Shining a light on your patients' golden years

By MWI Animal Health

Communicate with clients about the modifications and screenings needed for elder pets to thrive
Chocolate lab in field

Currently, 47 percent of American dog owners and 43 percent of cat owners have pets age 7 and older.

Families with senior pets often need more than straight-forward animal health services. Companion veterinary practices can plan for aging milestones, setting the stage for good communication and high-level animal health services.

Creating a safe home environment for senior pets

Especially in the final, geriatric years, people require empathy and effective strategies for making home life more comfortable for their pets. Offer pet parents guidance around the following home modifications.
Dealing with arthritis pain and mobility challenges

Clients will likely need prescription pain or anti-inflammatory meds for their aging pets. They may also need recommendations for functional supplements, if appropriate.

Making the home environment safer for pets with declining mobility.

Solutions include pet ramps or stairs to help them get onto furniture. Be prepared to recommend specific adaptive equipment or strategies if pets start falling or develop hind-end weakness. Slip-proof rugs provide better footing, and good-quality, well-fitted assistive harnesses provide support without causing blisters or other issues.

Handling incontinence, including diapers, bellybands, and litter box adaptations
Litter boxes with higher sides can help if pet has stopped squatting and shoots urine right out of the box. Shorter openings can assist a pet who has trouble getting into the box. Puppy pads on the floor in front of a litter box provide a safe space in case of accidents.

Coping strategies for dementia issues, including disrupted sleep cycles, wandering, and random vocalization

Ask questions about these concerns when talking with veterinary clients with senior or geriatric pets. Be ready to provide safe, effective recommendations for individual cases. Examples include calming medications or supplements, calming wearables such as tight-fitting shirts or calming caps, and changes in sleep area set-ups to increase patient comfort.

Helping pets with vision or hearing loss.

Educate clients about which household objects or activities startle pets that are losing their vision or hearing. For example, kids may need to keep toys, backpacks, and other obstacles out the way so that dogs don't stumble and lose confidence in their environments. The family may need to make sure that pets with hearing loss see them so the pets aren't startled by their presence.

Health screenings for senior pets

Proper screenings can improve patient outcomes by increasing the chances of finding serious issues early. Staying on top of recommended tests also decreases stress among your entire team by lowering the chances of older pets needing urgent intervention. 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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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 senior care 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.

Quality-of-life scoring and knowing when to say goodbye

Companion veterinary hospital teams can use quality-of-life scoring systems to help people make difficult, but sometimes necessary, end-of-life decisions. A popular one lets people rank pet health on these measures:

  • Hurt
  • Hunger
  • Hydration
  • Hygiene
  • Happiness
  • Mobility
  • More good days than bad

Clients with aging pets need recognition for the sacrifices and relentless love they give for their pet's health and happiness. By planning for senior care milestones, you will make relationships with parents easier and more collaborative.

Pet parent loyalty program

Create a customized program for your practice, rewarding clients for actions supporting senior pet health