Vet Talk

Age Isn’t A Disease, But…

Many clients focus on potentials risks of anesthesia and avoid treatments requiring it

August 18, 2017 (published)
Photo courtesy of Morguefile

A common saying in veterinary medicine is “age is not a disease.” While that’s true on the surface, with age it’s more likely than not that an individual cat, dog, horse or hamster will be contending with multiple problems. While a middle-aged animal might first experience the creakiness and pain of arthritic joints, a senior might also have kidney disease, heart or lung disease, as well as thyroid issues, too.

None or even a combination of those conditions necessarily rule out surgery or advanced treatments for senior pets. Many clients focus on the potentials risks of anesthesia and so avoid treatments that require it, such as dental extractions, in the older pet. However, within the past 20 years, veterinary anesthesia practice has advanced significantly and there is now widespread use of safer anesthetic gases, blood pressure monitoring, intravenous fluids and pain relief administered before, during and after procedures, to provide comfort and reduce surgical stress, all as part of standard practice.

Many clients, however, still wrestle with the decision of whether or not to pursue surgery or advanced treatments for their senior pets. Given the years of devotion and companionship, how does one choose to go forward or not with a recommended course of action?

As a veterinarian and one who has shared her home with multiple cats and dogs, the decision is one I’ve struggled with as well. No one can tell another what the right course of action is in a particular situation, but over the years I’ve developed a list to help with these often emotionally charged situations.

  1. Does the cost of the surgery or treatment adversely affect the individual’s or family’s finances in the short and long term? As much as we love and cherish our pets, I don’t believe that we ever should run massive charges on credit cards in order to pay for advanced treatments. Too many times have I heard clients decide not to treat what I believe is a straightforward problem because they still are wrestling with buyer’s remorse over a decision to go the distance with a previous animal companion. Because of this, I’ve been careful to review the advantages and disadvantages to a treatment and, where possible, give a range of options. Sometimes we can do less; what we need to be clear on is often times less treatment provides a less-than-desirable result.

  2. Does the surgery or treatment give the patient the potential for a high-quality life? If treatment only prolongs life for a few weeks or months, or requires additional, expensive, chronic treatments, the decision to go forward may need to be adjusted. Several years ago, a friend pursued abdominal surgery for an elderly Border Collie who had disseminated cancer, despite my recommendations otherwise. While the surgery was a success, the pet was euthanized three days later due to overwhelming infection and sepsis.

  3. What will be the requirements for after-care or additional treatments and can the individual or family provide them? It is the rare patient who goes home after significant surgery and bounces back quickly. Especially for older pets, there may be days where the patient needs to be carried outdoors in order to eliminate. Then, too, medications may need to be given at specific intervals. Before agreeing to surgery or treatment, these requirements need to be known and considered.

  4. Is the surgery or treatment taking place in a suitable hospital environment? Many senior dogs and cats have issues that can impact anesthesia requirements and an individual hospital may not be equipped to provide the necessary after-care. Veterinarians want a successful outcome, so if the recommendation is made to refer the patient to a specialty hospital, know that it’s in the best interest of your pet (and consider #1 above).

  5. What are arrangements for post-surgery recovery? In many cities, the days of an animal sitting alone in a cage overnight in a veterinary hospital post-surgery are long gone. However, in some places, this still might be the only local option. Giving your older pet the best after care might require you to drive a distance to a facility that can provide better options. Are you willing and able to do so?

There are many advanced procedures, including dental care, orthopedics and intestinal surgeries that provide a cure for painful conditions that adversely impact a senior pet’s quality of life. Being an informed client and collaborating with your pet’s veterinarian offers the best chance for a decision that is right for you and your animal companion.

1 Comment

Patrick McGarry
October 4, 2017

I have always loved hearing you talk and reading your articles. This one really hits home. Thank you for all you do!

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