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2005 AAHA Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats

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These guidelines provide a working framework for enhancing the well-being of senior pet dogs and cats. Approaches to screening the medical status of senior pets are described in detail, with particular emphasis on establishing baseline data in healthy animals, the testing of clinically ill animals, and assessing senior pets prior to anesthesia and surgery. The management of pain and distress and the application of hospice and palliative care are addressed. Advice on ways to approach euthanasia and dealing with end-of-life issues is also provided. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2005;41:81-91.


The purpose of this document is to provide a working framework for veterinarians dedicated to enhancing the well-being of senior pet dogs and cats. Only about 14% of senior animals undergo regular health screening as recommended by their veterinarians.1 The main obstacle to compliance is the lack of a clear recommendation by the veterinary care team.1 Unless otherwise specified, all recommendations in this document apply to both the dog and the cat. Providing optimal care for senior pets:

  • Acknowledges and enhances the human-animal bond
  • Promotes early detection of abnormalities
  • Promotes optimal and individualized medical care that may enhance quality of life and promote longevity

The specific goals of this document are to help the veterinarian:

  • Promote early detection of disease in the apparently healthy pet
  • Prevent or delay morbidity and mortality whenever possible
  • Outline/define common clinical conditions in senior pets
  • Define aspects of screening, diagnosis, treatment, anesthesia, and surgery that are pertinent to the senior pet
  • Outline principles of assessing and managing pain
  • Provide a framework to evaluate quality of life
  • Assist clients with decision-making at the end of life

What is “senior”

The term “senior” has been chosen to describe the aging and older pet. The number of years considered to be “senior” may vary, and one must keep in mind that organ systems, species, and breeds of dogs age at different rates. Several papers have suggested specific ages at which pets should be considered “old,” depending on breed and size, although few recommendations are evidence-based.2-12Some studies of brain aging in beagles have shown that memory and learning deficits may be found as early as 6 to 7 years of age, with brain pathology found at ³12 years of age.8-11 Many books and articles consider cats to be senior at 7 to 11 years of age.2-5

In humans, 56 to 60 years of age is considered to be the start of the senior years. Middle age begins at 42 to 45 and is the time when senior wellness screening generally starts. Middle age would equate to approximately 7 to 8 years of age for most dogs and cats (except for large-breed dogs that may reach middle age a year or two earlier). As the pet enters its senior years, more frequent testing and more extensive examinations are recommended than for younger pets. Rather than attempt to calculate age equivalents to humans, for practical purposes, this task force suggests that practitioners apply these guidelines to dogs and cats that are in the last 25% of the predicted life span for their species and breed.

In the spring of 2004, AAHA gathered together seven respected, experienced veterinarians with a variety of interests, backgrounds, and specialties. Their goal was to create for veterinary practitioners a useful document about Senior Care.