Longer to love them means longer to develop problems – know what to look for.
Our pets are living longer than ever, thanks in great part to loving care and improved nutrition. While we’re blessed to have more time with our animal companions, it’s also important that pet parents know how to take proper care of aging pets.
Signs of Aging
While you can count the birthdays and determine that your large breed Golden Retriever is getting close to senior status at six years, the term senior is relative. Large breeds like a Goldens get there quicker than small dogs and cats, which might not be considered senior until 10 years old.
But as they say, you’re only as old as you feel. You can’t assume your pet is slowing down with age, but you can observe the signs. As with people, you will see your dog or cat physically slowing down. More frequent and longer cat naps and less frequent bursts of energy will be noticeable. Your dog might tire more easily when you play fetch, and sleep longer afterwards to recover. And just like people, older pets often gain weight due to their slowing metabolism and declining activity levels. And they might go gray around their mouth too!
There are also signs that are less obvious. As your pet ages, he is more likely to have dental problems. This can be as obvious as your dog’s terrible breath or less obvious like when he eats his kibble more slowly because it hurts to chew. The best dental care is preventative, so start all your pets on a regular routine of brushing, dental supplements and even cleanings at the vet. Dental problems in senior pets should be addressed by a veterinarian to ensure your old guy maintains his quality of life – and that he can eat his dinner.
Joint soreness, including arthritis, could set in as your pet ages. Depending on severity, this might be easily spotted, but dogs and cats are masters at masking their pain so you may not be aware until there is a serious problem. In the wild, animals are easy targets for predators when they show any weakness so they hide it for as long as they can.
Your pet’s senses will also decline as she ages. A decrease in sense of smell can lead to picky eaters as smell and taste are closely linked. Sight and hearing loss can make it more difficult for your dog or cat to navigate new places, and if the decline is really severe, she might be walking around your house from memory as opposed to vision. This is more common with geriatric pets. Older pets are also more likely to develop diseases, including heart, liver or kidney disease, the aforementioned arthritis, diabetes or cancer.
Even if 100% healthy, your pet’s internal organs will begin to function less efficiently in the senior years. For most, this won’t be a visible sign. However, some dogs and cats will feel the need to urinate more frequently which can lead to accidents. You may need to accommodate a more frequent bathroom schedule by arranging for a midday dog walker or train your dog to use puppy pads or an indoor dog potty during the day. Even if you were able to leave your dog all day without accidents when he was younger, these steps may become a necessity for your older dog. For cats you may need to add an extra litter box, move it closer to where your cat spends most of her time, or create a ramp to make it easier to get into. It’s also important to visit the veterinarian regularly, as inappropriate elimination could be due to kidney disease or diabetes and treatment may be available. Maintain regular health check-ups rather than assuming everything is just a sign of ‘getting old.’
What to Feed
For many years, senior dogs and cats were thought to need a low protein diet to better care for declining kidney function. That belief has now been disproven. Unless your pet has been diagnosed with kidney disease, there is no reason to decrease her protein intake. In fact, it’s a great time to ensure she’s eating a high-quality food because her body is less efficient at absorbing nutrients in the senior years. Also consider a food with a higher protein level as more protein is needed to maintain their muscle mass. Most importantly, don’t overfeed your senior pet. With her slowing metabolism, she’ll require less food as she ages. Being overweight can cause as many or more problems than being older, so measure food intake and keep your dog or cat slim.
In the pet food aisles you’ll find plenty of life stage pet foods that offer senior formulas for older pets. Talk to the experts at your local store to determine if a senior formula is right for your pet, or whether a food formulated for all life stages is better. Talk to them about supplements too, as joint care supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin could help provide relief from aching joints.
As your cat moves from the senior years to the geriatric stage, he will likely lose weight due to eating less and absorbing even less. A cat’s metabolism doesn’t slow as much as a dog’s does late in life, so eating less food leads to trouble keeping weight on. For both dogs and cats, in this final stage of life it’s best to stick to routines for the comfort of your pet. Maintain the same food your pet always loved, but consider supplementing with a liquid nutritional supplement. Resist the urge to move your furniture as this is the stage where pets use their memory more than their senses to navigate. Your geriatric cat may sleep all the time and your geriatric dog may do the same. Either one may feel the need to follow you from room to room for comfort. Treat your best friend gently at this stage… he’s given you a lot of great years.
Watch for the Warning Signs
For pets of any age, these are signs of a potential serious problem.
- Significant increase in water consumption or urination
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Significant decrease in appetite
- Failure to eat for more than two days
- Difficulty urinating or defecating
- Excessive panting
- Blood in urine or stool
- Collapse or muscle weakness
- Rapid breathing while at rest