Aging Gracefully: A Preventive Medicine Approach for Pets

an aging dog silhouetted against the sun

People are always searching for ways to age more gracefully and live longer. We want the same for our furry companions. Dr. Gene Pavlovsky, medical director of the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine South Clinic in Urbana, shares how pet owners can help their pets age with their best paw forward.

The Role of Preventive Medicine

As our pets age, we may notice changes such as arthritis or the presence of growths on their bodies. By taking a preventive medicine approach, we may be able to mitigate these things or detect them earlier.

Dr. Gene Pavlovsky examines a dog's teeth.
“When I think about what aging gracefully may mean, I think of a dog or cat that is not hindered by obvious pain and mobility problems, significant chronic conditions, or anxiety/stress,” says Dr. Gene Pavlovsky, “whether these are absent or just well-managed.”  

Dr. Pavlovsky says, “We know that obesity contributes to conditions such as osteoarthritis and diabetes. By giving your pet proper nutrition and preventing excessive food intake, you can keep your pet at an ideal body weight throughout life.”

Even concerns such as growths on the body can benefit from a preventive approach. “The true value of preventive medicine lies in early detection,” states Dr. Pavlovsky. “If a pet owner presents their pet to the veterinarian at the earliest sign of a problem, the condition may be diagnosed, treated, and cured in many instances.”

Other crucial preventive medicine measures include year-round flea/tick, intestinal parasite, and heartworm prevention, vaccines, veterinary exams, and a proper diet.

What about Joint Supplements?

With so many supplements being marketed to pet parents, it is hard to know which ones are actually beneficial. It is important to note that these supplements are not regulated like prescription medications. There is a significant lack of data about safety and efficacy to guide veterinarians and owners alike.

Dr. Pavlovsky advises, “In general, if an otherwise healthy dog or cat, regardless of the age, is consuming a commercial diet that is balanced and complete and designed for their life stage, no supplementation is needed.”

Omega-3 fatty acids, however, are backed by research and may be helpful in reducing inflammation in pets with osteoarthritis. Still, with any supplement, it is essential to consult your veterinarian about quality and safety.

Benefits of Exercise

Just like people, pets need exercise to promote heart health, optimal body weight, muscle tone, and joint mobility. “Hydrotherapy and other physical therapy modalities can be a very helpful part of the treatment plan for pets that suffer from joint pain,” says Dr. Pavlovsky.

He also recommends regular low-level exercise as opposed to infrequent high-intensity exercise. Maintaining a regular exercise regimen for our pets will contribute positively to their overall health.

Consistent Dental Care Is Key

Many pet owners find that their pets have rather pungent odors to their breath. What they may not realize is that at least 75% of dogs and cats over age 3 have periodontal disease. This condition often leads to problems much bigger than just bad breath.

“Effective dental care for pets should include regular professional dental cleanings done under anesthesia as well as at-home dental care. Tooth brushing done at least every other day is most effective,” says Dr. Pavlovsky.

However, he recognizes that regular tooth brushing of some pets can be quite challenging. “If frequent at-home care is not possible, then certain diets designed for dental health, dental treats/toys, and water additives could be helpful,” he advises. “Pet owners should always consult their veterinarians for options for their pet dental care plan.”

Owners at the Forefront

“Owners are best positioned to make decisions regarding their pets’ health and to know what’s best for their pet,” Dr. Pavlovsky says. “We as veterinarians serve as advisers, and pet owners should not hesitate to tap into their veterinarians’ expertise in guiding healthcare decisions.”

As a team, veterinarians and owners work together to help each pet age gracefully, using an individualized approach. This strategy takes into consideration the specific needs of that breed and that pet and complements the preventive medicine approach.

“When I think about what aging gracefully may mean, I think of a dog or cat that is not hindered by obvious pain and mobility problems, significant chronic conditions, or anxiety/stress,” says Dr. Pavlovsky, “whether these are absent or just well-managed.”

In pets as in people, prevention truly is the best medicine.  

By Sarah Brink

Featured photo by Derek Sears on Unsplash