How to Help Your Pet Age Gracefully
The majority of dog breeds have reached their golden years by 7 to 10 years old with large and giant breeds becoming seniors earlier than small breed dogs. Cats are typically considered seniors around 10 years of age. Many dogs will experience some graying of the coat (especially around the muzzle or face) as they age but there are many, more subtle signs of aging to watch for. Some owners will report diminished hearing in their geriatric dogs and cats. Often times older animals are noted sleeping more and tiring more easily when playing. These changes in activity tend to be very gradual in the healthy older dog or cat. Rapid changes in activity level, or excessive lethargy/sleepiness are often indicators of health problems and a visit to your veterinary is strongly recommended if this is noted at home.
Other aging changes to watch closely for include excessive thirst, unexpected weight loss or gain, large changes in activity level or ability, and any signs of pain or discomfort. I recommend regularly evaluating your pets ears and mouth for odor or debris, feeling the belly for tenseness, pain, or bloating/distention, running your hands through the coat to feel for masses or lumps, and to screen for any eye or nasal discharge. Additionally, monitor your pet’s activity level and abilities on a daily basis. For example, if you start to notice hesitation, difficulty or reluctance to sit down, climb stairs, get in or out of the car, go for walks, changes in how they are posturing to urinate or defecate, or with a cat, difficulty or inability to get into or out of the litter box, these may all be indicators of pain and possible underlying arthritis, back problems (e.g. disc disease), or even cancer. If any of these changes in odor, activity, etc. are noted at home we strongly recommend a visit to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Many of the problems that our senior pets face can be managed and/or resolved more easily early in the course of disease, making early diagnosis very important.
Additionally, we recommend regular senior wellness exams, every 6 months ideally. Annual blood work, fecal examination when indicated, and urinalysis can allow for early detection of diseases. Many diseases can be managed and progression prevented by early detection and medical treatments. For example, cats may appear healthy and happy for a long period of time early in the course of kidney failure but kidney problems can be detected during this time by regular bloodwork monitoring in the older cat. If caught early kidney disease progression can be slowed or prevented keeping your cat healthy and happy at home. Once a cat is clinically sick from kidney disease it has progressed to a point where treatment is more challenging, more expensive, and the cat’s quality of life may be affected long term or altered due to the condition.
Finally, it is important to consider your aging pets changing dietary and exercise/comfort needs. We recommend feeding a complete and balanced, high quality diet specifically formulated for geriatric or senior pets. Some pets will require a specialty or prescription diet due to other concurrent illness, so we advise following your veterinarians dietary recommendations in these cases. Additionally, older dogs can have more difficulty effectively maintaining their body temperature, so keeping them comfortably warm (not hot) and dry is important. Arthritic dogs may benefit from ramps to get up steps and extra padding where they sleep and arthritic cats may require litter boxes with lower sides for easy access. If your older dog or cat is losing sight or hearing, removing obstacles and avoiding unnecessary movement of furniture, food/water dishes, etc. can help to reduce anxiety and maintain mobility and comfort in the home. If at any time you notice any unusual symptoms or evidence of pain/discomfort we strongly recommend an exam with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Ultimately, with you and your veterinarians tender loving care, support, and guidance we can keep your aging pet comfortable, happy, and healthy into their golden years.