Caring for Your Senior Pet

Senior PetsDogs and cats in their senior years may have slowed down a bit, but they are no less important members of our families. However, changes to their bodies occur rapidly and they become more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, arthritis, dental disease, diabetes, and heart disease.

This is why we recommend twice-yearly geriatric exams tailored to your pet's age, breed and condition. A geriatric exam is more extensive than a simple checkup and includes a complete physical exam, oral and rectal examinations and recording of body weight and body condition. Your veterinarian also examines your pet’s ears, eyes, and internal organs. Laboratory work should also be done, including a complete blood count, urinalysis, fecal exam, biochemistry profile, thyroid hormone screening, and when indicated, imaging with radiographs or ultrasound.

The following information is designed to help you be a better care giver to your older pet and understand why we recommend additional exams and testing.

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At What Age Is My Pet A Senior?

Caring for Your Senior PetThe aging process varies between species and specific breeds as well as individual animals. For example, a giant breed dog might be a senior at five years of age and a toy breed not until years later. Most cats become seniors slightly later than dogs, between their eight and tenth year. Owners should start to consider age-related issues at 6-8 years in dogs, and 10 years in cats.

Click here for The Aging Rate of Dogs

Click here to see Your Cat’s Age in Human Years

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Identifying Aging in Your Pet

Caring for Your Senior PetAs dogs and cats grow older, their organs may become less efficient and they may be less able to resist infections and other diseases. As a responsible pet owner, you want your pet to remain healthy and active for as long as possible so you should be aware of any age-related warning signs that you should bring to your veterinarian’s attention.

Signs of Aging in Your Dog

As a rule-of-thumb, you should start looking for the signs of aging in your dog at about seven years of age. These signs include:

  • Your dog’s coat and the area around his muzzle begin to turn gray. Because your pet is getting older, it is important to know that skin problems may occur more often since the skin may be thinner, less elastic, and does not repair itself as quickly.
  • Your senior dog begins to slow down, has less energy and has trouble getting up or limping.
  • Longer and more frequent naps are common side effects of aging
  • A change in habits, including play preferences and eating or drinking habits is commonly observed in older dogs.
  • Weight changes are common in older dogs. Some dogs gain weight as they age while others lose weight.
  • Dental problems that translate as bad breath are more likely to appear in older pets.
  • Hearing, vision and other senses become less acute when dogs get older.

Signs of Aging in Your Cat

  • Because older cats are often less active, their muscle tone tends to reduce, which may further reduce their ability to run, jump and climb. Lack of exercise contributes to the stiffening of joints.
  • Frequently older cats suffer from a poor appetite as the senses of taste and smell often deteriorate with age. Teeth problems are common and can discourage eating.
  • Bowel function may deteriorate with age, causing problems such as reduced ability to absorb food nutrients. This can lead to weight loss. Some elderly cats suffer from constipation.
  • Elderly cats have decreased thirst and they are at risk of becoming dehydrated. This is particularly dangerous in cats with kidney problems.
  • Older cats tend to sleep less heavily but more frequently.
  • Old cats often have poor coats that may make them less resistant to the cold and wet.

Don’t Mistake Signs of Illness with Signs of Aging

Signs of illness include:

  • Increased water consumption
  • Increased urine production
  • Changes in appetite
  • Behavior changes (more or less sleep than usual, crying out, irritation, and lethargy)
  • Constipation
  • House training failure in a previously trained pet
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Marked increase or decrease in weight
  • Bad breath
  • Open sores or lumps/bumps anywhere on the body
  • Onset of persistent coughing or changes in breathing patterns

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Protecting Your Senior Pet’s Good Health

Protecting Your Senior Pet’s Good HealthDeer Park Animal Hospital recommends that your senior pet be seen by your veterinarian every six months. During this examination, changes in your pet’s appearance and behavior are noted. These exams also provide you with a great opportunity to tell your veterinarian if you have noticed your pet refusing food, acting reluctant to go outside, appears to be in pain or has a problem urinating or defecating. In many instances these issues can signal the presence of underlying health problems.

It is also important for owners of senior pets to know that as their pet ages he or she may develop joint pain and stiffness. These can merely be signs of aging or indicate the presence of arthritis. In either event, your pet likely will become less active, his energy level may decrease, and she may tire more easily. It is still important to ensure your pet exercises, even with arthritis, but you will likely need to adjust your pet’s diet to prevent weight gain.

Older pets are also more susceptible to diseases of the heart and lungs. Signs such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and weakness can be symptoms associated with heart and lung problems. If these symptoms are present, a veterinary examination is strongly recommended.

Ear infections are not uncommon, especially in older dogs. Signs of an ear infection include persistent head shaking, rubbing/pawing of the ears and observing a discharge from one or both ears.

Hearing, sight and smell can all become less acute with age and you may need to make allowances for these changes. For instance, your dog may not obey you or may not respond to his name simply because he does not hear the command. Watch for signs of impaired sight such as bumping into furniture. Eye infections, cataracts, decreased night vision, or even blindness can also occur. However, your veterinarian can help you distinguish the difference between the normal aging process and the hazy, whitish growth of cataracts that can lead to blindness.

Tooth and gum disease are also more prevalent in older pets. If your pet has sore gums or loose teeth, he may be reluctant to eat or it may cause food to drop out of her mouth. Gum disease not only leads to loss of teeth, but can also cause heart and kidney infections if bacteria enter the bloodstream through the inflamed gums. Examine your pet's mouth regularly and ask your veterinarian for advice if the teeth or gums do not look healthy.

Urinary incontinence and inappropriate urination are problems that frequently occur in elderly pets. Urinary incontinence is often associated with hormonal imbalance in spayed females or a disorder of the nervous system that controls bladder function. Aside from these conditions, inappropriate urination may also be the result of a urinary tract disorder, prostate problem or other body malfunction. Consult your veterinarian if your pet suddenly becomes incontinent or begins to urinate more frequently.

As your pet ages, his behavior may change significantly. You might interpret this as simple aging, but it actually might be due to a treatable geriatric disease, such as cognitive dysfunction. Some typical signs include confusion, disorientation, decreased activity, changes in the sleep/wake cycle, loss of housetraining, or signs that suggests a decrease in your dog's interest in or ability to interact with his environment or with you. Your veterinarian can prescribe medication for cognitive dysfunction.

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Maintaining Proper Nutrition


Proper Nutrition Extra body weight can cause or worsen many health problems. Older less active pets often gain too much weight and should be fed a calorie-controlled diet. Some older pets just need more exercise. Pets that are too thin may have underlying medical problems. Maintaining proper weight is important for the medical wellbeing of your senior pet. If your pet is too lean or too heavy, make an appointment to see your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may perform tests to determine if an underlying condition is causing your pet’s weight problem.

Reduced Appetites

Elderly pets sometimes have poor appetites and may need to be tempted to eat. The following tips may be helpful in enticing your pet to eat:

  • Feed small frequent meals, dividing the daily food allowance into two to four small meals. Warm the food gently, to just below body temperature. Leave the food down for about 10 to 15 minutes and then remove it.
  • Your pet is more likely to eat fresh food.
  • Make sure your pet has a quiet, undisturbed place to eat his meals.

Kidney Changes

Excessive thirst and frequent or uncontrolled urination are often signs of kidney problems or diabetes. Since the kidneys process and eliminate body waste products into the urine, it is important that these organs remain healthy. If your pet’s kidneys are not functioning properly, your veterinarian may recommend a diet specially designed for kidney problems. These diets contain a low phosphorus level to slow down the progression of the disease and a lower protein level to reduce the buildup of harmful waste products in the blood.

Nutritional Supplements

Under certain circumstances the vitamin and mineral needs of elderly pets may be different from those of younger animals. Some of the special senior diets have mineral and vitamin content carefully adjusted to help provide the appropriate balance for elderly pets that have failing kidney or heart function. Your veterinarian may also recommend a supplement to help support your senior pet’s nutritional needs. Commonly used supplements include glucosamine/chondroitin for joint health, omega fatty acids to reduce inflamation and anti-oxidants.

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Tips for Being a Good Friend to Your Senior Pet

Being a Good Friend to Your Senior PetThe way you care for your pet as he or she matures can help control some of the health problems associated with advancing years. Here are some tips to keep in mind in caring for your older pet:

General Care for Your Older Cat

Make any changes in your cat’s environment gradually – Your cat has habits and hangouts. Sudden changes can cause undue stress.

Keep your cat comfortable – Your cat’s bed should be in a dry, draft-free area. Since an older cat is more sensitive to temperature changes, don't leave him outside for long periods of time in cold weather. Dry your cat thoroughly after exposure to rain or snow. In hot and humid weather, use air conditioning to help keep your cat cool.

Provide regular grooming – Grooming helps remove dead hair and helps prevent hairballs that may cause vomiting or intestinal impaction. Grooming also gives you a chance to inspect your cat for parasites, skin disorders and unusual lumps or lesions that call for a visit to your veterinarian.

Encourage moderate exercise – Though older cats tend to rest more, it’s helpful to play, stroke, talk and cuddle with them.

Keep your cat’s litter box clean and in the same place – Older cats may sometimes forget a lifetime of litter-box training due to disorientation or loss of balance. Litter box mishaps also may indicate a health problem and require you to contact your veterinarian.

Keep your cat’s surroundings familiar and try to make as few changes as possible – This helps compensate for reduced hearing, eyesight and smell. As a cat gets older, the recovery period from stressful conditions, such as illness and exposure, take longer.

Observe your cat for changes in behavior, eating habits or other signs of illness – Prompt diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian is recommended. When detected early, many conditions can be stabilized, and some degenerative processes can be slowed, enabling an aging cat to lead a more comfortable life.

General Care for Your Older Dog

There are some specific things you can do to make your older dog’s life more comfortable:

See your veterinarian more often – It is more important than ever that your dog receive total health care from your veterinarian. Ask your veterinarian about special geriatric screenings and procedures for your dog.

Give your dog more exercise – The exercise that you provide may be slower, but walks and play keep your dog in better shape, both mentally and physically.

Don’t let your older dog pack on the pounds – Obesity can lead to serious health problems. Control his diet and make sure she exercises regularly.

Continue to groom your dog and care for his teeth – Brush and clean his coat to keep it at its softest and healthiest.

In general, older dogs do not like change – Don’t move his bed, shift his routine, or force him to adjust to too many new situations.

Keep your dog’s environment as comfortable as possible – A soft, warm place to sleep and protection from the elements are recommended to keep your dog happiest and healthiest.

Show extra patience and spend extra time with your senior dog – Things may take longer and may be more challenging. Make an effort to provide the extra emotional support your dog needs by spending as much time with him as you can.

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