Importance of Canine Geriatric Wellness Exams
By Chelsea Freeman
Geriatric wellness exams are a part of the veterinary practice that is often overlooked or not as emphasized as new puppy exams or annual vaccinations. With new innovations and technology furthering veterinary medicine coupled with increased owner care, the lifespan of the average dog has increased. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) considers a dog to be a geriatric when it has 25% or less of its lifespan left (Epstein et al., 2005). According to a study performed by Purina on dogs living in the United States, almost half of the canine population is 6 years of age or older. Generalized health screenings of these animals allow veterinarians to detect potential disease processes and implement treatment earlier. (Flaherty and Campbell 1999).
The general geriatric exam begins similarly as a routine wellness exam. A history and physical exam with the veterinarian are performed to learn about new changes with the patient. As with any patient history, the client is encouraged to divulge new information to the veterinarian to diagnose potential problems. (Flaherty and Campbell 1999). For example, changes that an owner notices in a dog’s activity level or appetite are important, as this can be directly correlated with ongoing disease processes. The physical examination performed has been determined to be the best method of detecting geriatric illnesses and disease processes (Pati et al., 2015). Changes that the veterinarian looks for include vision or hearing loss, dental abnormalities, abnormal heart or lung sounds such as murmurs, arrhythmias, or harsh lung sounds, and lumps or bumps found internally or externally on the body and more.
Along with the physical exam, blood work and urine analysis are valuable tools used to exam the internal organs and their functions. A systems review of the different organs and their function allows veterinarians to either diagnose a clean bill of health or propel further diagnostics. Diagnostics such as radiographs, electrocardiograms, further bloodwork, or possibly referral to a veterinary specialty center may be indicated if abnormalities are seen during the geriatric wellness exam (Flaherty and Campbell 1999). A previous study has shown that additional diagnostics have been indicated in roughly 40% of completed geriatric exams (Davies 2012). Components of the blood work include a complete blood count, which sums the number of cells found in the blood and a chemistry profile measures enzymes and molecules from organs and body systems. Issues detected on blood work can range from simple vitamin deficiencies to the worst such as neoplastic or cancerous conditions. Urine analysis is another method to allow a veterinarian to directly assess kidney function, which tends to be a problematic organ system in the geriatric patient. (Pati et al., 2015). Simplistic diagnostics such as a urine dipstick can be an appropriate starting point for assessing the urinary system, but generally, full diagnostic work up is indicated. (Davies 2012)
During a geriatric wellness exam, it is also necessary to discuss your elderly dog’s diet. It is important to feed an appropriate food for the lifestyle and age of your dog. The majority of older patients are not maintaining a healthy weight due to metabolic disturbances, while the remainder of dogs should be fed a higher fiber diet to lose a few pounds. Your veterinarian will be able to advise what dog foods will be tailored to your dog’s specific needs. It was found in one study of geriatric wellness exams, 89% of owners were not aware of senior dog food (Davies 2012). Additional food additives such as joint supplements and vitamins may be indicated for your geriatric animal. This is also a point of discussion with your veterinarian, ensuring the healthiest options for your pet (Epstein et al., 2005).
Vaccinations are another facet of geriatric exams that is important to discuss with your veterinarian. While some veterinarians will debate this topic, it is important to include a risk assessment when it comes to each dog. Law in most states requires a rabies vaccination; therefore, this vaccination must be given accordingly. As for other vaccinations, measuring titers would be ideal in the geriatric patient to avoid introducing unnecessary antigen to a presently weakened immune system (Flaherty and Campbell 1999).
As with any pet, it is important to evaluate the geriatric patient’s wellness at least once a year. Geriatric animals may require more frequent assessments, as they continue to age. All components of the older pet’s life including diet, activity, vaccination status, and health care should be included and considered. The aging process is natural for any living being, which is why most owners can relate and are willing to invest time and money into aging, furry, four-legged family members. (Flaherty and Campbell 1999).
Davies, M. (2012) "Geriatric Screening in First Opinion Practice - Results from 45 Dogs." J Small Anim Pract Journal of Small Animal Practice 53.9: 507-13.
Epstein, Mark, Ned F. Kuehn, Gary Landsberg, B. Duncan X. Lascelles, Steven L. Marks, Jean M. Schaedler, and Helen Tuzio. (2005) "AAHA Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats." Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 41.2: 81-91. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
Flaherty, Molly and Campbell, Karen (1999) “Geriatric Program for the Small Animal Clinic,” Iowa State University Veterinarian: Vol. 61: Iss.1, Article 11.
Pati S, Panda SK, Acharya AP, Senapati S, Behera M, Behera SS (2015) Evaluation of geriatric changes in dogs, Veterinary World 8(3): 273-278.