By Terry Kaye
Great news for pet parents: Our dogs and cats are living longer than ever before. Just like people, pets have changing needs as they age. Here are some simple things you can do to help your senior pet stay healthy, happy, and vital.
While every animal is different, there are general guidelines to determine when they become "senior citizens." Cats are considered mature at 7 to 10 years, senior at 11 to 14 years, and geriatric at 15 or older.
Dogs, in general, may be called senior at seven years of age, but larger dogs age more quickly. A Great Dane is a senior at 6 or 7, for example, but 7 is only middle age for a Chihuahua. Ultimately your pet’s genetics, nutrition and environment will all play a role in determining when he is a senior.
Regular check-ups are essential to your pet’s health, and become even more important as your pet ages. Age-related diseases can be subtle, and symptoms may be easy to miss. Through regular exams and blood tests, your veterinarian can establish a baseline of what is normal for your pet. This will help alert you when something is not right. If you notice any changes in your pet’s behavior, appetite, or energy level, be sure to check with your veterinarian. (Ed. note: Senior pets are advised to see a veterinarian every six months.)
If your older pet is less active, he will need fewer calories. Try feeding fresh vegetables or high quality commercial treats, and limiting portion sizes at mealtime. Over half of American pets are overweight, and obesity contributes to many diseases and puts more stress on your pet’s joints. Dogs with joint problems may benefit from supplementation with glucosamine or fish oils; there are even special foods to improve issues with joint disease or mobility. Pets with kidney or heart disease may also need special diets. Your veterinarian can design a weight plan that addresses your pet’s specific nutritional needs and make recommendations if supplementation or a specialized diet will help.
Exercise helps your senior pet maintain a healthy body weight, and it helps slow the degeneration of joints from arthritis. Walking is excellent exercise. Start with short walks — 10 to 15 minutes each — then gradually increase the length. Listen to your dog: if he seems tired, it’s time to stop. Many elderly dogs will try to keep up with you and won’t know they’ve reached their limit. Make sure to keep water available, and don’t spend long periods outdoors in overly hot or humid weather. If you have access to a pool, supervised swimming is a great low-impact exercise and is naturally relaxing for many dogs. Dog swim vests can be used for those having trouble staying buoyant.
Remember the old saying, “Be true to your teeth, or they’ll be false to you”? Well, dental care is just as important for pets as it is for us. Dental disease is painful and may make it difficult for your senior pet to eat. Ideally, you should start brushing your pet’s teeth early, but if you haven’t, don’t despair; you can still take action. The first step is a veterinary exam and professional dental cleaning. Then, schedule regular follow-ups and brush daily at home. If your pet won’t tolerate you brushing its teeth, consider dental treats, dental diets or dental toys designed to help keep the teeth clean and healthy.
Senior dogs and cats may experience loss of sight and/or hearing. If this is the case, you need to take extra care to keep them out of harm’s way. Remove dangerous objects from their path, and use pet gates to create a safe space for your pet when you are not able to supervise. Use hand signals to communicate with a pet with hearing loss. And, if your senior dog or cat has vision loss from cataracts, check with your veterinarian to see if surgery might reverse the problem.
Older dogs and cats may develop arthritis or other joint problems, which can make it harder for them to get around. You can help by providing ramps to help them navigate around the house, get up on the bed, or get outside. Make sure litter boxes are easily accessible. Orthopedic pet beds, with or without heating elements, may help keep your pet comfortable and relieve pressure on the joints. Hydrotherapy and therapeutic massage are also effective therapies for dogs with joint pain. Consult your veterinarian for the latest treatments and therapies.
Yes, you can teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks — in fact, it’s a great way to keep them young at heart. Try enrolling in a basic training or tricks class with your senior pet. You can also give them “puzzle toys,” which require them to actively figure out the puzzle in order to get the food treat inside. For dogs and cats, keep plenty of toys handy, and engage them in lots of interactive play to keep their minds and bodies working.
Nothing tells your dog that you love him like a good belly rub. As your pet ages, physical contact is more important than ever. Therapeutic massage is great for animals with joint pain, and equally enjoyable for those without. Pets that have a difficult time grooming themselves may benefit from extra brushing. Every moment you have together is precious, and increasing the physical connection between you will strengthen your bond immeasurably. Maximize every opportunity for bonding with your pet – you will both be glad you did.
Tips for Caring for Senior Dogs, Huston, DVM
How to Identify Common Problems in Senior Cats, Huston, DVM
Bruce R. Coston, DVM
Allen Bingham, PhD