9 ways to increase animal health screenings for senior pets
Currently, 47 percent of American dog owners and 43 percent of cat owners have pets age 7 and older.
As partners in pet health, veterinary clients will likely need additional guidance as pets cross into their senior and geriatric years. Companion veterinary practices can plan for these milestones, setting the stage for good communication providing and high-level animal health services that:
- Improve patient outcomes by increasing the chances of finding serious issues early
- Decrease stress among your entire team by lowering the chances of older pets needing urgent intervention
- Make dealing with veterinary clients easier and more collaborative
Defining senior pets
The “senior at 7" mantra remains a handy generalization for dogs. It comes from studies of laboratory Beagles with deficits in learning and memory as early as ages 6 or 7. However, more accurate considerations for aging categories include differences based on size, breed, lifestyle, and other factors. Feline life-stage designations put senior cats between the ages of 11 and 14, geriatric after that.
Generally speaking, though, consider the last 25 percent of a pet's estimated lifespan through end of life as the senior and geriatric stages.
9 health recommendations
Topics for consultations likely will vary based on the pet's medical history and current health status. Consider the following recommendations as starting points in how your veterinary practice team cares for senior pets:
- At least twice-yearly wellness exams, plus urinalysis and blood chemistry screening, including complete blood count. Ideally, animal health records already include healthy adult baseline values for all adult pets.
- Screening radiographs for arthritis in major joints or areas of concern. Companion veterinarians should make this recommendation for dogs and cats with risk factors like breed, size, and lifestyle. Pull any radiographs on file for comparison in cases with an established baseline or prior injuries.
- Baseline radiograph of lungs. In individual cases or breeds prone to metastatic cancers later in life, such as rottweilers, retrievers, Irish wolfhounds, greyhounds, Saint Bernard and other breeds prone to osteosarcoma, a baseline radiograph of the lungs may provide important context later.
- Screening abdominal ultrasound. Abdominal ultrasound images give you the opportunity to potentially catch something early in seemingly healthy pets — as well as provide a baseline if needed later.
- Referral /screening for cardiac health. As applicable, check specific patients for asymptomatic cardiac issues — for example, in breeds prone to primary dilated cardiomyopathy, including Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers, and Cocker Spaniels.
- Dental cleaning and extractions. Clients often put off dental care until absolutely necessary. Since anesthesia risks for older pets remains a common concern, make strong recommendations for getting teeth and gums cleaned early in the senior life stage transition.
- Senior-specific diets or disease-specific therapeutic diets. Veterinary Services in the U.S.: Competing for the Pet Care Customer reports, “... more pet owners have switched to senior/mature formulas in the past 12 months than currently use that type of formula." In a February/March 2020 pet owner survey, cat owners said they wanted to see a “better selection of food for aging cats" as well as more dietary options for reducing hairballs and improving urinary health in their feline friends.
- Recommendations for functional supplements. Joint health supplements continue their dominance in the greater pet supplement world, with those targeting anxiety and emotional health of pets gaining popularity. As more supplements continue to flood the market, focus recommendations on those with some evidence-based results, such as certain combinations of omega-3 fatty acids or glucosamine.
- Pharmaceutical stock. Practices with a higher percentage of senior patients often shift their onsite supply of drugs to address common needs in aging pets, such as thyroid, blood pressure or cardiac and immune-mediated conditions. In many cases, these animal health concerns must be under control before attempting other interventions, such as dental extractions.
Time and Cost Factors
Executing these animal health services takes time and money. Therefore, match fees to the higher level of expertise and service required for senior pets and engagement with their families. The market seems to accept costs for senior pet needs, with senior pet products and services typically featuring prices much higher than market averages.
Consider starting small with the introduction of senior health consultations with a group of 10-20 of your best clients with senior pets. Later, you can use their feedback and your team's experiences with these targeted senior-pet contacts to improve and expand consultations to a wider group of clients and patients.