Whether you are considering adopting an older dog, or you own a dog reaching their senior years, health care begins to change. We look at our dogs, and we can often find ourselves seeing the same pup we always saw. "Sparky" seems fine, and owners feel no need to run blood work and be proactive. Some dogs show age, others don't... on the outside. I have met many senior dogs with little to no changes in body condition, eyes, or teeth, and yet their internal organ function has changed considerably in a year.
Black and darker dogs slowly reveal graying hairs, while lighter colored dogs rarely show signs of aging in the sense we relate to. Often owners of older dogs don't understand the need for additional care in the later years, because their older dogs "look the same" and haven't really seemed to be slowing down yet.
Sadly, I see too many owners appropriately addressing the needs of the senior dogs only after symptoms of deteriorating health have begun to surface. They may visit the vet once a year, refuse the annual or blood work, and then feel even more put off by the recommendation that senior dogs, dogs over 7 years old (regardless of size or breed) , get blood work done *twice* a year.
We all make jokes about "dog years", but how many of us really think about the "true age" of our dogs? Like with most illnesses, if we wait for symptoms to emerge, there has already been damage occurring in the body. By catching things earlier than later, we are better able to manage those diseases before they do additional damage to the body. I always tell owners, "Don't wait to learn they are *visibly* sick". Some owners really *get* this, while others think that since their dog seems fine, we are just trying to get more money from them in a visit. Anything could be further from the truth. Your veterinarian and their technicians deeply care about your pet, and nothing is more exciting than meeting an animal who has surpassed their life expectancy!
The reason senior pets should receive blood work twice a year, is because as their bodies age, we have more concerns. Prior to reaching senior years, there may have not been a great concern that liver or kidney function would deteriorate between June 2011 and June 2012. They are young, and barring any illnesses, injury, or congenital predisposition, annual blood work should be enough. Simply put, dogs age faster than us. What is 6 months to us, is much longer for their bodies.
We all can think about human senior citizens we have know. Unfortunately, body systems seem to begin to potentially fail more frequently, and perhaps several years of being on a medication begin to take their toll on the liver and/or kidneys. In addition, the health of an aging animal can be greatly enhanced by attention given to dental disease, where as when they are younger, we hardly think of it. (right or wrong).
"Seven" doesn't sound old, and it shocks some people. The thing about this magic number, is I do believe it takes some discretion on the part of the owner. Not in the sense that "I'll wait until they are older than 7 to consider them seniors, and pay for additional care", rather, if your pet had a hard life before you, perhaps you need to think of them as a senior at even 6. Dogs who came from bad stories, who have had diseases; we know as people some people "are older" than their true age. I think it's important to consider this when you pet is on the 'borderline' in ages. Additionally, giant breed dogs, like our Great Pyrenees, can be considered "senior" by age 5, due to their life expectancy of 10-12.
I began getting blood work done on a cat of mine, very few years into his life. Some would think, "Wow, 3 years old? Isn't that too young to have a problem?" No, it most certainly isn't. While a veterinarian wouldn't have necessarily thought to convince me into blood work, I knew my friend. He wasn't super healthy when I got him, for starters. Also, he seemed to get "off" or "sick" pretty easily. He has had blood work twice a year since, and it's never been great. But I know that due to my frequency, I will catch something before it erupts into a true, bad, disease condition. Due to my thoroughness, we caught tumors on him at age 4 that were potentially cancerous.
There are some primary concerns with our senior dogs. Of course, there is liver and kidney function. In addition, we grow concerned about their thyroid gland. Dogs can get hypothyroidism, and it can often occur due to natural aging. Arthritis becomes a huge consideration, and while x-rays can diagnose arthritis, often symptoms alone will cause your vet to make that diagnosis. X-rays can help determine how bad the arthritis is, and where it is, and if you can, get them done if any stiffness or lameness seems noteworthy. Unless congenital, aging animals can develop heart murmurs. A heart murmur isn't a disease, rather a symptom of a disease. Like us, hearts age. With that aging, certain parts of the heart begin to do their jobs less effectively than when they were young, and diagnosis and treatment may be merited. Without those vet visits, those murmurs would go unheard.
Lastly, let's address the trepidation of owners to adopt older dogs. While many people will lament at the prospect of "not enough years" together, I think there still exists some underlying anxiety about vet bills. This isn't unfair, older dogs *do* cost more, assuming you are a great dog owner. I think most people will agree that the value to life isn't in quantity, rather quality. When considering your senior adoption, consider all the great care you have to offer. Yes, twice annual vet visits will add up; but I feel we are quick to spend money on frivolous things and not think twice, but think that our companions should be *all bonus*. They aren't; they are growing, aging, majestic creatures who are even that much more amazing with age.
I have met owners whose 4 year old dogs got cancer. I can only imagine that their advice to others would be to find your soul mate, period. It doesn't matter how old or young they are, because health isn't a guarantee. We can do our best to give great treatment, but if the "make it or break it" of dog ownership is the naive assumption that younger dogs spend more time with us, think again. That, of course, is the fair hope, but our fear of aging shouldn't put us off from adopting older dogs.
Regrettably, I've seen too many dogs surrendered, during old or geriatric years, due to increasing vet bills. This is *unforgivable*. Please take a moment, before adoption, to realize that 'forever' means 'forever'. This means, one day, your dog will be very old. He or she will need blood work, x-rays, pain killers, and any number of other things to make their senior years pleasurable and as healthy as possible. Listen to your veterinarian, and believe them, when they talk about the changing needs of your senior dog.