Senior Pets and Veterinary Care

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Help your clinics provide the best care for senior pets, a significant percentage of their customer base.

A bittersweet meme is shared on social media from time to time that resonates with every pet owner. It’s a drawing of a girl hugging her dog with the quote: “The one thing I could not protect you from was time.” The sad fact is that our beloved pets have a much shorter lifespan than we do. While time will take them from us far too soon, we can protect them by preventing or effectively treating many age-related issues and giving them a longer, healthier life.

A geriatric pet is generally defined as one who has reached 75% of its average life expectancy, so among dogs, the exact age varies depending on breed and size. Cats over 10 years old are considered to be “seniors.” If the pets visiting your clinics reflect the nation’s average, chances are about one-third of them will be age 7 or older. Learning as much as you can about the range of products and treatments that can improve the well-being of aging pets gives you an advantage in helping your clinics provide the best care for a significant percentage of their customer base.

That knowledge will be particularly helpful when you look at your clinic’s purchase history to see what senior pet products they order and if there are gaps where you can make recommendations. Check for supplements or medications to treat chronic issues like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, thyroid, liver or kidney disease, or cognitive dysfunction. Do your clinics offer an online pharmacy and are they promoting it, particularly for those pets with chronic conditions to increase compliance and revenue? Since serious health issues can appear quickly in an aging pet, diagnostic screening is recommended twice a year and is a must before a senior pet goes under anesthesia. Are your customers who run labs in-house ordering blood screening supplies regularly?

Promoting regular care

November is National Adopt a Senior Pet Month, which provides a perfect time for practices to promote the importance of regular veterinary care for older animals and the benefits of twice-yearly exams for aging pets. Owners may not notice subtle changes in their pets, or just attribute them to “old age” and not seek treatment. Others may avoid taking their older pet to the veterinarian for fear of bad news. Senior pets may appear very healthy for their age but have underlying conditions, that if diagnosed sooner than later could significantly lengthen their lifespan and enhance their quality of life. Cat owners, in particular, are less likely to schedule regular veterinary visits, which can be a real detriment to their pet, since cats are masters at hiding signs of pain and disease.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) published their updated 2021 Feline Senior Care Guidelines this summer (see related story) which details common issues in aging cats including pain management, nutrition and weight management, diseases and conditions. The AAFP recommends veterinary visits a minimum of every six months for cats 10-15 years old and every four months for cats over 15. Cats with chronic health issues may need to be seen even more frequently depending on the severity of illness. Some common diseases affecting older cats include chronic kidney disease, diabetes, dental disease, thyroid disease, and high blood pressure.

Since cats are such nimble animals, their owners may not think about them being vulnerable to feline arthritis (DJD), but research has shown that 90% of cats develop signs of arthritis as they get older, with nearly half experiencing pain from the disease. Cats rarely limp from arthritis, so owners may attribute a slowdown in activity to age rather than pain. Unfortunately, the lack of recognition of arthritis pain is so common that by one estimate, less than 1% of cats experiencing pain are seen by veterinarians.

Educational tools

Researchers at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have written a simple six-question survey with “yes” or “no” answers that takes less than a minute for cat owners to learn if their pet may have arthritis. It’s an easy educational tool your clinics can use to reach out to cat owners in a variety of formats – in the clinic, by text or email, or on social media – to raise awareness of how widespread feline arthritis truly is and the importance of diagnosis and treatment.

While cats in pain may have litter box issues or increased vocalizations, the NCSU researchers came up with a list of six identifying signs specific to arthritis pain for their Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Screening Checklist:

  • Does your cat jump up normally?
  • Does your cat jump down normally?
  • Does your cat climb up stairs or steps normally?
  • Does your cat climb down stairs or steps normally?
  • Does your cat run normally?
  • Does your cat chase moving objects (toys, prey, etc.)?

A “no” answer to even one or two questions should prompt a visit for a veterinary exam to screen for arthritis. While it seems simple, according to NCSU, the questionnaire has been verified to have remarkable specificity targeted toward arthritis pain and should identify more than half of cats suffering from it that might have gone unnoticed. It’s particularly valuable as a screening tool since it addresses issues easily observed at home that can’t be assessed at the clinic, where cats are often stressed and not acting normally.

Sharing this survey with your customers provides a great opportunity to discuss the senior care protocols at their clinics and how you can help them provide the best treatments and preventive care for aging pets. Clinics who take the time to run a report based on age and species and then reach out to customers in those categories can make a positive impact on the health and well-being of aging animals – particularly their feline patients who have likely gone untreated.

A minimum of effort can lead to more patients through the door and increased clinic revenue. Most important, a proactive approach can result in a stronger bond with clients and the opportunity to set up treatment plans to improve the quality and extend the life of their beloved pets.


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