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Preventive Care for Geriatric Patients

Kara M. Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), VTS-H (Internal Medicine, Dentistry), Academy of Veterinary, Nutrition Technicians

Internal Medicine

|December 2014

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Every member of the healthcare team plays an important role in preventive medicine that contributes to improving the health and life quality of senior patients. Preventive medicine saves lives, but practice visits have declined, largely because of a failure to effectively communicate the benefits of preventive care to clients. This dearth of consistent preventive care has negative consequences to patient health and may result in an increased number of patients with preventable diseases.1,2  This is especially concerning for the ever-increasing geriatric population because of the greater incidence of diseases, many of which could be better managed with early diagnosis and intervention.

Related Article: Senior Care Checklist

The healthcare team must understand and communicate the importance of life stage to clients, and what a senior pet truly signifies. It is imperative that the team educate clients on the differences in longevity among small-, medium-, large-, and giant-breed dogs, as well as the increasingly long lives of cats.

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Subtle Signs May Be Red Flags

Clients often notice behavioral changes in their geriatric pet but do not consider the signs severe enough to warrant a practice visit or they dismiss the signs as simply “caused by old age.” The neurological and cognitive effects of aging are typically subtle and progress slowly; it is thus crucial that the healthcare team—including the veterinary technician—educate owners about the signs associated with cognitive decline, so these signs can be addressed promptly. In fact, in one study in which owners were educated about the behavioral signs associated with cognitive dysfunction, 75% of owners stated that they had seen at least 1 sign; 37% admitted having observed 1 or more signs several times per week, and 32% reported witnessing 3 or more signs.3 The alarming takeaway from this study is that only 12% of participants actually talked with the veterinarian about a sign observed in their dog.3 Clients should be advised that behavioral changes may be the first indication of a health problem, and if a medical condition is the cause, early reporting of these changes can lead to early diagnosis and potential medical intervention.

Case in Point: Osteoarthritis

Prevention plays a major role in osteoarthritis (OA), which, without client education, involves changes that are attributed to old age. In general, OA diagnosis requires a combination of history, physical examination findings, and radiographic evidence of degenerative joint disease. Although this seems straightforward, historical clues—key in leading the team to suspect OA—may be elusive, and clinical signs are often subtle and not evident on routine examinations; this is especially true with cats. The healthcare team must rely on client evaluation and a thorough history to ascertain potential signs of OA. 

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Related Article: The Rational Use of Screening Tests in Senior Wellness Programs 

Changes clients may note can typically be categorized into 4 groups: mobility, activity level, grooming, and temperament.4,5 Owners may attribute many signs of OA to normal aging and therefore fail to report them unless prompted.

It is imperative, then, that veterinary technicians take a thorough history and understand the various behaviors and clinical signs associated with OA.

In Sum

Clients who appreciate that preventive care preserves and lengthens their relationship with their pet are much more likely to pursue veterinary services, regardless of economic conditions, and become advocates of everyday care, versus opting for emergency care only. This shift in client behavior can only be achieved if the team actively communicates the benefits of preventive care. Effective communication is the key to reversing the current underuse of veterinary services and decreasing the prevalence of preventable diseases—especially in senior patients.

OA = osteoarthritis

KARA M. BURNS, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), VTS-H (Internal Medicine, Dentistry), is a licensed veterinary technician and the founder and president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians. Ms. Burns teaches nutrition on VetMedTeam and the Veterinary Support Personnel Network and is a contributor to She also works as an independent nutritional consultant. She has authored numerous articles, textbooks, textbook chapters, and is an internationally invited speaker, focusing on topics of nutrition, leadership, and technician utilization. Ms. Burns was named the 2013 NAVC Technician Speaker of the Year and was the 2010 NAVTA Veterinary Technician of the Year, as well as the 2011 Dr. Franklin Loew Lecturer.


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