It’s April in Chicago, and the 10 to 15 minutes of “spring” we experience every year is bound to occur at any time.

With this renewal comes all the hope laid waste by winter’s pet owner oppression. We can recall all those long walks with our dogs that did not occur due to arctic blasts. We notice the winter weight gained by our cats, who did not move from the radiator. Suddenly our hopes are renewed, and we fully intend to find a pet-friendly cabin in Michigan where we can go on a dog- and cat-family-filled hiking/poetry/organic healing retreat. (It will happen some day!)

And during this upheaval of salt-stained front hallway floors, we also start to notice changes in our pets that may have been masked by the winter’s inactivity. This is when we so often find that our beloved 6-year-old Golden and 8-year-old tortie are just not moving like they used to.

We open the windows, and our cats hesitate to jump up to smell the lilacs outside. We let our dogs off-leash in the backyard, and they run like bonkers for 15 seconds and then are just a little calmer than they’ve ever been before.

Informed of a pet’s decreased energy, hesitancy to jump, and changes in normal activity, most veterinarians would have concern. Generally though, clients will deemphasize this issue when in the exam room, saying something like, “They’re doing great! Slowing down a bit, but we know that they’re getting older.”

I think the desire to downplay our animals’ signs of aging relates to, first, a reluctance to spend money to address these signs, and second, the pain of facing our animal’s mortality. Having trouble dealing with signs of aging is normal; we do it with our own doctors as well. But there are valid reasons for taking these changes—whether subtle or pronounced—seriously.

1. Discomfort can be fixable, regardless of how small, part one

Think of how often we go to the doctor because of minor aches and pains, or we take non-prescription over-the-counter medications to help with backs, necks, knees, etc. Even at an early age dogs and cats often start to get mild arthritis (though it may often go undiagnosed) in the lower back, knees, elbows, necks, etc. Certain orthopedic issues, such as hip dysplasia, can start as early as puppyhood and progress slowly or rapidly over time.

Joint supplements can help, sometimes in dramatic ways and sometimes in ways that are harder to discern. Omega 3 fish oil and glucosamine chondroitin are the most common ones we use, but there are many others. These supplements also come mixed into foods that are, unfortunately, typically labeled for “seniors” or “joint health.” Supplements are a really good place to start to address achy joints.

The supplement industry is relatively unregulated, so before you buy Super Joint Flex Multiverse Power to the Pup Volcano Energy tabs, please check with us. Most of these supplements are non-prescription, but we have (at least, I have) opinions. The thing about inflammation, though, is that to slow its progression, supplementation must begin early. I have no problem with starting a 3-year-old cat (especially one that is prone to be heavier) on joint supplements now, rather than wait until the pain is more obvious and stifling and the supplement is correspondingly less effective.

2. Discomfort can be fixable, regardless of how small, part two

When it comes time to discuss pain medications, most clients will do almost anything to avoid starting something that may be a lifetime therapy. That being said, there’s no way to know if it will be a lifetime therapy without starting it to see if it works.

There are medications that are very and immediately effective and work on top of joint supplementation. These include anti-inflammatories, neuro-modulating drugs, and in some cases, opioids. Dosages vary from (everyone’s favorite) “as-needed” to multiple times a day.

I’ve had patients who start one or two types of medications, and the owners report seeing their pets start to act “like a puppy [or kitten]” again. We then try to wean down and find the right dose that fits the problem and specific health status of that particular animal. Sometimes this requires ruling out other conditions first, but sometimes it doesn’t.

My favorite vet-related outcome of prescribing pain medications is when clients who had assumed that their pet was too old to do a favorite thing (get in the lake, play with the laser toy, etc.) see the pet return to doing the favorite thing. Sometimes all it takes to achieve this result is a cheap, low dose of a safe drug. This is not cheating, or a shortcut to being a good owner, which I hear often. It’s just making our pets more comfortable.

3. Discomfort can be fixable, regardless of how small, part three

Along with all the options above, there are some good physical therapy facilities and caretakers in Chicago. I don’t generally go to this without trying other options first, but it is possible that with such therapy, we can avoid drugs completely or reduce the amount of drugs given in total. Some of these facilities offer relief through cold laser therapy, building back muscle strength with underwater treadmills, acupuncture, and so on. I’ve had some dogs (and cats) that we assumed had reached their end point for quality of life but gained substantial boosts in comfort from physical therapy. Again, each cat and dog is unique, so this isn’t one-therapy-fits-all.

4. This can be indication of more serious issues

Even though you are just now noticing clinical signs of aging, the signs may have been progressing for weeks or months. You’d be surprised how often something very serious can occur with a dog and cat and they just absorb it, not showing much outward indication of pain.

Dogs rupture their cranial cruciate ligaments all the time, and sometimes that fact doesn’t become obvious until months later. Cats can do this too. More commonly, cat have severely loose kneecaps that worsen over time.

Cats and dogs get mild disc disease, spinal arthritis, and other conditions that need serious therapy, which may or may not include surgery. It’s always sad to find out that a dog or cat that has been painful for months, albeit slowly and progressively, could have been made more comfortable sooner with a procedural fix or additional medications. And many times the prognosis and cost correlate with how fast we can identify the problem.

Although this article focuses on orthopedic issues, there are many neurologic, endocrine/chemical, or general systemic illnesses that first appear looking like the classic “just slowing down.” A quick exam can sometimes quickly differentiate between serious problem and normal aging. I won’t go down the path of worst-case scenarios, but dogs and cats that come to us for “slowing down for the past three months” often wind up with serious diagnoses.

I don’t mean to force everybody with a dog and cat that is getting older to worry that normal aging is a sign of having a brain tumor, but consider what you would tolerate in your own body. Getting older is not a reason for dogs to be uncomfortable. Even the healthiest dogs and cats that have never had any issues are going to need more attention, more veterinary care, and more consideration when they are 10 than they did when they were 5. This is just how life works. Luckily, with your help and attention, we can help them live as comfortably as possible for as long as possible.

Be well. Consider your choice of baseball team wisely.

Brett Grossman, DVM
Medical District Veterinary Clinic