths: Preliminary data for 2003; National Vital Statistics Reports; 2005; 53 (15):1-48.