Caring for Senior Dogs and Cats: What You Need To Know
How to Keep Your Senior Pet Happy and Healthy
The good news is, thanks to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, our fur family members are enjoying longer lives than ever before. The potential downside of this, however, is that pets and their owners are now faced with new health challenges. Just like their human owners, our pets have changing needs, appetites, and abilities as they age.
Aging itself is not a disease, but there are a number of diseases that become more common as pets age. There are also a number of age-related conditions, such as arthritis and hearing loss, that pet owners need to consider when helping their pets stay healthy, happy, and vital in their senior years. At Ambassador Animal Hospital, we care for pets at every age and every stage of life, from our wellness packages for puppies and kittens to our annual check-ups and laser therapy sessions that keep older pets active for longer.
What Qualifies as a Senior Pet?
While owners tend to want to think of their pet’s age in human terms, the popularly held belief that each “dog year” equals 7 human years. While this is a good generalization, but isn’t entirely accurate. As with people, every pet is different and ages differently, depending on genetics, breed, diet, and environmental factors. In general, cats become senior at 8 or 10 years and geriatric at 12 or older. For dogs, there is a greater range since larger dogs age more quickly than smaller dogs. For example, a Mastiff is considered senior at 5 or 6, while 6 is just middle age for a Yorkie.
Here is a chart that gives general guidelines for understanding your pet’s age in human terms:
Physical Changes to Expect as Your Pet Ages
Senior pets can develop many of the same problems that we see in older people. Some of the most common issues that we encounter here at Ambassador include:
Dental Disease. 80% of our dogs, and 70% of our cats are suffering from dental disease. The infection that exists in our pets mouth, especially under the gum line is spreading bacteria and inflammation throughout our pet’s bodies every second. When left untreated, dental disease is the secret killer of pets. It contributes to diseases of the heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs, and worsens arthritis and diabetes. Dental disease is now appreciated as being worse for your pet than smoking is for you!
Cancer. Dogs over 10 years of age develop Cancer at approximately the same rate as humans. Geriatric cats can also develop Cancer, though at a lower rate. Common signs of Cancer include sudden weight change, visible tumors, difficulty breathing, unexplained lameness, abdominal swelling, and difficulty eating.
Kidney Disease. Cats are more prone to this disease. Signs of kidney disease include decreased appetite, increased thirst, and increased urination. Some senior pets may also present with poor coat quality, a sore mouth, and vomiting.
Heart Disease. If your senior dog or cat can’t quit coughing, has difficulty breathing, or shows a loss of interest in or decreased tolerance for exercise, heart disease may be the culprit. Annual exams with your veterinarian are extremely important for catching this disease BEFORE symptoms arise.
Diabetes. Dogs and cats need to be kept at a healthy weight, especially as they get older, or they run the risk of developing adult diabetes. Even pets of a healthy weight can develop the disease, however, with common signs being increased thirst and urination.
Joint or Bone Disease. Many older pets face mobility issues or weakness as they age, and the primary cause is deteriorating bones and joints. We appreciate this often as arthritis. Studies show that a shocking 61% of cats over 6 suffer from arthritis in at least one joint. Our senior pet’s weakness can also be caused by spinal degeneration, a painful condition also contributing to incontinence. Being overweight of course makes these conditions worse for senior dogs and cats.
Mental and Behavioral Changes Common in Senior Pets
Perhaps the most difficult age-related issues that pet parents have to come to terms with are mental and behavioral changes common in senior pets. Just like humans, dogs and cats can experience senility, confusion, and disorientation. Other behavioral changes you might notice include startling more easily, increased wandering, new repetitive behaviors, changes in sleep patterns, increased vocalization, anxiety, and house soiling.
These changes could be related to deteriorating mental awareness, but they could also be related to other, underlying medical issues such as arthritis, pain, and loss of sight or hearing. Often, behavioral changes are the first sign that something is wrong with your pet, long before any other physical symptoms appear. As the owner, you are your pet’s ambassador to proper care and good health, so be sure to mention any behavioral changes that you’ve noticed at your pet’s wellness exam.
How to Help Your Senior Pet Stay Active and Healthy
Fortunately, many of these conditions associated with senior pet care are easy to detect with simple in-house diagnostic blood work—and are also simple to manage with safe, affordable pet medications. We also recommend specialty senior pet food and, potentially, pet supplements to help your elderly dog or cat maintain a healthy weight, remain alert, and improve mobility.
Here are our top five recommendations to help keep your senior dog or cat in good health:
Schedule Regular Veterinary Care. We recommend semi-annual veterinary visits exams for senior dogs and cats so that illness or other age-related conditions can be detected and treated early. Senior pet exams may be more in-depth and include specific checks for diseases common in older pets. Naturally, older pets’ immune systems are not as robust as those of younger pets, so they have less ability to fight off infection, diseases, and parasites on their own. At this age, it is particularly important to keep up with regular parasite prevention. If you are concerned that your budget won’t allow for semi-annual visits, we can work with you to breakup needed care into a few visits, and also offer Care Credit.
Annual Dental Assessment, Treatment, and Cleaning. Dental care actually improves the function of the kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs. A healthy mouth leads to a healthier, longer living pet!
Annual Senior Bloodwork and Urine Analysis. In house diagnostic testing helps your veterinarian detect and treat problems early!!
Feed a Healthy Diet. Did you know that over half of all American pets are overweight or obese? While being overweight is a problem at any stage of life, it is more dangerous for older pets who may also be facing heart disease, diabetes, and decreased mobility. During your pet’s wellness exam, be sure to talk to us about your dog or cat’s changing nutritional needs. You may need to consider portion control, fewer calories overall, more fresh vegetables, or even a specialty diet or supplements to maintain a healthy weight and manage other health concerns. Alternatively, decreased appetite and unexplained weight loss can also be an issue for older pets. Be sure to schedule regular veterinary dental care since tooth decay and pain is often the root cause of a lack of appetite.
Keep Your Pet Moving. Helping your pet continue to get regular, appropriate exercise can be particularly difficult for owners of senior pets. However, as with human mobility, pets need to use it or they lose it. Regular exercise also helps older pets, especially dogs, maintain a healthy weight, regulates their sleep schedule, decreases anxiety, and slows the degeneration of joints. The key is to go slow, listen to your dog, and build up to more exercise as your pet is able. Try for a short walk of no more than 10-15 minutes to start. Remember that dogs are terrible at knowing their own limits. Senior dogs will often try to keep up with you or overdo it at the beginning of the walk, leaving them with no energy on the return—so you set the pace and the time limit.
Promote Mental Health. You can teach an old dog new tricks—and you should! If your dog or cat is getting the right amount of exercise daily, you are already providing quite a bit of mental stimulation. You should also remember to continue bonding with your senior pet; physical contact is more important to your pet than ever during this stage of life. Try therapeutic massage, extra brushing, and at least 15 minutes of scheduled play time twice a day. Massage and brushing are also good for pets with joint pain or difficulty grooming. Consider enrolling in a basic training or tricks class with your senior pup, leaving your dog or cat with puzzle toys filled with treats, or enrolling your senior dog in a good Doggie Day Care while you’re away at work.
Change Your Pet’s Environment. Senior dogs and cats may need special accommodations to keep them safe. For example, dogs with severe arthritis or other joint diseases may need stairs to help them climb in and out of cars or onto couches/beds, or rugs to help them get traction on slippery wood floors. Similarly, if your dog or cat has lost sight, you may need to remove dangerous objects from your pet’s path or use a pet gate to confine your pet to a safe area when you aren’t able to supervise. Other comfort items you may want to consider include extra blankets and toys, orthopedic beds, and raised food and water bowls.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t caring for a puppy or kitten any longer, so your style of care and the way you interact with your pet will change. You can always talk to the team at Ambassador Animal Hospital for specific recommendations about how to care for your senior dog or cat.