If we’re lucky, all of us pet parents will have senior pets someday.
Whether we adopt an adult or mature pet, or we give a little bundle of fur a Forever Home, most of us will find ourselves wondering about senior pet care at one point or another. And while it’s no secret that caring for a senior pet can be a little more work, the reward of having your furry family member cheerfully by your side as you both sprout a few grey hairs, is priceless.
Of course we recommend talking to your vet about your aging pet’s needs — the role your vet plays in your pet’s life will become more and more important as your pet transitions into his or her senior and geriatric life stages (so it’s worth finding a vet you trust while your pet is young). But to give you an idea of what to expect as your pet ages, here are some tips for keeping a senior pet happy and healthy.
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Is my pet a senior yet?
It’s hard to say exactly when a dog or cat becomes a senior.
Depending on your pet’s breed and size, your pet could be considered a senior as early as 6 years-old or as late as 11. Very large dogs like Great Danes tend to have shorter lifespans, so unfortunately their senior years set in earlier. Whereas smaller to medium sized dogs generally start displaying senior behavior at around 7 to 10 years of age.
Generally speaking, cats are considered to be seniors at age 10 or 11, but again, depending on their breed, senior behavior and needs may set in earlier. Most cats and dogs are considered geriatric by the time they are 15 years-old.
Once your pet starts getting older, keep an eye out for any health or behavioral changes. These can be the first signs that your pet may need some senior care.
And be sure to stay up-to-date on your pet’s vet check-ups! Your pet may seem like a spry young thing on the outside, but sometimes age-related, internal problems can start to develop without any outward signs. Many diseases or medical issues can be treated, or their progression slowed, if they are caught earlier. Waiting until your dog or cat (cats are especially adept at hiding pain) shows serious discomfort could be too late.
Behavioral and Wellness Changes
Any changes to your pet’s normal behavior should be noted and taken seriously. But there are some behaviors and physical signs that indicate that your dog or cat might need to transition to senior care. Here are some changes to look out for:
Change in energy. Your dog or cat may still enjoy a walk or a play session, but perhaps you notice that they lose steam or interest faster? Maybe they are sleeping more? Maybe they lounge around more instead of begging you to play with them?
Change in mobility. As pets age, they may start to develop joint issues, arthritis, or dysplasia, among other issues. If so, such issues maybe characterized by some of the following:
Is it harder for your pet to go up or down stairs?
Is it harder for them to go from lying down to standing?
Does your pet have a harder time getting comfortable when lying down? Constantly shifting?
Has your cat stopped leaping to their favorite high-up perch? Started “missing” their landing zone or scrambling to pull their back legs up?
Is your dog less enthusiastic to run after that ball, opting to trot or amble instead?
Is your pet just moving slower? Stiffer? With a limp?
They seem clumsier or less physically responsive. Maybe your formerly agile cat or nimble dog is suddenly bumping into things or tripping over objects. Perhaps they don’t come when you call them, or are easily startled when approached. These could be signs that your pet’s vision or hearing are diminishing.
Weight loss/gain. Is your pet’s diet unchanged, yet they seem to be inexplicably losing weight? (Young or old, this should always be taken seriously!) Is your pet suddenly looking chubbier than usual despite no diet changes? Both of these could indicate that your pet’s aging body needs different nutrition. An older pet might suffer from absorption problems due to a variety of medical issues and should definitelybe checked out by a vet. Alternately, a senior pet may be eating the same amount as he or she did in her youth, but due to being less active, they start to put on weight.
Elimination changes. Is your dog or cat peeing more often? Less often? Having accidents? Straining when either urinating or defecating? Showing signs of constipation (trying to go but cannot, even whimpering or meowing in distress when trying to go)? While any of these things can occur in younger animals, they tend to be more common in senior pets. Such symptoms might indicate kidney or bladder issue — immediately contact your vet.
Bad breath or tooth loss. Your dog or cat’s mouth is a great indicator for how the rest of them is doing. Does your pet suddenly have foul breath? Have they suddenly lost a tooth? Do they have bloody or inflamed gums? Drooling excessively? Difficulty chewing or keeping food in their mouth? These issues could indicate a more serious underlying problem, or could be a good wake-up call to improve your pet’s dental care. As pets age and other medical issues arise, an unhealthy mouth could put a compromised immune system at further risk or make eating difficult. (Maintaining a senior pet’s appetite can become trying as certain chronic diseases progress; no need to create further hurdles.)
Confusion, mental changes. Some older pets will become confused or disoriented at times. Disorientation/confusion may occur at certain times of the day or night — especially night, after dark, very late — and can exhibit as yowling, pacing, or excessive meowing in cats, or whining and pacing, staring into space or at walls, and irritability or generally anxious behavior in dogs. Some animals will wake in the middle of the night, not sure of where they are (due to decreased mental function and/or eyesight loss) and express panic through barking, howling, loud meowing, and/or pacing around the home. Your pet could be suffering from dementia, and might benefit from a lifestyle change as well as medication.
What can I do?
Above all, know your pet. Small physical or behavioral changes might seem inconsequential in the moment, but acting upon them might mean the difference between a slow, comfortable aging process and a sudden, distressing decline in health.
Here are some simple things you can do to care for your senior pet.
Visit your vet regularly.
Senior pets should see their vet at least twice a year, more if they have conditions that need monitoring.
As your pet closes in his or her senior years or starts exhibiting senior behavior, that’s when it’s time to make vet visits a major priority. As stated earlier, your pet may not be exhibiting any symptoms, but conditions like an enlarged heart or kidney disease may be ticking time bombs that if not treated while in the early stages could, frankly, lead to a very painful demise for your pet. Catching some conditions early could make a huge difference in the well-being of your pet.
And don’t forget that seeing your vet regularly includes dental care! Work with your vet on the best ways to care for your aging pet’s mouth, be it deep cleanings under anesthesia, anesthesia free cleanings by trained professionals, home brushing, chews, or food/water additives.
Having a consistent, open, and honest relationship with a trusted vet may be the best thing you can do for your senior pet.
(And follow their directions! Second opinions from licensed vets are great, and can be very helpful, but don’t scrimp on medication or nutrition recommendations just because you disagree with them. A good vet will hear your concerns and either work with you, or further explain them to your satisfaction.)
Consider your pet’s diet
The food that previously provided optimal nutrition for your pet’s younger body, may not be the right food for your pet’s older body.
If your pet is having trouble keeping weight on, you may want to consider a food that is higher in calories and is more easily digested and absorbed. If due to an underlying condition, your pet’s appetite has diminished, you may also want to consider a food that is highly palatable and might be designed to stimulate appetite.
Inversely, if your pet is getting too heavy — a condition that can put too much stress on their aging joints — then you may want to consider cutting back on their food or switching to a lower calorie diet.
Both of these conditions can be aided by feeding food that is considered appropriate for senior cats or dogs (ask your pet supply store, or read the ingredient label on your pet’s food for AAFCO life stage approvals).
However, there is more to feeding your senior pet than just picking up a food that says “Senior” on it. Various medical issues can call for modified diets that might require a little more thought and/or research. Talking to your vet or even a pet nutrition specialist (in tandem with your vet) could be vital in determining a diet that will best preserve your pet’s health. Knowing which ingredients or nutritional percentages might exacerbate or assuage a medical issue could become extremely important.
We always recommend checking with your vet before adding any supplements into your pet’s diet — especially with a senior pet who may or may not be on medication. But if your vet gives you the green light, there are a number of supplementations that can improve your senior pet’s quality of life.
Glucosamine and chondroitin can be great joint supplements for your dog or cat. Essentially, glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance that lubricates your dog and cat’s joints. Chondroitin is a component of connective tissue found in cartilage and bone; it enhances shock-absorbing characteristics of collagen and helps to stop the break-down of cartilage. When used together, glucosamine and chondroitin can significantly improve mobility and joint pain, as well as slow or reverse cartilage loss.
Glucosamine and chondroitin can be found in powder, capsule, or pill form, or even in treats. Talk to your vet about the dosage that is right for your cat or dog.
Essential fatty acids/omegas can be an important part of even a young cat or dog’s diet, but they can be especially beneficial to aging cats and dogs. Good fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can not only help increase your senior pet’s energy levels, but can also fight inflammation (which can worsen joint pain) and preserve mental acuity. Omegas can also help to protect the health of your pet’s nerves, heart, immune system, and kidney/liver among other vital systems.
The most biologically viable source of omega-3s and omega-6s are from fish oil. Most fish oil supplements can be found in liquid or capsule form. There are lots of omegas on the market now, but purity, source, and manufacturing methods should be of the utmost importance when selecting a supplement.
Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that help maintain the intestinal and digestive health of your pet. Without the good bacteria in your pet’s large and small intestine, “bad bacteria” can over proliferate causing your pet to suffer from malabsorption, diarrhea, immune system issues, and yeast problems among others. Bad bacteria can take over your pet’s gut after a bout of diarrhea or a course of antibiotics. Probiotics help regulate your pet’s digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as help with energy and immune response. (If your pet is on antibiotics, talk to your vet about putting them on a probiotic after treatment.)
Probiotics can be found in capsules, powder supplements, and treats. Be sure that you only give your pet probiotics made for pets, as probiotics for humans may include extra ingredients that are harmful to cats or dogs.
Tips for creating a senior pet-friendly home and routine
If your dog or cat is suffering from mobility issues, consider making your home more accessible to them. If they are used to sleeping in bed with you, but can no longer easily jump up, consider placing a ramp or some steps by your bed so they can climb up with ease. Consider where the high traffic areas for your pet are, and if such spots could benefit from a ramp or steps. For example, if your dog would have to go down steps to go for a walk everyday, maybe a ramp would be a good idea?
A therapeutic bed or mat may greatly help your pet’s daily comfort. Some pets really benefit from a heated bed to soothe achey joints, especially in colder climates, while a cooling mat in hot climates can provide relief for a pet that is not very mobile. Even just a good, cushy pet bed can make a huge difference for your old pet’s body.
Is your pet losing coordination or leg strength? Be sure to pad sharp corners they may bump into, or clear pathways for them to get to their food, bed, front door, etc. If you have slippery floors, you may consider putting down anti-slip mats or carpet, or even getting an older dog some socks or booties with grips on the bottom.
Try to make activity a part of your senior pet’s daily life. Whether it’s walking your dog or playing with your cat, the activity is not only good for their body, but also stimulates their mind and reinforces the bond they have with you. As pets age, and their minds get foggier, having a strong bond with their human can give them a lot of comfort.
Part of that bond can also be solidified by grooming. Sometimes older pets, especially cats, cannot properly groom themselves leading to discomfort or depression. Be sure to help your senior pet keep themselves clean — brush them, make sure they are clean after they “use the bathroom” or eat, that their claws are clipped — it will not only make them feel loved, but also keep them physically and mentally well.
Some senior pets may need to have their feeding schedule altered. As dogs and cats age, they may not be able to eat as much in one sitting. Therefore, in order for them to get all the nutrition necessary, you may need to feed them several smaller meals a day. This feeding schedule may also be necessary to accommodate a schedule of medication.
As your pet ages or their health declines they may lose control of their bowels or bladders. Placing pee pads strategically around the house can help, as well as frequent visits outside. For cats, having a few easily accessible (and regularly cleaned) litter boxes can cut down on accidents. Diapers or “panties” from your local pet supplier are also a great option for older pets who just can’t hold it.
More than anything, enjoy every moment you have with your senior pet. Behind that white muzzle and those creakier joints still beats the heart of your fur baby.
With thoughtful care and diligence, your pet’s senior years can indeed be golden.
Hooray for senior pets!
~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger
Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet or lifestyle. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.
Featured image via Flickr/Creative Commons License