It’s the most… heartbreaking?... time of the year - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

It’s the most… heartbreaking?… time of the year

To avoid the holiday pet euthanasia spike, it is important to have a plan for ageing pets

While it is tough to find hard data to support the conclusion, many vets will anecdotally agree that the winter holidays see a dramatic rise in pet euthanasia appointments. Emergency services, first opinion practitioners and vets who focus purely on hospice and euthanasia all tend to see the same spike. The outwardly festive and bright holidays can be a tough time for many people, including busy vets who aren’t always able to take time off or travel to be with loved ones. Adding the weight of an increase in euthanasias during these short, cold days can add to the toll.

The likely reasons for this “Euthanasia Season” vary: some families may want one last holiday with their beloved furry friend but their quality of life declines ahead of plan; some owners may be worried about leaving a geriatric pet with a caretaker while they travel and decide it is kinder to say goodbye before the trip; or some may not be aware of their pet’s poor condition until it is pointed out by holiday visitors who haven’t seen the pet since the prior year. Some conditions, such as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), chronic renal disease and osteoarthritis, may cause a pet to have more accidents in the house, which may become less tolerable during the chaos, entertaining and travel that often accompany the holidays.

In most of these cases, the pet’s condition did not appear overnight. It was likely slowly declining for some time. Owners may not be aware of advances in medicine and nutrition that can slow the progression of these “diseases of old age”. They may think the inevitable march into doggie dementia, night-time barking and house soiling is unavoidable. These signs impair both the dog’s and the owner’s quality of life and are thus unfortunately common triggers for euthanasia.

Having a structured, proactive assessment plan for ageing pets in your practice can help these pets age more gracefully and stave off the tidal wave of holiday euthanasias

But you CAN teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks to save the holidays! Having a structured, proactive assessment plan for ageing pets in your practice can help these pets age more gracefully and stave off the tidal wave of holiday euthanasias.

Canine cognitive dysfunction

One of the most overlooked diseases of ageing is CCD, or “doggie dementia”. Because it is not something we can screen for with traditional diagnostics, we need to be diligent in our history taking. Behaviour changes can include night-time vocalising and pacing, anxiety, not recognising family members or familiar places, and house soiling. Owners may not proactively bring these behaviours up with their vet, thinking they are a normal part of ageing and that nothing can be done, but there are successful management solutions.

New research has also shown that older dogs fed the same fortified therapeutic food had significantly greater minimum telomere length

A two-year study compared old dogs treated with a therapeutic fortified food, environmental enrichment or both, to a control group who received neither (Milgram et al., 2005). The dogs were assessed via reversal discrimination learning tasks. Both environmental enrichment and the fortified food resulted in improvements in cognitive task performance over the two years, and the most dramatic results were seen when enrichment and therapeutic food were combined.

In a separate study using the same therapeutic food, younger dogs (two to four years of age) were started on either the fortified food or a control food and regularly assessed using a visual discrimination task over the next four to five years (De Rivera et al., 2005). Dogs on the fortified food had significantly fewer errors on these tasks as they aged.

These positive changes are evident in pets’ behaviour, which of course is most important to their owners, but the science behind the anti-ageing effects gets even better! New research has also shown that older dogs fed the same fortified therapeutic food had significantly greater minimum telomere length. Telomere shortening is thought to be one of the primary mechanisms of the ageing process.

Just like for humans, keeping the brain active into old age is an effective way to stave off dementia … continuing to teach old dogs new tricks and keeping their environment interesting and fresh are great ways to keep their brain sharp

Nutritional management is an easy therapy to implement, but environmental enrichment goes a long way in the cognitive performance of older dogs as well. We work intently with our young dogs to ensure they know the basics – sit, stay, come, leave the nice postwoman alone! We may take our young energetic dogs out for long walks and play dates. But as our dogs age, we are less likely to expose them to new stimuli or teach them new skills. Just like for humans, keeping the brain active into old age is an effective way to stave off dementia. It doesn’t have to be complicated (no need to create canine Rhodes Scholars out there), but continuing to teach old dogs new tricks and keeping their environment interesting and fresh are great ways to keep their brain sharp. Food puzzles and toy rotation are fantastic options.

Osteoarthritis

There are many management options, including very effective targeted nutritional therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and nutraceuticals. Obesity is also a primary risk factor for arthritis, so having the weight discussion early and often can help keep pets agile and active into old age

As pets age, so do their joints. A visible decline in mobility can be one of the signs that owners interpret when they are making quality-of-life decisions. Screening for subclinical osteoarthritis in your senior patients can help you intervene early and slow this decline, giving your client more comfortable years with their pet. It’s important to screen both dogs and cats. Feline arthritis is quite common in older cats but can be hard for owners to spot. It often takes the form of reduced jumping (they may think they finally got through to Fluffy about jumping on the counter after 10 years!) or eliminating outside of the litter box. It is important to ask about these behaviours and to consider screening radiographs. There are many management options, including very effective targeted nutritional therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and nutraceuticals. Obesity is also a primary risk factor for arthritis, so having the weight discussion early and often can help keep pets agile and active into old age.

Chronic kidney disease

This one is a bit easier to discover with routine screening labs. Once diagnosed, early intervention with renal-friendly therapeutic nutrition has the best evidence for staving off uraemic crises and prolonging life in dogs and cats. The trick is to not wait until the pet is symptomatic, as it’s much easier to transition them to the necessary nutrition before they are feeling poorly.

The trick is to not wait until the pet is symptomatic, as it’s much easier to transition them to the necessary nutrition before they are feeling poorly

With a practice-wide protocol for ageing pets, including annual or semi-annual laboratory and radiograph screenings, a focus on ideal weight maintenance, targeted behavioural history questions and early therapeutic intervention, we can help avoid the holiday euthanasia spike and keep our clients together with their beloved family members longer, and in better health.

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