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Pet Docs: Know the difference between normal aging and real health issues in family pets

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Perry Jameson (left) and Henri Bianucci. File/Staff

Frequent readers of this column likely will be familiar with my (Perry Jameson) dog, Flipper. He is a hound dog we adopted from Charleston Animal Society in 2007. They had given him the name Thor, but my 7-year-old daughter felt a better name was Flipper, as his long hound dog ears would flip over on top of his head when he played.

Flipper is not the same dog he was 13 years ago even though he has aged well. He is slower coming up the stairs, which he used to take two at a time. His hearing is not as acute as it was. He still enjoys play time, but instead of us having to stop from our exhaustion, he is done after about 15 minutes on his own. His joints no longer allow him to go running with me in the mornings. He now prefers just being where we are rather than being constantly active as in the past.

My wife, Dr. Holy Mims, brought him to work several months ago to have Dr. Henri Bianucci remove a lump from his leg. Being a good doctor, she took X-rays of his lungs to ensure nothing was going on in his chest prior to anesthesia.

Unfortunately, we found he had a lung tumor in the most common location for malignant pulmonary carcinoma. Based on his age, our family decided not to surgically open his chest and remove the tumor.

That was 6 months ago, and other than the normal aging changes he is experiencing, we would never know he had this tumor. Despite the limitations his aging has placed on him, he still has a great life. Our pets age just like we do, just at a faster rate.

It is important to understand the difference between what changes are normal and expected for a family pet from those that are real problems and need to be addressed quickly.

When we adopted Flipper, he was mostly white with several big tan spots over his body. Over the years these tan spots have faded to white. As dogs age, changes in the hair follicles result in the production of white hair instead of pigmented hair, especially around the face and muzzle. Their hair coat is often drier and duller than when younger.

Sarcopenia is the normal loss of muscle as we age, and dogs suffer from this, too. Consistent physical activity will slow some of the age-associated loss of muscle. Continue that daily walk if possible; you may just have to shorten it.

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Many dogs around the age of 6 develop a bluish-gray haziness to the lenses of their eyes. These are often confused with cataracts but do not affect vision the way cataracts do. This normal aging change is called nuclear (or lenticular) sclerosis. Hearing loss is common in dogs and is similar to that which occurs in humans.

The heart is a muscle and it ages, as well. Cardiac output declines and loss of the ability for the heart to respond to increased demand occurs. I have noticed this in Flipper as the inability for him to exercise at the same intensity or for the same duration as when he was younger.

In many female dogs, the urethral sphincter will weaken as they age resulting in urinary incontinence. This is something that develops in about 20 percent of spayed female dogs. Fortunately, it often responds to medical therapy.

Hormonal function may decline, as well, with increases in hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus diagnosed in older patients. With supplementation of the missing hormones, these deficiencies can easily be treated.

As early as 7 to 8 years of age, behavioral changes may begin and these changes are associated with brain aging. These may manifest as changes in cognition, sleep patterns, activity, motor skills and human interaction. Interestingly, impaired dogs interact less with their people but shift to just wanting to be around them.

Flipper cannot climb the stairs as quickly as he once could. He is not as sure-footed as he once was, stumbling where he never did before. This is from arthritis developing in his joints, which is common. The best therapy is weight control so the joints do not have to support more weight than they were designed to.

There are more and more supplements and dog-specific aspirin-like medications that can be prescribed and dramatically improve mobility.

We know Flipper will not live forever, but the time he has left, we want to make it great.

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

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