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Helping pets age gracefully

By Heidi Jeter

scientists keep animals pain free and healthy into their golden years 

Wagley, a lovable 14-year-old Beagle, has suffered from periodic bouts of back pain, a problem common in dogs with long backs, since she was about 3 years old. Fortunately, her owners, Ashley and Michael Seymour, were always able to control her pain with short-term medication. They also managed the condition through committing to routine veterinary care, keeping her weight low, limiting her stair climbing and never allowing her to jump off furniture. About a year ago, though, Wagley’s pain seemed constant.

“As she’s aged, we’ve seen the degeneration of her back and spine increase,” Ashley says. “Now her pain seems to be chronic.”

With the pain came behavioral changes, such as excessive barking and growling, which put a strain on the Seymours’ bond with their dog. The Seymours sought permanent pain medication, but when test results revealed that Wagley was in the early stages of liver failure, they were reluctant. Daily medication would likely accelerate the liver failure and damage their beloved dog’s kidneys. As Wagley’s situation worsened, though, the Seymours realized that her behavior was a cry for help they needed to answer.

“No one was enjoying each other any more. ‘Pack Seymour,’ as we called it, started disintegrating,” Ashley says. “We realized it was our responsibility to put her on pain medication, even though we knew that it was going to limit her time with us.”

Shortly after going on a low-dose pain medication, Wagley’s grumpiness disappeared, and she even started exhibiting playful behaviors the family hadn’t seen in years. The Seymours have accepted that Wagley’s time with them may be shortened, but they don’t regret their decision to improve the quality of the time she has left. Pack Seymour, which includes two senior cats as well, is happy again.

studies work to provide pain management options 

As more pets live longer, many pet owners are facing similar decisions. Chronic pain usually develops slowly, so it can go unnoticed. Owners may attribute behavioral changes to the aging process rather than to the real culprit: pain or illness. Often pain is linked to age-related disorders such as arthritis, cancer and bone disease.

In the case of animals, it can be difficult to know with certainty how much pain the animal is experiencing. And untreated pain can lead to longer illnesses and in some cases can contribute to an animal’s death. Effective pain management can improve quality of life for animals in their twilight years.

Morris Animal Foundation has funded many studies to improve pain management options for animals. More advances are needed, however, which is why the Foundation is currently funding a number of studies in this area.

With Foundation funding, scientists at the University of Montreal and at North Carolina State University are developing better tools for identifying when a cat is experiencing arthritis-related pain. An estimated 45 percent of cats suffer from arthritis pain, but there are few proven therapies, in part because it is difficult to assess when a cat has chronic joint pain. These tools will help veterinarians better manage pain in cats with arthritis and will help in testing new treatments that could improve quality of life.

Additional research, led by Dr. Kristen M. Messenger at North Carolina State University, is examining why some animals respond to pain drugs and others do not and why adverse effects and exaggerated responses occur in some animals but not others. Her findings will help veterinarians better manage pain in pets.

In other studies, scientists are looking at improving pain management therapies for animals that have surgery—an important area of study given that older animals may require surgery or other treatments that could cause pain.

research addresses top health concerns for older pets

Pain management is just one issue pet owners face as their pets age. Thanks to better prevention and treatment options, pets are living longer than ever before. As they age, though, cats and dogs develop many of the same health conditions that aging humans do. Top offenders include obesity, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, thyroid disease, kidney failure, depression and senility.

Morris Animal Foundation is funding research into many of these areas. For example, cancer is the no. 1 health concern for dogs over the age of 2. With Foundation funding, Dr. Barbara Biller, of Colorado State University, recently evaluated a new way of administering chemotherapy for dogs with soft-tissue sarcomas.

Cats also have high rates of cancer, and oral cancer becomes more common as a cat ages. Multiple studies are looking at drugs to treat this debilitating and aggressive disease.   

All too often, metabolic and endocrine system disorders cause sudden declines in health for cats and dogs. Foundation-funded studies are studying Cushing’s disease in dogs and horses and chronic kidney disease in cats.
Studies like these help ensure that the pets we love are pain free and maintain a high quality of life for as long as they are with us. After all, we aren’t just searching for longer lives—we want them to be healthier lives, too. Perhaps Ashley put it best: “We know our pets’ time with us is limited, so why not make it good?”

Posted by MAFon November 28, 2011.

Categories: Animal health, Animal welfare


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Submitted by Claudia Robbins at: September 1, 2012
Thank you very much for your articles, not only this one but all the others as well and I think an article about acupuncture would be great, I agree with Kobi, since it helps in many cases with pain relief and it doesn't damage the liver, for example. Claudia at My Beagle Trainingt
Submitted by Kobi at: December 1, 2011
it would be great if you could do an article on pain getting better with cold laser and acupunture! It works awesome!!