Routine Veterinary Care for Your Senior Dog by Fred Metzger DVM

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Guardians of older dogs should plan for regular veterinary checkups. After diet and appropriate exercise, this is the next most important thing you can do for your senior dog.

Cancers, metabolic disease like diabetes, and organ deterioration (kidney disease, liver disease) are all health problems that can occur in older dogs. For this reason, regular veterinary health exams, including complete blood screening and urinalysis, are an essential factor in keeping your senior pet healthy. Dr. Fred Metzger, a leading veterinary authority on the care of senior pets, explains that “Most diseases that we find early on in seniors can be diagnosed with blood or urine tests.”
 
Many veterinarians, including Dr. Metzger, recommend twice a year vet visits for older dogs, and depending on your dog’s age and condition, your veterinarian may even recommend a more frequent schedule for blood work.
 
Vaccinations are historically part of routine veterinary visits. For older dogs, make a point to discuss this topic with your veterinarian. In the last few years, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have revised their recommendations for vaccinations to consider fewer vaccinations as a dog ages. You should review this issue with your vet, so that you are not giving more than are necessary as your dog ages.
 
Blood Screening
A complete diagnostic blood screening is one of the easiest things you can do for your old dog’s health monitoring and provides a veritable treasure trove of diagnostic information for your vet. It’s such a fundamental tool in geriatric pet care that most veterinary diagnostic labs have a test called a “geriatric panel” with added features such as thyroid testing, geared toward the special concerns of older dogs.

Dr. Metzger asserts that these tests, when done regularly, can monitor trends and allow your vet to compare the panel readings from year to year.

Senior dogs need regular blood screenings.
Routine blood screening may reveal things like anemia, liver disease, or diminished kidney function long before you see any outward signs of disease. Evaluation of white blood cells could indicate the presence of a previously undetected infection. A low red blood cell count indicates anemia, which should be investigated with other tests. The urinalysis helps your veterinarian check for diabetes, abnormal amounts of protein in the urine, and infection in the urinary tract.
 
In short, a blood chemistry test and urinalysis done regularly can reveal potential issues before you start to see external symptoms—and it’s too late. If a problem is caught in its early stages, there are usually many more options for treatment and cure. For example, Dr. Metzger highlights “kidney disease, diabetes, and hypothyroidism (low thyroid) are common diseases in senior dogs and many treatments are available if detected early.”
 
Dental Care: More than Just a Pretty Smile

Dental care is vitally important throughout your dog’s life and especially as he or she ages. Simply put, dental disease is nearly epidemic in older dogs. If you have adopted an older dog from a shelter, chances are very good that she needs dental attention.

Dr. Metzger stresses that “older dogs and cats with neglected teeth are time bombs ticking.” Tartar build-up on neglected teeth leads to inflamed and infected gums, or gingivitis. The bacteria from gingivitis affect all body systems, especially the major organs of kidney, liver, and heart.

Dental Care
Dr. Metzger finds many owners are afraid to put their old dog under anesthesia for a dental procedure because they feel the anesthetic risk is greater than the dental benefit. Advances in veterinary anesthesia have minimized this risk greatly, and with a pre-anesthetic blood screening there is simply no reason it should be avoided when an animal is suffering from dental disease.

A pre-anesthetic blood screening should always be done, especially for a senior dog. In addition to alerting your veterinarian to any issues that could create risk during the procedure, you also have the added benefit of all of the disease screening described above.

Newer veterinary anesthetics like propofol and sevoflurane make the procedure safe and recovery fast. If you are shopping for a veterinarian, Dr. Metzger recommends looking for a veterinarian who can offer sevoflurane; although it may be more expensive, he believes animals recover better and procedures are made safer with this anesthesia. Dr. Metzger also recommends that you look for a veterinarian who can do their own blood panels in-house.

A version of this article can be found in Grey Muzzle's free guide Caring for Your Senior Dog.  Caring for Your Senior Dog was developed in collaboration with a leading veterinarian in geriatric medicine, a clinical nutritionist, and other experts in senior dog care. The entire Caring for Your Senior Dog guide is free to download.

The information presented by The Grey Muzzle Organization is for informational purposes only. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed veterinarian for issues relating to their pet's health or well-being or prior to implementing any treatment.

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.

Fred Metzger DVM, MRCVS, Diplomate ABVP was consulted for this article. Dr. Fred Metzger of the Metzger Animal Hospital is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, a select group of veterinary specialists certified by examination. He frequently lectures to fellow veterinarians worldwide speaking on clinical pathology, internal medicine and his favorite subject, geriatric medicine. He has authored numerous publications including co-authoring a textbook “A Guide to Hematology of the Dog and Cat.”

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