By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Wouldn’t life be grand if every medical problem we had was solved in a single visit to the doctor? Sadly that isn’t the case, neither in pets nor in people. While some medical conditions resolve and never come back, pets are prone to a variety of chronic diseases that must be managed rather than cured over the lifetime of the pet. Here are eight of the most common chronic conditions we treat in veterinary practice:
Diabetes is found in both dogs and cats and can quickly become life-threatening if not managed properly. Diabetes occurs when the body either fails to produce insulin or stops responding to insulin the bloodstream. Insulin helps the body move energy in the form of glucose from the blood into cells; in diabetics, that glucose remains in the bloodstream and starves the body of energy.
The most common symptoms noticed by owners include weight loss (despite an increased appetite) and a large increase in both water intake and urination. In later stages, pets may exhibit vomiting and loss of appetite. Diabetes is easily diagnosed by a blood and urine test. Once diagnosed, most pets require daily insulin injections for the rest of his or her life, though infrequently pets can enter remission. In addition to insulin, diabetics require careful management of their diet and benefit from reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
Chronic kidney failure is found in both dogs and cats, though it is more frequently diagnosed in our feline friends. No one is entirely sure why pets develop kidney disease; while infections and toxicities can cause an overwhelming acute kidney failure, many cases occur gradually over time for no apparent reason at all.
The earliest sign of kidney disease most owners notice is an increase in drinking and urination; this happens because the kidneys are unable to properly concentrate urine and the body is fighting a constant state of dehydration. As kidney disease progresses, owners may notice a decreased appetite, unkempt coat, vomiting and weight loss.
While kidney disease cannot be reversed, medical management can slow down the rate of progression. Your veterinarian may recommend a lower-protein diet as well as fluids to administer at home. Some pets benefit from medications to help counteract the symptoms of disease. With proper management, many kidney patients live well into old age.
Heart disease is found in both dogs and cats. In dogs, the most common form is congestive heart failure. This may be caused by a leaky heart valve or diseases of the heart muscle itself. The most common symptoms noted by owners are coughing and difficulty breathing due to fluid accumulation in the lungs, fatigue and swelling in the abdomen or limbs.
In cats, the most common form of heart disease is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the left ventricle. While all breeds can be affected, some breeds such as Maine coons and Persians may be predisposed. It is also associated with hyperthyroidism. Symptoms can be subtle and include loss of appetite, fatigue or breathing problems.
In both dogs and cats, heart disease is diagnosed with imaging such as x-rays and ultrasound. The changes to the heart are permanent and treatment comes in the form of life-long medications to reduce strain on the heart, improve the heart’s ability to pump, and to control the pet’s blood pressure. Many pets also benefit from sodium-restricted diets.
When a pet suffers from asthma, environmental triggers cause a constriction of the bronchi leading from the trachea to the lungs, causing an abrupt and severe breathing difficulty. It is very common in cats (up to one percent of cats are thought to suffer from it), but also occurs in dogs, with small breeds being more likely to suffer the symptoms.
During an asthma attack, pets exhibit shallow and rapid breathing as they attempt to force air through the narrowed airways. Owners may notice wheezing. While dogs naturally pant, open mouth breathing is always abnormal in cats. Breathing difficulty in any pet should be treated as an emergency.
As in people, pets with asthma are treated with a combination of steroids and bronchodilators. Because asthma attacks can be triggered by the environment, pets with asthma should not be in households with smokers, and owners need to be aware of the potential for problems with dusty or highly scented cat litters. Although asthma never goes away, it can be successfully managed.
Environmental allergy, or atopy, is the most common form of allergies seen in both dogs and cats. In dogs, atopy usually manifests in the skin: itchy face, licking paws, recurrent hotspots and constant chewing at the body. Atopic cats may have itchy faces, hair loss on the ears and flank, recurrent ear infections and chin acne.
Because the symptoms of atopy mimic the signs of other allergies and parasites, it’s essential to work with your veterinarian to establish a diagnosis. Atopic pets can be managed with a variety of treatments such as immunosuppressants and allergy shots. Some pets cycle in severity depending on the season, while others are affected year-round. While allergic disease can be very uncomfortable, it is rarely life-threatening.
As improved health care helps animals live longer lives, veterinarians are seeing an increased incidence of diseases associated with age, such as osteoarthritis (OA). OA affects both dogs and cats, with large dogs at the highest risk of debilitating symptoms.
Pets with arthritis may show very subtle symptoms that owners write off as aging: decreased energy, reluctance to jump or use stairs and exercise intolerance. While some pets may limp, very few vocalize to indicate pain. OA can be diagnosed with an exam and x-rays. Once diagnosed, your vet can help you determine the best course of treatment.
Fortunately for pets, there are a wide array of options to help both dogs and cats live comfortably with arthritis. From medications to joint supplements and even acupuncture and massage, pets with arthritis are living more pain-free than ever well into old age.
Dental disease is one of the most commonly diagnosed condition in dogs and cats and it can be responsible for surprisingly severe symptoms when left untreated. While large deposits of tartar are obviously notable, many pets have subtler symptoms such as bad breath, swollen gums and changes in appetite and energy due to oral pain.
Oral care has a profound affect on the progression of dental disease in both dogs and cats. Regular cleanings play a large role in managing disease, as does home care such as tooth-brushing. Infected teeth may need to be treated or removed. Once the active disease is under control, regular care is vital to keeping your pet in good oral health.
Stones in the bladder or urethra are one of the most dreaded diagnoses in veterinary medicine, and with good reason. They are extremely uncomfortable at best, and at worst they can cause life threatening obstructions of the urethra. While any dog or cat can develop stones, the worst symptoms occur in males because the long urethra is easily obstructed.
Pets with bladder stones show signs such as straining to urinate, frequent urination and blood in the urine. Secondary bacterial infection is common. Cats straining in the litterbox may be confused for constipated cats, but a cat who cannot produce urine is a medical emergency. Bladder stones are diagnosed with imaging studies such as x-rays.
If a pet is not obstructed, the treatment may be medical or surgical. Once a pet is stone-free, diet and hydration play an essential role in keeping the stones from re-forming. Pets who remain on specially formulated diets that minimize the change of stone reformation have much better long-term outcomes as many pets re-obstruct later in life.