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As with humans, animals' bodies can slow down as they get older, but veterinary and nutritional improvements mean pets can now live longer, healthier lives than ever before.
'Many owners view ageing as a normal process and feel nothing can be done to help relieve signs of old age,' says Gemma Lovegrove, veterinary manager for Cats Protection. 'Others worry about mentioning problems they've noticed in their older cat as they fear the vet will say it's serious. However, very often, support can be given to improve your pet's quality of life.'
Our animal companions age at different rates. Cats and smaller dogs may live well into their late teens, while some larger dog breeds may only live until the age of eight or nine. Rabbits, meanwhile, have a life expectancy of eight to 12 years. Once your pet passes 'middle age', it's worth considering ways to preserve their quality of life. For example, an animal's immune system will function less well with age, so it's vital they receive regular vet check-ups in addition to routine worming, vaccinations and flea treatments.
Regular clinic examinations will also increase the chances of any health problems being discovered early. And, while older pets are often more susceptible to conditions such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, diabetes, cataracts and cancers, itâ€™s worth remembering that many of these are treatable.
Osteoarthritis is also very common in older animals, although there are ways to alleviate this potentially disabling condition. 'From physio and hydrotherapy to effective modern drugs with minimal or no side effects, there are lots of things that can be done,' says Caroline Reay, chief vet for The Blue Cross.
Significant weight loss in older age can be the first sign of ill health. If you find your pet is refusing to eat, you should seek your vet's advice. 'An older cat's sense of smell can diminish with age, which may lead to a loss in appetite,' says Gemma. To encourage your pet to eat, try giving meals on a little-and-often basis, adding a little water, or warming the food to increase the smell.
Conversely, pets can be prone to weight gain as they get older, despite not eating extra. 'It's now well-known that being overweight is linked with problems such as arthritis, as well as an increased incidence of cancer, pancreatitis and diabetes,' says Caroline.
When it comes to nutrients, many pet food companies make special feeds that target older cats and dogs, providing concentrated sources of protein, reduced fat, easily digestable carbohydrates, and key vitamins and minerals. Dental issues are also prevalent in the older pet. Look out for any redness of the gums, discomfort or smelly breath, as this may be an indication of disease. Regular brushing will help, as will yearly dental checks by your vet.
Equally important to look out for are behavioural changes in your cat or dog, which could be related to a decrease in vision and hearing, or to cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This can cause confusion, disturbed sleep patterns, a decreased attention span and house-training difficulties in your pet. 'Older dogs can change in temperament, with some becoming friendlier and more attached to their owners, and others getting grumpier,' says dog trainer Bobs Broadbent. 'Some may become anxious because they cannot see or hear as well as they used to. A sudden personality change can be a sign of illness, but in old age this could equally be a gradual process, so take time to observe your pet's behaviour.'
Rabbits, too, will go through changes as they get older, becoming more prone to obesity, dental problems and arthritis. They may show certain behavioural changes or start developing health problems - as soon as you notice anything, speak to your vet.
The message is clear: old age need not mean a cheerless life for your pet, and there's a lot you can do to maximise its wellbeing. Whether it's a much-loved cat, dog or rabbit, extra vigilance and regular check-ups - plus a focus on the quality of the time they have as well as the quantity - is sure to pay dividends for you both.
To contribute to their general wellbeing, dogs, cats and short- haired rabbits should be groomed weekly, while long-haired rabbits will need daily attention. 'Older cats experiencing stiffness may find it more difficult to groom themselves,' comments Gemma Lovegrove from Cats Protection. 'Gentle use of a soft brush can help.' Vicky Lees, who owns The Dog Spa in Cheshire, adds: Circular massaging movements with a soft brush can increase circulation and blood flow to the skin and hair follicles, stimulating the lymphatic nodes to boost the immune system.'
Keep them busy
Older dogs should stay active to avoid age-related issues such as obesity and arthritis, but don't let your pet overdo it. 'As dogs get older they tend to slow down, but taking less exercise can be the startto putting on weight,' warns dog trainer Bobs Broadbent. Your dog must be allowed to move at its own pace. Aim for regular, shorter walks and don't suddenly increase the amount of exercise they get as this may leave them stiff and sore the next day. Also, bear in mind that older dogs may be able to see and hear less well, so they can become disoriented or lost when out for walks. Your vet can help you devise a suitable exercise routine for your own animal.
Older pets may become disorientated by deviations from their routine or loud noises, particularly as their senses begin to fail. Having said that, certain types of change can enhance their quality of life. They may sleep more than before, so will appreciate access to a softer bed in a warm and draught-free place. Cats may be unable or unwilling to jump up to higher surfaces, so you may need to provide 'steps' up to their favourite spots. Older dogs sometimes struggle with journeys - a specially designed ramp will help them access the car.
Q: My healthy seven-year-old Persian cat is frequently sick. She seems fine, then suddenly vomits. She even wakes up to be sick. I don't think it is fur balls. What could it be?
A: First, it is more accurate to redefine this as regurgitation, a physical response by the gut to something that is not sitting quite right, forcibly removing it and feeling fine afterwards. Vomiting generally occurs because of a metabolic illness, with the cat uninterested in food afterwards, which is not the case here. Regurgitation can occur in animals who get excited at meal times and eat too quickly. Feed your Persian in smaller portions to see if it helps. It's also worth knowing that fur balls don't only present in the cat bringing up actual balls of fur. It can be just a few strands of hair irritating the stomach lining, which leads to regurgitation. Try a fur ball remedy, obtained at your vet clinic and used two or three times weekly, then return to see the vet if this symptom continues.
Scott Miller, vet
Q: My dog is normally well behaved, but when he's left in the car while I go shopping, he barks at passers-by. Why is he doing this?
A: We often use the car to take our dogs for a walk, to the vet etc, so it can become an extension of a dog's perceived territory. Your dog feels safe when you're there, so he doesn't bark, but when you leave him in the car on his own, he feels the need to defend his territory from passers-by. I recommend getting a dog crate for the car and covering it with a blanket. This way, when you leave your dog on his own, he won't be able to see out. Give him a tasty chew, too, to keep him occupied. Alternatively, leave him at home when you go shopping. However, you should NEVER leave a dog in a car in hot weather. It is very dangerous and can be fatal and dogs should only be left in the car for a short period of time.
Inga MacKellar, animal behaviourist
Q: Our six-year-old dog has had three urinary tract infections in the past 18 months that clear up quickly with antibiotics. Is there a reason why she is getting so many?
A: The plumbing of a female dog does, unfortunately, lend itself to infections, so flushing it with lots of fluid helps to keep the urinary tract healthy. Add warm water to your dog's meals to boost moisture in her diet and provide a good-quality food to help bolster her immune system. You could consider having a urine sample analysed and X-rays taken if the condition continues.
Scott Miller, vet
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink, goes the old saying. But how worrying is it when a pet with a previously healthy appetite starts leaving its food and losing weight for no apparent reason?
While the occasional dirty dish shouldn't give too much cause for concern, a dog, cat, rabbit or any other animal that constantly shuns their food shouldn't just be labelled a picky eater.
Anorexia is a medical term for lack of appetite, and there are many causes of the condition in animals - some of them simple and easily solved, and others far more complex and needing expert help.
When an animal stops eating, its body relies on mobilising fat reserves through the liver to provide calories. But in cats, this can swiftly lead to liver disease. Rabbits and other small animals can also fall victim very quickly to dehydration and undernourishment as their intestines need constant fuel to keep their organs healthy.
So how do you know when your pet's refusal to eat is down to plain pickiness or something more serious? Well, firstly, avoid self-diagnosing at home, advises the animal charity PDSA.
'I can't stress enough the importance of first of all ruling out any medical reasons,' says PDSA senior vet Elaine Pendlebury. 'I would far rather an owner call me over something they may feel is trivial than let time lapse by,' she says. 'There's nothing worse for a vet than treating a very sick animal knowing that if the owner had acted sooner, more could have been done to help.'
So if there's no medical problem, it's time to explore the other reasons why your pet may not want to eat. For example, pets can be very sensitive to the things that go on around them, says Elaine.
'Environmental conditions can affect your pet's eating habits, especially in cats,' she explains. 'Heavy traffic areas, noise, other animals and dirty food containers can deter a cat from eating, so try to be sensitive to your pet's behaviour.'
A vet for more than 40 years, Harvey Locke says that sometimes a loss of appetite is the only signal of an underlying medical condition. 'A dog with arthritis is easy to detect, but animals can look OK yet be very sick. Bitches who have been spayed will go through false pregnancies where their hormone levels can become abnormal. This kind of thing is easily treated, but it could be something far more serious such as slow-progressing kidney degeneration. We are also seeing an increase in sugar diabetes among dogs and cats because of a growing problem of obesity in animals.'
Once a medical problem has been ruled out, Harvey suggests that owners take a long look at the way they feed their pets.
'Some owners may worry if their animal doesn't eat two or three meals a day, like they do,' he says. 'This has come about with the domestication of animals. In the wild, a dog would eat only when it had made a kill, which would be every two to three days. Dogs are cunning animals too, and they will become fussy if they know that if they hold off long enough, they will get a bit of fillet steak. Believe me, no dog will starve itself, and will eat its own food when it's hungry.'
The situation is slightly different in cats and rabbits, says Harvey, who is also president of the British Veterinary Association. 'If a cat goes too long without food, it can suffer liver failure. Rabbits can suffer gut stasis, where the intestines stop moving and become blocked. Rabbits are also natural grazers, and if they stop eating, they can develop severe dental problems.' He advises owners to get into good feeding habits and consult their vet for any nutritional advice.
Other ailments such as worms, dental problems, infections and blockages in the throat or intestinal tract can all be ruled out by your vet, first with a simple physical examination and then, if necessary, an X-ray or ultrasound scan. And animals respond well to antibiotics and other treatment if an illness is caught in time.
Stress is another factor. Moving house or the arrival of a new baby or another animal can all interfere. In particular, dogs can experience a loss in appetite when grieving. 'Dogs get very attached to people and other animals, and when they have lost a companion, it can affect their behaviour and mood, which has a knock-on effect on their eating,' says Elaine.
On a less emotional level, pets quickly get a taste for human food, which can make their own dish seem far less appealing. 'I treated a dog whose owner fed it titbits of pizza until that's all it wanted to eat, but owners doing this are making a rod for their own back,'says Elaine.
'A dog or a cat may wait patiently for anything to 'fall' from the dining room table, but once they realise they are not going to get anything, they wander back to their food dishes.'
Changes in the weather can also cause a decrease in appetite, and it is common for pets to be less active in the summer months.
A sudden change to a pet's diet can be another problem, while certain foods can cause irritation. Fatty or greasy foods may cause gas and cramping and lead to a loss in appetite. Some animals can even be allergic to some proteins in pet foods such as chicken, beef, wheat, corn or soy.
Even if your pet's loss of appetite is not caused by a medical problem, a sustained period of not eating may lead to serious medical trouble.
Elaine advises a common-sense approach by owners. 'Animals pick up on a lot of fuss and it usually makes them even more reluctant to eat,' she says. 'Try to keep a cool head. First, seek a vet's opinion, then try to glean an understanding, through trial and error, of your pet's likes and dislikes when it comes to feeding.'
Three socks were stuck in Leo's bowel
When one-year-old Labrador Leo went off his food for the second time in just a few months, his owners Dean Redden and Georgina Short quickly sought help.
Leo had previously undergone an operation to remove a meat bone that had lodged in his rectum. This time, something else was blocking Leo's bowel, and after life-saving surgery, the item was revealed to be three socks!
Leo had pica - a behaviour normal in puppies but a risk in adult pets, most commonly dogs - where animals use their mouth to explore objects but mistakenly eat them. Warning signs include loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain, restlessness and dehydration.
My rabbits are anorexic
For the past three years, Janet Warnes' bunnies Prince, a seven-year-old Dutch, and Tia, a four-year-old cross, have suffered with a recurring anorexia problem that causes them to suddenly stop eating and become underweight, withdrawn and lethargic.
Although anorexia is common in rabbits and is usually caused by stress, Janet's vet can't say why her rabbits repeatedly fall victim to the condition - usually every three months. 'I put it down to the stress of living on a busy main road,' says Janet.
My kitten was infested with worms
Samantha Plant expected the usual teething problems when she brought home Sammy and Rolo, two eight-week-old kittens. But she couldn't have imagined that one would be fighting for its life a week later.
Rolo was off his food, and alarm bells started ringing when Sam found him collapsed in his litter tray. He had a severe worm infestation, which had left him with internal bleeding.
'The vet told us the chances of Rolo surviving were very slim,' says Sam. 'He looked so limp and lifeless that I really thought there was no way back for him.'
Rolo was dewormed, given strong medication and put on a high-calorie diet. Against all the odds, he began to recover.
PDSA senior vet Tim Browning says: 'There are 2.5 million unwormed cats in the UK. Worming and other preventive care is essential to keep pets fit and healthy.'
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