Seventeen years ago, Cleo joined Jodi Adrian’s family in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and soon grew into a 20-pound tuxedo cat. “When I was pregnant and my son gave a kick, Cleo instantly lifted a paw and touched back,” she says. “They played like that for a long time. I’ll never forget that.”
Anne Culbreath Watkins of Vinemont, Alabama, had just left an abusive marriage when her brother gave her a little mixed-breed pup. “Taffy licked my face every time I cried,” says Watkins. “When I finally met someone new, I decided if Taffy didn’t like him, he was history.” Taffy approved. “We’ve been married for almost 10 years now.”
Seventy percent of pet owners consider cats and dogs to be part of the family, and 40 percent of us have an animal aged 7 or older. Extra years together mean the bond we share becomes even stronger, even when our pet’s needs change over time.
Cats and dogs experience many of the same aging changes as people. “Taffy is 11, and her muzzle and eyebrows have turned white as she’s gotten older,” says Watkins. Gray hair won’t bother pets the way it does people, but other changes impact the way cats and dogs react to the world around them.
Joints and muscles become less flexible with age and bones become more brittle, says Dr. James L. Cook, an orthopedic specialist at the University of Missouri. Older pets tire more easily and become less active, and reduced exercise can mean extra pounds. When extra weight strains creaky joints, pets become even more reluctant to climb the stairs to reach the litterbox, for example. Obesity also predisposes cats and dogs to serious health problems such as diabetes.
Older dogs and cats may need more frequent bathroom breaks. Sometimes they have less capacity to “hold it,” and other times pets have trouble remembering to ask to go out in a timely fashion, says Dr. Benjamin Hart, a professor of behavior at the University of California-Davis.
It’s also common for pet senses to dim. Deaf cats and dogs startle easily when touched or can be unresponsive when called. Failing vision leaves pets nervous or fearful in unfamiliar territory. Fading scent and taste sense can prompt pets to snub even their favorite foods. Proper nutrition that supports their bodies’ changing needs is particularly important in older pets because they have fewer physical reserves than youthful cats and dogs.
Other aging changes, such as how well particular organs work, are only detectible with specialized veterinary tests. Aged pets become sick more quickly and take longer to recover—and they age about seven times faster than people do. Dr. Johnny Hoskins, a specialist in geriatric veterinary medicine, recommends twice yearly “wellness exams” to catch potential medical problems early so they can be properly managed.
A pet’s emotional health is also important to his quality of life. Recognizing your pet’s changing needs will keep him comfortable and happy during his golden years.
As pets age, many of their favorite pastimes become difficult or impossible to enjoy. “My primary goal is to improve quality of life, and if that leads to quantity of life, that’s tremendous,” says Dr. Steven L. Marks, a veterinary internist at Louisiana State University.
There are many simple, inexpensive ways to ensure your pet continues to enjoy life with you. What if arthritis makes leaps painful? “Cleo can jump to his favorite windowsill but it takes him a long time to get up there,” says Adrian, “so I move boxes or chairs close to these places.”
Stiff joints also make self-grooming painful. Brushing feels like a massage to your pet and doubles as a home health exam for you to check for any lumps that need veterinary attention.
Gentle exercise lubricates the joints and keeps arthritic pets more flexible. If your dog adores playing fetch, indulge him. Keep the toy near the ground so he won’t have to jump. Entice cats to move with a fishing-pole toy. Treat your competition dog by going through some obedience drills so he still feels like a winner. Take your dog for a long walk for the pure joy of being together. Allow your pet to continue to participate in the things he loves most.
Pay attention to what your dog or cat can do and offer creative ways to make the most of these abilities. For instance, use hand signals when deaf dogs and cats can no longer hear your voice. Teach them that the porch light turned on and off means “dinner time” so they will come to the door.
Pet-proof your home for comfort and safety. Blind pets rely on memory, so avoid re-arranging the furniture, suggests Dr. Harriet Davidson, an ophthalmologist at the University of Illinois. Place baby gates to prevent tumbles down stairs and announce your presence when you enter a room to avoid startling the pet.
Add extra litterboxes so your cat won’t have to hurry across the house to find relief. Shallower boxes allow arthritic cats to climb in and out more easily. Schedule extra bathroom breaks for the dog, too, perhaps coming home from work at lunch to accommodate his needs or adding a pet door for convenience.
Older female dogs often have urinary accidents, particularly while asleep, due to loss of muscle tone that controls the bladder. Pick up her water bowl two hours before bedtime and take her out before you go to bed. Reduce cleanup by confining her to linoleum areas, or protect carpet with sheets of plastic lined with absorbent undergarments to catch any accidents.
“Taffy doesn’t want to eat crunchy dog food any more. I think it hurts her teeth,” says Watkins. Aging pets often prefer softer foods. Warming up food in the microwave increases the scent and can stimulate flagging appetites. You can also add warm water to dry kibble and run it in the blender for a familiar-tasting but easy-to-eat meal.
NEW CHOICES IN VETERINARY CARE
Proper medical care also improves your pet’s quality of life. “Pets can have the same type of organ dysfunction as humans, so as the animal gets older, the likelihood of having some medical problems increases,” says Dr. Hoskins. Once age-related conditions are diagnosed, new medicines and therapeutic diets not only help your pet feel better but also can slow down the progression of disease. Arthritic dogs often benefit from medicinal therapies. There are fewer drug options for arthritic cats because they are more sensitive to pain medication. Only give pets the medicine specifically prescribed by your veterinarian.
Cancer is the number one cause of death in pets over age 10, but it is also very treatable. A range of available therapies keep cats and dogs feeling happy and well through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. “Of the chronic diseases that affect dogs and cats, cancer is the most curable,” says Dr. Steve Withrow, director of the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University. “Even when it’s not curable, we can alleviate pain and improve quality of life.”
NUTRITION, THE NEW MEDICINE
Today, therapeutic diets are available that relieve disease symptoms and, in some cases, cure them. Cats and dogs with kidney, heart, liver, intestinal, or other medical problems often lose their appetite. Several pet food companies make therapeutic diets, which are available from your veterinarian. If your pet snubs one brand, don’t hesitate to ask about trying another. Your pet must eat the food for it to help.
About 1 in 400 cats and 1 in 200 dogs develop diabetes around age 10. Diabetic pets do well on moderate fiber diets with controlled calories, which slims them down and more evenly distributes the energy they burn. Most diabetic pets also need insulin injections. In a percentage of cats, diabetes goes away altogether if they eat a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.
HELPING YOUR PET STAY YOUNG
Senility causes a percentage of geriatric pets to forget training, become anxious, fail to recognize familiar people or places, and develop personality changes. This is heartbreaking for owners when beloved pets no longer remember them. Ask your veterinarian about drug and diet therapies that are available to help reverse signs of canine senility and preserve the loving relationship you have shared over the years.
The good news is that enriching your pet’s environment and stimulating him mentally acts like a fountain of youth for the brain. Studies by Dr. Norton William Milgram at the University of Toronto proved that enrichment—puzzles, training games, and making the dog think—improved cognitive function. The same is true for cats. Working the brain improves the memory, says Dr. Kelly Moffat of the Mesa Veterinary Hospital in Mesa, Arizona.
People seek the same things for their pets as they do for themselves—to enjoy a healthy vigor, preserve a youthful outlook, age with grace, remain vital and connected to the world around them, and enjoy a high quality of life. “It’s been hard for me to accept the fact that my dear friend is getting old,” says Watkins. “I try to do what I can to make her as comfortable and as happy as possible. After all she has done for me, I owe her that much!”
COMMON AGE-RELATED CONCERNS
- Arthritis (of particular concern in large-breed dogs)
- Cancer (mammary cancer, skin cancer, and lymphoma are most common)
- Liver disease
- Pancreatitis (recently recognized in older cats, often with liver or inflammatory bowel disorders)
- Heart disease (valvular heart disease is most common in dogs)
- Kidney disease (the number one problem in older cats)
- Thyroid problems
- Cognitive disorders (senility)
- Sensory dysfunction (hearing loss, blindness)
- Urinary incontinence (mostly a problem of spayed older dogs)
HOME HEALTH REPORT CARD
You are a partner with your veterinarian in your pet’s good health. Create your own home health record and take it with you to each wellness exam. Start with a baseline of normal behaviors and body functions. Then once every 2 weeks (more often if your pet is ill), update your list with current information to track any changes. Use these examples to get you started:
- Favorite activity (loves playing fetch, or being groomed?)
- Vocabulary (what words does she understand? “Food” or “outside?”)
- Personality/interactions (lap-sitter? Avoids other pets? Loves kids?)
- Sleep schedule (naps all day? Sleeps through the night?)
- Habits/routines (always wakes you at 6 a.m.?)
- Appetite (finicky or a glutton?)
- Weight loss/gain
- Water intake
- Elimination (amount, frequency of feces and urine)
- Skin, fur, claws
- Eyes, ears, nose (clean, no discharge, clear)
- Breathing (regular and easy, or strained? Bad breath?)
- Gait/movement (limps, races around, avoids stairs?)