Helping Pets Age Gracefully
We all want our beloved pets to live long, healthy lives. After all, most of us can’t imagine our days without Fido or Fluffy. But as our pets get older, they require special care. And more pets are requiring this care: According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 39% of the pet population is over 7 years of age, which is generally the age a pet is deemed senior. Here’s what you need to know about making your pet’s golden years great.
Your Pet’s Longevity
There are two main reasons cats and dogs are living longer. First, people think about their pets differently these days. Many pet owners consider their pets part of the family, and they’re more willing to invest the time, energy, and resources necessary to manage the common chronic infirmities associated with aging.
Next, the veterinary world has responded with healthcare advances that weren’t accessible or affordable just a decade ago. We now better understand the aging processes and age-related diseases, and we’re better positioned to help senior pets live longer, better lives. The choices available for older pets—from enhanced diets to superior diagnostic techniques to safer anesthesia and more—allow veterinarians to provide senior patients with the high-quality care you expect.
The Senior Life Stage
When is your pet considered senior? And what exactly does that term mean? Again, generally speaking, pets are considered senior at 7 years old. But how an animal ages and its longevity varies considerably between breeds and even siblings. Cats have a longer average lifespan than dogs, and small breed dogs tend to live longer than larger breeds. The average cat is considered a senior at 9 or 10 years of age. A small dog is considered senior at age 9, a medium-sized dog at age 7, and a giant breed dog at age 5.
Veterinarians refer to pets as senior when they enter the life stage that signals the onset of decline—in physical condition, organ functions, sensory functions, mental functions, and immune response. This is also the time frame when the risk of developing age-related health issues such as arthritis, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease, thyroid conditions, and diabetes begins. However, it’s important to remember that aging itself is not a specific disease. Rather, it’s a complex biological process influenced by your pet’s genetics, environmental factors, nutrition, lifestyle, and stress level that affects progressive, irreversible, degenerative changes on all body tissues.
Senior Pets’ Health
A complete veterinary examination is the best way to determine the exact life stage your pet is in. However, by becoming an astute observer and reporter, you can recognize the signs that your pet may be entering its senior phase of life—or that it’s suffering from an age-related disease.
As a pet owner, you play a key role in your cat or dog’s health—beyond providing the usual feeding, care, and love— and with a little training and coaching you can become an important member of your pet’s healthcare team. After all, you know your pet much better than its veterinarian ever could, and you have the distinct advantage of observing your pet in its home environment. Older pets are creatures of habit with predictable routines and behaviors, so change is the key word when it comes to the early detection of problems. Any changes in your senior pet’s habits, activity, behavior, weight, eating, or elimination patterns may be a signal that something serious is developing. And the earlier a problem is detected, the better the outcome.
Unfortunately, many signs of age-related health problems, including senility, urine leakage, and slow movements, are misinterpreted by pet owners as a normal part of aging. But dismissing these signs can result in a missed opportunity to help your pet.
The most common serious problems older dogs deal with include cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, crippling arthritis, and senility. In cats, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid disease top the list. It’s important to look for the early warning signs of these life-shortening diseases. Equally important is to report them—as soon as possible—to your veterinarian. Waiting until your pet’s next wellness examination may be too late.
Pets age much the same as we do, but at an accelerated rate. (For a comparison, see the chart above.) In order to offset this faster aging process and detect potentially serious age-related diseases and conditions at the earliest stages, most veterinarians recommend that healthy senior dogs and cats be examined every six months. Scheduling these regular wellness exams is one of the most important steps you can take to keep your senior pet healthy. Why? Because the earlier your pet’s health or behavioral problems are detected, the more options you and your veterinarian have to either cure them or slow their progression.
During these visits, your veterinarian will ask age-specific questions and perform an age-appropriate physical examination, looking for conditions common in older pets. To get a full assessment of your pet’s overall health, the doctor may also run tests including blood, urine, and thyroid diagnostic screening.
Finally another important component of these senior well-care visits is education. Your veterinarian will teach you important information about your senior pet’s health. For example, you might learn about preventive care such as dental cleanings and special foods, as well as ways to manage any health issues that do arise.
Caring for your senior pet also means making appropriate changes to its home environment. As the owner of an elderly pet, you should address two important household issues: safety and comfort. Older pets are less agile and nimble than they were in their youth, and they don’t always realize it. As a result, they’re more likely to fall down the stairs, out of a car window, out of the truck bed, or, if small enough, through balcony railings. An ounce of prevention here is worth a huge pound of cure. Therefore, it’s best to avoid putting older pets in potentially dangerous situations—even those situations that didn’t seem dangerous in years past.
Concerning comfort, there are several areas where you might want to take action. Older dogs and some cats often have difficulty jumping on or off furniture. Larger dogs often have difficulty getting in or out of cars. Whether the problem is arthritis, muscle weakness, or decreased vision, the easy solution is setting up a set of carpet-lined steps or a ramp. (For large dogs that are too heavy to lift in and out of the car, a properly positioned ramp works wonders for the dog—not to mention the owner’s back.) Commercial stairs and ramps can be obtained from most pet shops or pet supply catalogs. Ask your veterinarian for suggestions that will help your pet with its particular health challenges.
Senior pets are just starting their golden years. By giving them the special care and attention this life stage calls for, you can help ensure they’ll be healthy and happy for years to come.
Watch for These Signs of Illness
Even though older pets can’t talk, they will tell you when they’re not feeling well. How? By exhibiting certain signs of disease. If you notice any of the following, contact your veterinarian to discuss whether your senior pet should make a visit to the veterinary practice.
- Changes in weight (especially weight loss)
- Decreased appetite or lack of appetite
- Increased water consumption
- Changes in elimination patterns (urine or stool)
- New lumps or bumps or swellings—or changes in existing ones
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing or breathing heavily or rapidly at rest
- Sudden collapse or bout of weakness
- Difficulty climbing stairs or jumping
- Foul mouth odor or drooling
- Seizure, convulsion, or fit