How To Care For Your Senior Pets

February 25, 2019

Just like us, our companion animals are living longer, healthier lives. Also just like us, they require special care and attention as they age.  Animals can’t tell us when something is wrong. They depend on us to pay attention to changes in behavior, appetite, and temperament.  Learn what to look for and use these tips to help keep your older pets happy, comfortable, and with you for a long time to come.

See Your Veterinarian Regularly

Once-a-year medical care isn’t enough for a senior pet. Age-related diseases usually aren’t noticeable until the animal is quite sick.  For example, chronic renal failure is one of the most common causes of death in senior cats, but they often display no symptoms until as much as 75% of kidney function is already lost.  One-half of dogs 10 years and older will get some form of cancer. Like cats, by the time they display noticeable symptoms, it may be too late to get treatment.

This chart from the American Veterinary Medical Association lists common symptoms of senior pet diseases.

Kidney DiseaseUrinary Tract DiseaseHeart Disease
Decreased appetiteIncreased urination/spotting or "accidents" in the houseCoughing
Increased thirstStraining to urinateDifficulty breathing
Increased urinationBlood in urineDecreased tolerance of excercise
Decreased or no urinationWeakness
Poor hair coatDecreased appetite
Sore Mouth

Most veterinarians recommend twice-yearly visits for senior pets.  Semi-annual blood work results can highlight subtle changes in health and help the doctor diagnose health problems earlier.

Feed Older Pets High Quality Food

You may notice that your senior pet is more of a picky eater now and isn’t interested in trying new foods.  However, good nutrition is an important part of your pet’s health and longevity.

  • High moisture foods: It can be hard to get older cats especially to drink enough. Canned food supplies extra moisture. It’s also generally lower in carbs, which helps control your animal’s weight.
  • Ease up on the treats: There’s a reason our pets love commercial cat and dog treats! It’s the same reason we love potato chips and candy bars. Junk food is high in calories, sodium, and fat, but low on nutrition. You can still offer treats, but choose healthy options, like cabbage for dogs (yes, really!) and bits of cheese or cooked meat for cats.
  • Appetite stimulants: Some older pets are reluctant to eat. As senses decline, the food seems less enticing. Stimulate appetite by enhancing the food with broth, bits of cooked meat, sardines, or fish oil.

When a pet stops eating entirely, it’s time to consult your veterinarian. The problem could be as simple a painful tooth or as serious as a tumor in the mouth.  Oral cancer in cats is painful and fast growing.  About 10% of cats are affected.

Encourage Exercise for Senior Pets

Exercise is good for both of you! It helps keep the weight off – which relieves stress on joints – and increases cardiovascular health.  Just as it does with humans, regular, gentle exercise can help with mobility, enhance moods, and increase mental acuity.

Dogs, in particular, love to get outside and run/walk with their human “pack.” They thrive on your attention as well as all the interesting smells along the walk route.

  • Avoid extreme heat and cold. Older animals are less tolerate of temperature extremes. They will overheat and tire more easily when it’s hot, and extreme cold is terrible for aching joints.
  • Stay on level ground. Young Fido may have leapt for sticks and climbed mountains with you, but Old Fido needs a level surface with gentle elevation changes.
  • Follow your dog’s cues. A dog will do everything possible to keep up with you, so be sensitive to signs that he’s getting tired, thirsty, or is in any way uncomfortable.

Walking your senior cat is generally out of the question, but even the oldest feline has trouble resisting a little playtime.  Use strings, feathers, catnip, and other lures to interest your cat. Even the oldest cat retains en interest in hunting and prey. Toys that combine scent, sound, and movement can interest a senior cat in play.

Older pets are also prone to arthritis, which can make exercise painful.  Talk to your doctor about the best ways to treat stiffness and arthritis.

Consider Home Modifications

Pacing, whining, meowing, and other unusual behaviors can be signs that your pet is not comfortable with its home environment.  Think how you’d feel if you could no longer nap in the sun in your favorite chair or climb the stairs to go to bed.

Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to make your pet more comfortable at home:

  • Ramps and stairs: The couch cushion may only be 18 inches off the floor. Still, that can seem like 18 feet to an elderly dog or cat. Use ramps and portable stairs help to make jumping unnecessary.
  • Carpets and rugs: Slick floors are dangerous for large dogs with hip problems. Use floor runners in areas with wood or tile floors to give shaky animals traction. They help older humans too, but make sure they aren’t a tripping hazard.
  • Comfortable, warm bedding: Memory foam bedding is gentle on aching joints. In winter, a heated bed is a wonderful treat.
  • Restrict access: You may need to keep some areas off limits as visual and cognitive abilities decline. Simple ways to do this include baby gates at stairs and in doorways.

These small changes can really increase the quality of life for your senior pets.

Need Help with Food and Medical Costs?

Doctor visits, special diets, home modifications…. Growing older isn’t easy or cheap, but there are organizations that help seniors adopt and care for their companion animals.

Many local animal welfare and rescue organizations fundraise to help needy owners get their animals the care they need.

Pets help us live longer, happier lives by giving unconditional love, companionship, and a sense of purpose. They ask for so little, but give us so much.

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