Great news for pet parents: Our pets are living longer than ever before! Just like people, pets have changing needs as they age.
WHEN DOES A PET BECOME SENIOR?
It varies, but cats and small dogs are generally considered “senior” at seven years of age. Larger breed dogs tend to have shorter life spans compared to smaller breeds and are often considered seniors when they are five to six years of age. Rodents are considered seniors at age two. Small mammals with good veterinary care are living longer and longer; it is not uncommon to see rabbits live to10-12 years. Birds and some of the reptile species can be long-lived, up to 30-50 years of age.
AGE IS NOT A DISEASE
While it is true that old age is not a disease, it is also true that with age comes disease. Therefore, older pets’ merit special attention. Close monitoring or their overall health will allow owners to recognize signs of illness in their pets and to seek veterinary care. Early detection and treatment of illness, give the pet the best chance for maintaining a good quality of life for as long as possible.
Here are some simple things you can do to help your senior pet stay healthy, happy, and vital.
Make the Veterinarian Your First Stop
Regular check-ups are essential to your pet’s health and become even more important as your pet ages. Regular veterinary examinations can detect problems in older pets before they become advanced or life-threatening, and improve the chances of a longer and healthier life for your pet.
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. We recommend senior pets be examined by a veterinarian every six months.
Choose the Right Diet
If your older pet is less active, it will need fewer calories. Be sure to offer high-quality commercial food for your type of pet and limit treats. Limiting portion sizes at mealtime and offering low-calorie fresh food an veggies, as are appropriate, is ideal. Over half of American pets are overweight, and obesity contributes to many diseases and puts more stress on your pet’s joints. Pets 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 is in order.
Exercise helps your senior pet maintain healthy body weight, and it helps slow the degeneration of joints from arthritis. Walking is an excellent exercise for dogs. Start with short walks — 10 to 15 minutes each — then gradually increase the length. 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.
For cats, a minute or two of walking, followed by a gentle play session will help pets with arthritis move easier. It also helps reduce sprains, cramps, and muscle injuries as well as gradually increases their heart rate. Just remember to avoid activities in which your cat has to leap, jump, turn quickly or run.
No matter what kind of pet or what type of activity you engage in with your pet, listen to your pet: if it seems tired, it’s time to stop.
Practice Proper Dental Hygiene
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, food or water additives, dental diets or dental toys designed to help keep the teeth clean and healthy.
Senior pets 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 environment and use pet gates to create a safe space for your pet when they are out and about, and you are not able to supervise. Use hand signals to communicate with a pet with hearing loss. And, if your senior pet has vision loss from cataracts, make an appointment with your veterinarian to ensure the comfort of your pet, see its medical treatment is needed, and to discuss if surgery might reverse the problem.
Older pets 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 their environment, get up on a favored resting place, or get outside. Make sure litter boxes are easily accessible for cats and small mammals. Orthopedic pet beds, with or without heating elements, may help keep your pet comfortable and relieve pressure on the joints. Light laser treatments and therapeutic massage are also effective therapies for pets with joint pain. Consult your veterinarian for the latest treatments and therapies.
Yes, you can teach an old dog (or other pet) new tricks — in fact, it’s a great way to keep them young at heart. For senior dogs, try enrolling in an adult basic training or tricks class. Keep plenty of toys handy. Many “puzzle toys” are available for a number of species; these require your pet to actively figure out the puzzle to get the food treat inside. Interactive play will help keep their minds and bodies working through their golden years.
Introducing a New Pet to Home of a Senior Pet
It may be tempting to introduce a new pet into the home as your pet gets older, but you should consult with your veterinarian before adding a puppy or kitten. Ideally, a new pet should be introduced when your older pet is still active and can move away from the younger animal if he/ she needs a “time-out.” Senior pets need to know they have a quiet, secure place where they can walk away and rest, undisturbed, in comfort.
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.
Although senior pets may develop age-related problems, good care allows them to live happy, healthy, and active lives in their golden years.