Common health problems

As your pet ages, they will be more vulnerable to developing health problems. This page deals with the more common diseases we encounter, their clinical signs, but most importantly, how you can spot them in their early stages, and how best to tackle them. Many problems in older pets are dismissed as inevitable ‘old age’ changes and can be ignored. Problems such as bad teeth and stiff joints are often considered ‘normal’ in senior animals but they can be treated and freeing animals of these and many other problems will often out a real spring back in their step and allow them to live out their twilight years in the best possible health and comfort.


  • This is a very common problem in both dogs and cats and can range from being very mild, and your pet just being a bit stiff, to them barely being able to walk.
  • It is caused by the smooth surfaces of the joints becoming roughened by years of ‘wear and tear’. which leads to inflammation and pain.
  • Clinical signs of arthritis are; lameness, which will often wear off with exercise, stiffness after lying down, a reluctance to jump, and sometimes heat or swelling in the affected joint.
  • There are various ways to treat arthritis but the most important are weight loss, dietary supplements, and medication.
  • Dietary supplements which have been shown to be beneficial in arthritic conditions include cod liver oil, glucosamine and chondroitin. There are specific joint supplements available from your vet which contain all of these ingredients.
  • There are also specific veterinary diets designed for animals with joint problems, which have been shown to reduce the amount of medication or supplements they need.
  • Other treatments for arthritis include hydrotherapy, acupuncture and injections, both under the skin and occasionally into the joints.
  • At home, you can really help your pet by providing a deep, soft bed for them to lie on, and covering any slippy floors with mats to help them keep their balance.
  • In cats arthritis can be difficult to spot as affected cats will just stop moving around and jumping as much, and is often mistaken for simple old age.
  • Recent studies have shown that 90% of cats over 12 years old have some symptoms of arthritis.
  • If you suspect your cat is stiff, ask your vet for an examination, recent changes in medicine rules mean they can now be treated with long term medication like dogs, and they also respond very well to dietary supplements.

lazy labrador

Dogs with arthritis are often lame or stiff but in many cases they hide the pain very well and just seem quieter than normal or sleepy.  Once they are on treatment this depression can really lift and it is then you really notice the difference!


  • Cancer is very common in older pets, and can occur anywhere both on the inside and the outside of your pet.
  • Cancers range from the benign, which are unlikely to spread, to the very malignant, which are highly aggressive and will often spread quickly. So they are not always bad news!
  • Symptoms of cancer are highly variable, if they are internal they will often be related to where they are situated. Common sites for internal tumours include the liver, kidneys, intestines and spleen.
  • External tumours and masses are obviously more easy to spot, but they do not always cause a problem. For example fatty growths (‘Lipomas’) that cause no harm are very common in older dogs.
  • The tablet below shows some criteria by which you can judge a mass to decide whether it may be a concern;
    1. How quickly has the mass grown? – More malignant masses will grow more quickly, you should notice a size increase within weeks. Benign masses like fatty lumps will stay the same size or grow very slowly.
    2. How mobile is it? – More benign masses will often be just in the skin, which means you should be able to move it around as it is not attached to the underlying tissue. Malignant masses will spread quickly and are therefore often not as movable.
    3. Is the skin healthy? – Benign masses rarely cause any skin irritation but more aggressive masses will often cause the skin to redden, or even ulcerate.
    4. Is there any hair loss? – Benign masses will rarely cause the hair to fall out, but malignant masses often destroy the hair follicles.
    5. Is the mass bothering your pet? – It is unusual for benign masses to bother your pet, but more aggressive growths can be painful.
    • This list is a good guide, but if there are any masses on your pet which are causing you concern, you should ask your vet to examine them.
  • Although your vet can gain a good idea about the mass by examining it, it is impossible to be sure exactly what any mass is and how it will progress by just looking.
  • Therefore they will often suggest testing, such as needle biopsies, to help identify it, or they may suggest removal and then further testing at the lab.
  • A definite diagnosis of the kind of cancer present is very important. Your vet will then know the likely progression of the problem, whether the mass will recur or spread if it is removed, and in the case of aggressive tumours, a likely time span for your pets survival.
  • Cancer treatment in animals is now very advanced and vets are able to perform chemotherapy and radiotherapy in addition to surgery.


Any lump or bump which appears on a pet should be monitored closely. Cancerous growths are more common in older animals and are usually best removed sooner rather than later.

Dental problems

  • Dental problems are very common in older animals, imagine if you hadn’t brushed your teeth for 6 years!
  • They tend to be commoner in animals fed a majority wet food, or who aren’t given or don’t like chew sticks or bones.
  • Signs of poor dental health are; smelly breath, brown tartar build-up on teeth, dribbling (especially in cats), facial swelling, especially just under the eyes, and a reduced appetite or refusal to eat hard food.
  • The tartar on the teeth is a haven for bacteria, and these can spread in the blood to the internal organs such as the heart or kidney, causing more problems.
  • In older animals brushing the teeth is often not practical as your pet will not understand what you are trying to do!
  • Also, the tartar build up is often too heavy for chews or diet to help and your vet will recommend cleaning the teeth and performing any necessary extractions under an anaesthetic.
  • General aneasthetics in older animals do carry a higher risk than in younger patients, but vets will take great care, they may recommend blood tests and a drip through the operation.
  • In general the health benefits of dental work, out weigh the risks of the anaesthetic, provided precautions are taken.


This dog is showing clear signs of dental disease with tartar build-up, infections around the teeth and smelly breath.  Although she is elderly, dental treatment under a general anaesthetic will be highly beneficial, both for her teeth and her general health


Heart Disease

  • Heart problems are common in older dogs.
  • Large breed dogs, such as Dobermans and Boxers, often have problems with the heart muscles (Cardiomyopathies) which mean the heart can’t contract very well.
  • In small breeds dogs, such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Chihuahuas, it is more common to have problems with the valves of the heart, which mean the heart isn’t as efficient as it should be.
  • In cats, heart problems aren’t so common, and if they do have problems there are often no symptoms at all.
  • You also may notice; coughing, especially in the smaller breeds, weakness or collapse, weight loss, abdominal enlargement due to fluid accumulation.
  • Signs of heart disease are variable and often the animal just slows down as the heart is less able to cope, which is often mistake for old age.
  • In some large breeds the disease is completely ‘silent’, ie there are no symptoms, and can result in sudden death.
  • If your dog has a heart problem your vet may be able to hear a heart murmer, or an abnormal rhythm using a stethoscope.
  • Your vet may also advise further tests such as imaging (ultrasound scans or x-rays) of the heart, an ECG (electrocardiogram), blood pressure measurements or blood tests.
  • Heart disease is generally treated with life long medication.
  • The prognosis will depend on the underlying problem, but provided it is caught early and the appropriate treatment started, the prognosis can be good.


Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are a breed very prone to heart disease in later life.  However, medication will significantly slow down it’s progression and give them a good quality of life.


Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

  • This is a common problem in older cats but is under-diagnosed as there are very few clinical signs.
  • It is important to discover and treat hypertension as it can cause organ damage, especially to the kidneys and to the eyes.
  • There aren’t many clinical signs of high blood pressure but the main ones include , heart murmers, kidney problems and sudden onset blindness caused by blood vessels bursting and bleeding into the eye.
  • Measuring an animals blood pressure is much the same as it is in people. A cuff is placed on one of the front legs, and a probe is used to listen for the pulse as the cuff is inflated. There are no needles or sedation required, so it is not generally stressful for the animal.
  • If your pet is diagnosed with hypertension your vet may suggest further tests, which can include blood tests, or imaging (ultrasound scans or x-rays) particularly of the heart.
  • Hypertension is treated with regular tablets, or by finding the underlying cause, but there is not always one present.


Taking a pet’s blood pressure is an easy and stress free procedure


Hyperthyroidism (Over active thyroid gland)

  • This is a disease seen in cats over the age of about 12, it is very rare in dogs.
  • There are 2 thyroid glands and they are found in the neck, either side of the trachea (windpipe). They produce the hormone ‘Thyroid’ which controls the speed of metabolism.
  • In Hyperthyroidism normally just one of the glands becomes over active and produce too much thyroid, meaning the cats metabolism speeds up.
  • Signs of an over active thyroid gland are; weight loss, increased appetite, over-activity, poor coat condition, a high heart rate and usually your vet will be able to feel the enlarged gland in the neck.
  • Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed by compatible clinical signs and with blood tests.
  • Treatment is with either life long tablets, surgery to remove the overactive gland or radiotherapy.


This cat is showing typical symptoms of an over-active thyroid gland.  It is thin, with an unkempt coat and is constantly hungry!

Kidney Problems

  • These tend to be common in older animals, especially cats.
  • Cats are particularly prone to kidney problems as they are naturally a desert animal and their kidneys are very good at conserving water, but this can mean they effectively wear out more quickly.
  • The kidneys clean and filter the blood, if they are not working properly, there is a build up of toxins in the blood.
  • The main clinical sign of kidney problems is drinking a lot more water than normal, which can lead to your pet having accidents in the house.
  • A normal animal will drink about 50ml of water per kilo of weight per day. If you are concerned about your pets water intake, measure if over a few days and take the figure to your vet
  • Other signs of kidney disease are; reduced appetite, vomiting, smelly breath, weight loss and a poor coat condition.
  • Kidney disease can be diagnosed by blood tests and analysing your pets urine.
  • Kidney disease is a long term (chronic) problem, usually caused by the kidney dying off, once it has gone, it cannot be regenerated and so treatment is aimed at preserving the remaining kidney
  • The main stay of treatment for kidney problems is diet. These diets are prescription only, and can only be prescribed by your vet.
  • It is important to make any dietary change in older animals very slowly, they can be very fussy and refuse to eat new diets. However, if they will eat the prescription diet, they will live longer.
  • Ask your vet for advice about introducing new diets.
  • There are also injections your pet can have for kidney disease, these are aimed at increasing their appetites and keeping the kidneys as healthy as possible, but they are not as effective as dietary change.


Liver disease

  • Liver disease is not common in older pets, the symptoms are very vague and often the animal is just ‘not quite right’
  • Symptoms of liver disease can include; vomiting, diahorrea, drinking more, a reduced appetite, weight loss, and jaundice (a yellowing of the whites of the eyes, gums, or skin)
  • Liver disease is diagnosed by blood tests, but although these can tell you there is a problem, and in most cases how bad it is, they cannot always tell you what the underlying problem is.
  • Therefore, once liver problems have been found, your vet may advise further tests which can include imaging (ultrasound scans or x-rays) the liver, or taking biopsies.
  • If the underlying cause can be determined, your vet will be better able to direct the treatment and give you a more accurate prognosis.
  • Treatment of liver disease will vary depending on the cause, but can include antibiotics, vitamin B supplementation, and prescription diets, or, in the case of liver growths, surgery may be an option.
  • The prognosis will also depend on the underlying cause, but the liver is a regenerative organ so it can often heal given the right treatment and support. Treatment, however, tends to be lifelong.



  • This is probably the most common problem we see as vets in our older patients, and it is a huge contributing factor in the development and progression of other problems.
  • Recent research has proved that overweight dogs will not live as long as their slimmer counter parts, and will develop more health problems.
  • Inevitably as your pet ages, there exercise levels fall. It is important that this is reflected in a lower calorie diet.
  • Regular weight checks at the vets will help to monitor your pets weight, and they are the best people for advice on weight control. Most clinics will run free weight control clinics, or be happy to give advice
  • Diets specifically for senior animals are generally lower calorie than normal foods, or, if your pet is very overweight, you may be recommended to try a diet specifically for weight loss


Please note, this is an advice only website, if you have any specific concerns or queries about your pet, you should contact your vet.

Share This: