How to Care for Senior Pets
A fact of life we must all accept is that our pets are going to grow old. But acceptance does not mean letting the senior years weigh down our four-legged friends. By providing proper care to our aging pets, we can make this transition to senior citizenship a graceful and pain-free process. Regular wellness examinations, proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and appropriate medication to help control the common ailments of aging will provide the optimal conditions for our pets to flourish well into their golden years.
Due to advances in veterinary care and pet nutrition and a stronger focus on pet owner education, our pets are living longer than ever before. In the United States, the number of pets older than 10 years of age has increased over the past decade. As our pets age, they experience gradual changes that are similar to those of aging people: Their fur turns grey; their bodies are not as flexible and their reflexes are not as sharp as they once were; their hearing, eyesight, and sense of smell may deteriorate; illness seems to occur more frequently; and energy levels and attention spans seem to diminish. In fact, the first sign of aging you may notice is often a general decrease in activity, combined with a tendency to sleep longer and more soundly.
VISITING YOUR VETERINARIAN
Optimal healthcare can add years to the life of your pet as well as substantially decrease your cost of treating medical problems associated with aging. Because our pets age at least five to seven times faster than we do, senior pets especially need regular examinations. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommend that healthy senior pets visit their veterinarian every six months for complete physical examinations and laboratory testing. This should be considered a minimum! As part of their survival instinct, pets hide signs of disease, so regular examinations are essential to prevent a health catastrophe.
During each visit to your veterinarian for a specific health concern, he or she will likely perform a complete nose to tail examination of your older pet. At least once yearly, a visit should also cover early disease detection, including a physical examination, blood screening, a urinalysis, and a fecal exam. If these tests are normal, they provide an important baseline in the event that the results change later in life. It is important to know what is “normal” for your pet. If any test result is abnormal, additional tests may be required.
In my animal hospital, I am commonly asked if these regular blood tests are necessary and important. Remember, our pets age much more rapidly than we do. With this in mind, a pet receiving an early detection blood panel on a yearly basis would be the same as us receiving blood testing every five to seven years during our golden years. This interval is not often enough and indeed can lead to missed opportunities to prevent a potentially life-threatening disease.
Another test that is important especially for older dogs and cats is thyroid blood testing. Dogs with thyroid disease tend to be obese and lack energy (they sleep a lot) and may have a poor quality haircoat. Cats with thyroid disease tend to have unkempt coats, diarrhea, and weight loss despite a good appetite. If caught early, these conditions can be easily controlled, which can lead to a longer life for our four-legged friends.
Finally, if your pet is on routine or daily medication (such as for arthritis, thyroid disease, or seizures), regular blood testing is crucial. Regular testing will ensure that the dosage remains appropriate and that the medications are not causing problems with your pet’s health. This is essential, as most of the medications we use today have to be eliminated from the body through the kidneys or liver. With proper diligence, these medications can help keep your pet healthy and on course for living to a ripe old age.
As our pets age, their nutritional needs change. Alterations in the senses of taste and smell may adversely affect appetite. Changes in exercise and other activity affect the body’s nutritional requirements. Obesity is a top concern for our older pets, as this can make heart disease and arthritis worse. Diets that were perfect in our pets’ earlier years are not appropriate for seniors.
Switching to a senior pet food can help promote a long, healthy life by providing enhanced levels of nutrients, such as vitamins, antioxidants, and fatty acids, that are important to skin and mental health. Senior diets are also typically lower in fat and provide a better quality protein. Most older pets need a diet that has reduced calories and protein and increased fiber and vitamins. Most commercially available senior diets have protein levels around 18% and fiber levels of 3% to 5%. Remember that these recommendations are for healthy older pets. Your veterinarian may recommend a special diet if your pet’s health requires it.
Fortunately, pet food manufacturers have developed prescription-type diets that can help manage many of the health conditions of our senior pets. Conditions such as arthritis, cancer, and heart, kidney, and liver disease can be treated with diets that have been formulated to help extend your pet’s life. Ask your veterinarian for further information.
How you feed your pet is also important. Rather than leave food out all the time, feed your senior pet at specific times during the day, preferably in the morning and again in the evening. Many older pets may do better with more frequent, smaller meals. In addition, by feeding set meals, you can better monitor your pet’s food intake. Be sure to measure the amount of food you give your pet so that you know if your pet’s appetite is slowly decreasing (or increasing).
Pet food manufacturers have developed prescription-type diets that can help manage many of the health conditions of our senior pets.
Another way to help our pets maintain proper weight and muscle strength is through regular exercise. Routinely exercising helps our pets maintain proper muscle tone, which in turn helps strengthen joints and lessen the impact of arthritis.
As our pets age, more frequent, shorter periods of exercise will be less stressful on aging joints and more beneficial than one long exercise period each day. Sessions should include a slow warm-up walk of approximately 5 minutes, gradually increasing in pace; exercise of 20 to 30 minutes; and a cool-down of approximately 5 minutes, gradually decreasing the intensity of activity.
Keep in mind that exercise is as essential to your senior pet as are proper nutrition and healthcare. For many senior pets, this exercise is necessary and beneficial for their well-being, especially as they age. Each pet’s exercise requirements differ, however, so ask your veterinarian for an individualized exercise regimen.
KEEPING PAIN AWAY
Lastly, recognizing and relieving any pain and discomfort that occurs due to the wear and tear caused by aging is crucial. The aging process brings many changes that can negatively affect a pet’s ability to take part in normal daily activities.
Not only does pain hurt, but it can further debilitate older pets, potentially resulting in other problems. Signs of pain include reluctance to jump, panting (even though your pet is rested and cool), loss of appetite, reduced activity, and behavioral changes (ranging from depression to aggression). In addition, elimination problems may occur in senior cats as getting into the litterbox becomes more difficult.
Minimizing discomfort in our older pets can increase the length and quality of their lives! Consult with your veterinarian about how to keep your pet pain free and which pain medication is best for your pet.
A BRIGHT OUTLOOK
Thankfully, many of the diseases and conditions that accompany aging can be controlled or even reversed if caught early. It is critical to work with your veterinarian to tailor a senior care plan that is best for your aging pet. By being vigilant and providing regular examinations, proper diet, and exercise, you give your pet an excellent chance to grow old gracefully beside you!
What to Watch For
Our senior pets need wellness examinations at least every six months. However, call your veterinarian right away if you notice any of the following:
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Constipation or trouble passing urine
- Excessive panting
- Excessive weight loss or weight gain
- Foul mouth odor or drooling
- Hair loss
- Inability to chew dry food
- Increasing inactivity or amount of time spent sleeping
- Lameness that lasts more than three days or lameness in more than one leg
- New lumps, sores, or multiple scabs on the skin
- Noticeable decrease in vision, especially if sudden in onset
- Persistent coughing or gagging
- Repeated vomiting or diarrhea
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite
- Sudden collapse or bout of weakness
- Sudden loss of housetraining
- Sustained increase in urination frequency or amount (wetter litterbox)
- Sustained increase in water consumption
When Is My Pet a Senior?
Most cats and dogs are considered to be seniors starting as early as 7 years of age. (For large-breed dogs, senior status starts at age 5.) However, these are general rules. Ask your veterinarian at what age your pet will need extra attention and more frequent examinations.
Early Detection Is Key
The major health concerns that affect older pets can be controlled and treated if they are caught early enough. These concerns include:
- Dental disease
- Heart disease
- Hormonal disorders such as thyroid disease and diabetes
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Neoplasia or cancer