I HAVE been taking part in several Zoom meetings recently (haven’t we all) with fellow vets who are interested in treating elderly pets, especially cats, who seem to be living to a ripe old age these days.

I was taught that 15 years old was pretty much as long as a cat could live and 12 years or less for dogs, possibly a bit older for toy breeds. How times have changed. I can think of a number of patients at much older ages I have seen recently who are still lively and enjoying a great-quality life, despite having various ailments. Medicine has advanced so much over the years so that a few pills given daily can ensure our pets enjoy good health and enjoyment in their later life.

I also feel, as vets, we think a lot more about how to ease the stress for the pet and owner that a visit to the vet brings. We try to make this experience as enjoyable as possible.

Covid restrictions have made visits to the vet even more challenging. Over the year at Dunedin Vets, we have either had no clients or limited clients in the surgery building. This has resulted in pets being handed over from their owners in car parks and waiting rooms. This can be stressful for everyone and every pet, no matter their age. I must say, though, that most animals, once they receive welcome cuddles, petting and treats from our reception team and nurses, are very happy to be treated by the vets.

There are things owners can do to ease the stress of visit to the vets for your pet. Getting them accustomed to a cat basket and taking them for car journeys which don’t involve going to the vets can help. At the vets, we should try to minimise waiting time, although sitting in the car with their owners does seem to calm animals. We should remember this for future, as a busy waiting room is stressful for many pets.

So back to our elderly pets. There are many checks and tests vets can perform to monitor your pet’s health status. As your pet ages, many systems and organs in the body start to deteriorate, just as with humans. Once they are over eight years of age, they may be classified as an elderly pet. We can check a urine sample or take a blood test as routine screens for liver and kidney function and checking for diabetes. Many older cats have overactive thyroid glands and this can be tested for as well.

There are many other conditions where blood tests can provide the diagnosis. Checking your pet’s eyes can give valuable insights into potential underlying conditions. Blood pressure checks are also very important and, as with humans, raised blood pressure can be an indicator of many conditions. It can also cause problems, so regular checks are recommended, especially in the older cat.

But what if your elderly pet requires a surgical procedure? I know many clients are very fearful when they discover their elderly pet has a lump, or requires an x-ray or other procedure where an anaesthetic is involved. If your pet has had their elderly pet checks then your vet will be aware of the risks an anaesthetic would pose to them. Checks can be made immediately prior to the procedure as well.

Recently, I was doing a regular check on one of my older hyperthyroid cats called Fleadh. He’s a beautiful ginger tom belonging to Mrs Mairghread Ellis, a regular at Dunedin Vets Tranent surgery. Now Fleadh is almost 17 years old and hyperthyroid, which he has been for many years. He takes his thyroid treatment tablet daily and is enjoying life. Now on his check-up, I noticed he had inflamed gums (gingivitis), as well as plaque on his teeth. His owner was concerned he may be in pain so I suggested he came in for some dental work. This would involve an anaesthetic. Fleadh’s blood test confirmed his liver and kidneys were working well and his thyroid was controlled.

On the day of his operation, Fleadh was given intravenous fluids which helped maintain his circulation throughout his body. Other precautions were taken with this elderly puss. He was wrapped in our ‘bair hugger’, basically a hot air blanket. Those of you who have had major surgery recently may be aware of the hot air suits you need to wear. This maintains body temperature throughout the anaesthetic, as heat loss and hypothermia are a major concern during surgery, especially in older and small animals. Fleadh was also connected to our multiparameter monitoring device. Although a veterinary nurse is monitoring the patient throughout, this machine records heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and carbon dioxide levels. This gives an indication if any of the vital body signs are altering.

Fleadh had his teeth scaled and polished, just as a human may have on a routine dental check-up. Unfortunately he had several FORLs – these are areas on a tooth where the enamel has been disrupted, causing the sensitive pulp cavity to be exposed. These affected teeth had to be extracted.

Fleadh recovered well from his dental work and was soon purring and looking for attention once more. Mrs Ellis was advised to feed him soft food for a few days, but he was soon back to enjoying his usual diet and enjoying basking in the little sunshine we’ve had.

If you are really concerned about your dog having an anaesthetic and they have a mass which may be growing or bleeding or painful, then it may be possible to remove the growth using local anaesthetic with or without some degree of sedation. This is very dependent on where the mass is on the body and the temperament of the pet. Some dogs do not tolerate local anaesthetic injections (think about having local anaesthetic injections at the dentist) and it is more stressful than being sedated or anaesthetised. Each case has to be taken on its merit and has to be discussed fully with your vet.

Just because your pet is getting a bit older, there are still many procedures and treatments which can be carried out by your vet to enhance your pet’s quality of life and ensure you can enjoy many happy years together.