How To Care For An Aging Pet
As you might imagine, the animals I work with most often are dogs and cats. The pet population is aging along with us — they’re living longer lives and needing more frequent, and different, types of care. In the past year alone, I’ve worked with several cats that were well over 20 years old. And a number of dogs that reached 17.
Older animals have particular and evolving needs; the changes their bodies go through as they age parallel our own. As an example, whether you are human, canine, or feline, if you live long enough, you’re most likely going to experience some osteoarthritis. It’s basically a condition of “wear and tear” — a cumulative result of lifelong weight-bearing and physical activity that affects various joints in the body. (Scientists have now determined that even dinosaurs got arthritis!)
Arthritis can be quite painful and limit one’s mobility, but fortunately, there are multiple things we can do about it; I’ve helped countless animals become much more comfortable in their elder years. I’ve also lived with the condition myself for many years — I’m quite well-versed in the topic, as well as how to help you mitigate your pet’s discomfort. There’s absolutely no reason to think “that’s just the way old age is” and for your pet to suffer.
The bottom line is that once your pet hits “middle age” and beyond, you will need to start paying extra attention to any changes, subtle or otherwise. This post will help you with factors to consider, as well as providing helpful tips.
How Old Is My Pet In Human Years?
When our pets are behaving as they always have, it’s easy to lose track of how old they are relative to us. Also, the old way of multiplying dog year times a static number (such as 6) isn’t actually accurate, because that formula doesn’t account for how things begin accelerate in the later years. And yes, dogs and cats have different rates of this acceleration. For easy reference, here are two handy charts. (dog info compiled from AKC; cat info from icarecat.org.)
The Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine (one of the top facilities in the country) states on their website that “Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12.” (This reinforces what I’ve seen in my client practice.) One thing to keep in mind: in general, dogs age less “gracefully” than cats, and they often experience more health issues.
Seven Tips for Caring For Senior Pets
1. Determine What Is “Normal” For Your Pet
A useful guideline to go by is called “B.E.A.M”: Behavior, Energy, Appetite and Mood. When an animal is young and in peak health, all of these factors are usually quite good, or have infrequent variation. But as your pet ages, it’s important to start noticing if one or more of these factors begins to change. For example, does your previously enthusiastic eater suddenly decide he doesn’t feel like eating? Has your normally well-adjusted cat become listless or mopey? Has your dog started cutting your regular walks short?
Everyone can have an occasional “off” day in any one of these four categories...with an older pet, what you need to start keeping track of are the frequencies, patterns, consistency, and particularly, if things have changed in more than one of these categories.
If you can, it is helpful to keep a journal, or brief notes on a calendar. This serves four purposes:
1. It helps you notice any patterns or increases
2. It gives you a written history to help inform your vet
3. It ensures that you don’t lose track of how long something has actually been going on (we all know that time flies by quickly!)
4. It can help you take important actions sooner rather than later instead of writing symptoms and behaviors off to “oh, he/she’s just getting old.”
2. Switch Your Veterinary Checkups to Twice A Year
Many people who have taken their pets in for yearly exams assume that’s all they’ll have to do for the rest of the pet’s life. With a senior pet, it’s actually advisable to bring them in more frequently. This gives you much earlier detection of troublesome and potentially serious conditions. And since animals can be quite good at hiding pain, it also avoids your pet suffering needlessly for months on end.
While you’re at it, please don’t neglect getting your pets’ teeth cleaned if you’ve been putting it off— it’s vitally important for their overall health as well. (I’ve unfortunately seen some fatal cases of diseases that all started because a pet had never had their teeth cleaned.) I know it can be scary to contemplate putting your senior animal under anesthesia. (Or avoid it entirely because “she hates going to the vet.”) Luckily, “non-anesthesia” dental cleanings (minimal sedation) are becoming more common. Do some research to see if it’s available in your area, and speak with your vet about any risk factors.
3. Never Underestimate The Importance of a Good Diet
Over the past 25+ years of working with pets, I’ve observed that the ones who age the most gracefully and experience less — or a later onset of —physical problems are the ones on a high-quality diet. The best food for your particular dog or cat is a huge topic, but in brief, I recommend that my clients get the best quality pet food they are able to afford. Quality varies widely between what is available at grocery stores and what you can get online or at smaller independent pet stores. Big or well-known brands are not better; they are quite often filled with junk. Read and compare ingredient lists and opt for simple diets without byproducts or a lot of additives.
Luckily, there are now more options than ever before. Healthy yet affordable brands (Wellness is an example) contain minimal ingredients and have been minimally processed. They consist of simple proteins, no hard-to-digest fillers like soy, and they aren’t artificially thickened with guar gum and carageenan (which can both be problematic for pets with sensitive stomachs.) They also aren’t cooked for excessive periods of time, which retains more nutrients. The best plan is to do some research and keep it as simple and as close to what your dog or cat’s ancestors would haven eaten in the wild. Common sense should guide you well.
4. Keep Your Pet At A Healthy Weight
It can be hard to resist reinforcing your adorably-begging dog with extra snacks, or mollifying your bored cat with increased treats. As with humans, extra weight brings serious problems: diabetes, arthritis and heart disease, to name a few. A vet once told me that up to 60% of the pets he sees are overweight or downright obese! To judge how fat they are, view your cat from above (there are online charts to help you); with dogs, they should have a defined waist. Slowly limiting calories while increasing exercise works best, as it does with us.
5. Keep Your Pet Hydrated
Staying hydrated is as important for a senior pet as it is for human seniors. This is partly because the kidneys don’t do their flushing job as well as they did in our prime. Most dogs are pretty good drinkers but cats can be more problematic. Felines are not naturally motivated drinkers because they evolved to get their moisture needs met through their diet. Our domestic cats tend to be quite prone to kidney disease in their later years. Hydration becomes even more important for pets who eat dry food. Dehydration causes various uncomfortable side effects in the body. Senior cats can get quite constipated which can develop into a chronic state causing additional problems, sometimes requiring surgery!
Encourage your cat to drink fresh water by having more than one source in the house, locating it away from where their food bowl resides and changing water daily. Some cats are more intrigued by kitty drinking fountains (though some are not.) It makes sense that animals learned through evolution that standing water was not healthy — they seem much more motivated by fresh running water. I always say “show me a cat who will only drink water dribbling from the sink or bathtub faucets, and I’ll bet that cat had to have been a ‘stray’ at one point.”
It also helps to just mix a little bit of water or (unsalted) broth into your pet’s food.
6. Make Household Adjustments For Your Senior Pet
You may find that your aging dog now needs a ramp to get into the car, or a stepstool to climb onto your bed. Stairs can become more difficult to navigate — pay attention to this. Cats may need litter box accommodations if it starts to become painful for them to climb over the “lip.” (Think about it: a four-inch lip is almost half a cat's height!) Doggie and cat doors can also become problematic to get in and out of — your pet may have to start using the “people” door!
You might also need to raise up feeding stations or create more padded (and warmer) sleeping setups for your pet. They may need fleece sweaters or jackets. To know what to do, it helps to think about what you’d probably want if you were 80 years old and achy, with less padding and insulation on your body.
7. Enrichment Helps Keep Your Pet Young In Body And Mind
Animals need to keep their brains interested and active in order to age well. Enrichment which engages the senses is very beneficial for all ages but it becomes especially important for older animals. Sometimes pets sleep a lot just because they’re bored, understimulated, and have no other options in front of them. Encourage easy physical activities in ways you know your pet enjoys. Even if they don’t play as long and hard as they did when young, it’s still very beneficial for them. You’ll have fun with this engagement too!
If you’ve never tried food puzzles, try bringing one in — many pets like digging at these to find a hidden treat. Do some online research, or drop into a local pet store to get recommendations and advice — the amount of toys out there is pretty astounding. (Speaking of toys, it’s good to not leave them out for 24/7, and to frequently rotate choices. Pets respond to novelty as much as we do.)
Preparing For The Inevitable
When it finally becomes time to say goodbye, I can help you work through the tough decisions, with information regarding your pet’s wishes, next steps and timing. In the meantime, fully treasure the time you have left with your older pet. Every day we have with our animals is truly a gift!