Great advances have been made in human geriatric medicine over the past 20 years. Old people are now regarded as a separate clinical group from the young adult population, and the development of specialisation in 'geriatrics' has increased our knowledge of many of the diseases of the elderly and so improved their treatment and management.

Old people are often reluctant to seek medical attention early in the course of a disease, believing that their illness is simply due to 'old age', and that nothing can be done for them. In veterinary practice we face a similar problem because pet owners often do not present an animal when it develops mild signs of disease such as increased thirst or increased frequency of urination in the belief that such signs are an inevitable result of advancing age.

Farm animals and some groups of working dogs are not allowed to survive to old age and for these animals there is little available information about the effects of ageing. The oldest recorded age for a horse is 62 years and for a cow 78 years (Matthews 1994). The oldest recorded cat was 34 years, and the oldest dog 29 years, but most dogs live for 8-15 years with large and giant breeds having a shorter life expectancy than small breeds (Matthews 1994). Pet owners (including breeders) sometimes prefer to terminate their animals' lives early rather than allow them to attain their full life expectancy and have to support them through old age.

Some owners delay presenting an old animal for treatment because of a genuine fear that the veterinarian might detect a serious illness and advise euthanasia. In fact, most diseases of the aged can be treated and, even if not curable, something can usually be done to improve the quality of life for the animal. If an animal does have a terminal condition, delaying a visit to the veterinary surgeon is not going to help matters, and in the meantime the individual could be subject to unnecessary suffering.

One of the most significant advances in human geriatric medicine has been the introduction of routine screening tests. These have brought to the fore a whole spectrum of diseases originally thought to be rare, but now known to be common. Routine screening improves the identification of risk factors and the early detection of disease allowing early intervention and, as a result, patients are living longer, and the mean life-expectancy of the population as a whole is increasing.

Undoubtedly similar advances will be made in veterinary geriatrics, particularly in the area of preventative medicine and the identification and avoidance of risk factors.