Older pets can remain a part of the family for many years. At home, I (Perry Jameson) see this in my own 14-year-old Labrador, Ariel. She cannot get up as quickly as she once did or play ball for as long. The steps she once bounded up are a struggle often requiring my assistance. The dog that never used the bathroom inside sometimes cannot make it outside in time.

Despite the limitations aging has placed on her she still has a good life. She may not interact by fetching the ball or going on long walks but she is our constant companion wherever we are sitting. She is no longer needy for attention or play but is content just being close to us. Being a Labrador, she still loves meal time.

The way she enjoys her life has changed, but she still has a good life and my goal is to maintain this for as long as possible. As pets age, their health needs change. Early detection is the best way to insure a long healthy life. An alert owner is the first step.

If you notice any changes in attitude, activity and mobility, let your veterinarian know. Food and water intake should be relatively constant and changes (more or less) may signal disease. Pets are pretty regular as to urination and defecation habits and changes in frequency, volume, consistency and even location may be an early indicator of trouble. Follow your pet's weight and be aware of any changes.

You may want to take an older pet in sooner with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and sneezing. Changes in skin/hair coat or unusual odors should be evaluated. A change in sleeping position may indicate discomfort or difficulty breathing.

Older pets are at an increased risk of developing cancer. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome. For this reason the Veterinary Cancer Society developed the following list of common signs for you to watch for in your pets:

Abnormal swellings that persist or grow.

Sores that do not heal.

Weight loss.

Loss of appetite.

Bleeding or discharge from any body opening.

Offensive odor.

Difficulty eating or swallowing.

Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina.

Persistent lameness or stiffness.

Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating.

When considering how frequently pets should have a physical examination, we need to realize that one year in their lives is like 4-6 years of ours. Going four years between medical visits at 60 years of age would be thought of as crazy for us, be we do it routinely for our pets.

For this reason, we recommend that small dogs and all cats receive a routine physical examination every 6 months (or every 3 years in human years) once they reach 8 years of age. Since large breeds age faster, this should be started at 6 years of age.

Besides a thorough physical examination, blood and urine should be evaluated annually when these twice-yearly exams begin. This may pick up disease even before you notice a change at home.

You should request a CBC, profile and urinalysis. The CBC measures the levels of the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Abnormalities it may find are anemia, evidence of infection and cancers. A profile assesses the kidneys and liver as well as blood sugar and electrolyte levels. A urinalysis provides information about diabetes mellitus, kidney disease and urinary tract infections.

A cat's thyroid level should be checked at these times as well. Hyperthyroidism occurs in older cats when their thyroid glands produce excessive hormone. If left untreated, hypertension and heart disease may progress before it is even diagnosed.

When tests are done annually, your pet's doctor can compare the results from each year and look for trends.

Over the past two decades as a veterinarian, I have seen the health care available to animals continue to improve and rival that of humans. By increasing our vigilance, hopefully our pets can remain a special part of our families for many years.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.