Caring for Your Senior Pet

When Does a Pet Become “Old”?

Much like humans, each animal is different and they don’t all age the same. Even dogs and cats of the same breed don’t age the same.

For example, one of my clients has a black Labrador retriever the same age as my black lab. They are both about 12 years old.

My lab, Penny, looks like an old dog. Her face is grey, she sometimes struggles to get up from the floor, is less active than she used to be, and has a few other age-related issues.

My client’s black lab, on the other hand, has almost no grey at all and still bounces around the way he did when he was a much younger dog. Everything with that dog went well throughout its life.

How Quickly They Age Depends on Multiple Factors

There’s a wide variety of factors that play a part in overall health and longevity.

  • How healthy was their mother while they were still developing inside of her?
  • Their diet throughout their life
  • The amount and type of exercise they have gotten through their life
  • The environment they have been in
  • Potentially harmful things they may have been exposed to
  • And most importantly, their genetics

Defining a “Senior” Dog

In addition to the above factors the age at which a dog becomes a “senior” dog also depends on the size of the dog. You can’t just multiply your dog’s age in years by 7 to compare it to human age.

For example, a Great Dane would be considered a senior when it is only 5 – 6 years old whereas a small dog like a Chihuahua or toy poodle, might not be considered a senior until it reaches 11 or 12.

Old Age is Not a Disease

An expression I came to appreciate when I reached my 50s that applies to animals too is that “old age is not a disease.” If you bring an older animal in with a problem, I’m not going to tell you that it’s just because it’s old.

Granted, there are certainly problems that are more common in older animals but those problems are not shared by all older animals and we can often do things to help you manage their problems. So, what kinds of problems do we see more often in senior animals?

Common Issues with Senior Pets

Mobility Issues

Mobility issues are one of the more common problems we see in all older animals and there are multiple factors that can affect your pets ability to get around.

Osteoarthritis is one of the more common age related problems we can see in older animals. It is not an uncommon cause of stiffness, reduced activity, difficulty getting up from the floor, trouble with stairs and sometimes lameness. Animals are not immune to aging joints any more than humans are.

I have seen signs of arthritis in older dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, small mammals and even older reptiles.

The long walks your dog may have loved years ago might be difficult when they get older and can even be detrimental.

How can you help your pet with osteooarthritis?

  • Keeping your older pet moving will help keep their muscles from weakening. A sedentary life is as unhealthy for animals as it is for people, but too much activity can also be damaging.
  • Replacing that three mile daily power walk with several shorter, less vigorous walks can be very helpful to older dogs as they start showing signs of mobility issues. Gentle exercise can help most animals with early stages of osteoarthritis.
  • Good nutrition and weight control also help older animals who are experiencing more significant issues. An overweight animal will have a much tougher time dealing with arthritis than a lean one. Overweight animals have more mass to lift from the floor and all the extra fat increases chemicals in the body that can cause inflammation making the problem even worse.
  • Dietary supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin and omega 3 fatty acids can help in the earlier stages.
  • When diet and exercise alone aren’t enough, medications like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) can also be helpful. Other medications like tramadol or gabapentin can also be helpful for some animals.
  • Some of my clients have added acupuncture to their pet’s pain control regiment.
  • Physical therapy is a relatively new area of research in veterinary medicine, compared to others, and is showing great promise in helping injured and older animals deal with injuries and mobility issues.

obese tuxedo cat walking outside

It is important to note that not all mobility issues are caused by arthritis. Neurologic problems of the brain, spine or peripheral nerves can also cause weakness.

Also, remember that each animal is different and what helps one might not always help another. Some animals can also have more than one problem, making treatment more challenging.

Changing Nutritional Needs

As animals age, their nutritional requirements can change and it is important, as with growing animals, to give them the nutrition their body needs at the stage of their life they are in. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates, given in the correct amount and balance can help maintain a good weight and help organ function.

Dietary supplements can sometimes be helpful for older animals as long as they are appropriate to what they need. Like in humans, over supplementation can cause more harm than help, so be sure your pet needs them before giving them and then be sure you are giving an appropriate amount.

Certain medical conditions can be helped with dietary supplementation but it is still important for it to be appropriate for the animal and condition.

Diet, nutrition and weight control are critically important in all senior animals whether it is a cat, dog, rabbit, bird or any other animal.

Changes in Behavior

Changes in your pet’s behavior can sometimes be the first indication that there are problems. Pets that were always docile but now seem less tolerant might be reacting to arthritis or other pain, hearing loss, reduced vision or some other issue.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss is very common in older dogs. Your dog might not hear you coming up to them and then snap at you when touched. I have suggested using hand signals in addition to verbal commands when training dogs or even other pets to help if hearing loss becomes a problem.

Cognitive dysfunction

Some behavioral changes can also be from what we refer to as cognitive dysfunction. Some animals can suffer from problems similar to anxiety, senility or dementia in humans.

Sleeping and eating patterns

Changes in sleeping and eating patterns can also be early signs of problems. It is important to keep track of when changes started and how they progress as it could help narrow down the problem.

Heart Disease

All animals have potential to have problems with their heart and, like humans, as they age their risk can increase.

There are multiple types of heart problems and not all heart problems are serious and not all heart problems progress but when things do get worse, the diagnostic tests to investigate those problems are similar to things done with humans.

Chest X-Rays, blood work, electrocardiograms (ECG/EKG) and even echocardiograms (cardiac ultrasound) are regularly done on dogs and cats. X-Rays and blood work can also be done on small mammals and birds.

An electrocardiogram is harder to do as animals get smaller because their heart rate can be very fast. Hamsters, for example, can have a heart rate of 300 beats per minute, making accurate measurements from an ECG very difficult.

Dental Disease

close up of dog's teeth being examined

Dental disease is a common problem in older dogs and cats. Small breed dogs tend to have more dental problems than large breed dogs. Loose and infected teeth, gum recession or growths in the mouth can be seen.

As with all other problems, the sooner the problem is seen, the greater our chances are of fixing that problem before it becomes serious. Brushing your dog’s teeth much like you would your own will help them keep their teeth longer. Dental treats and toys can help but they rarely do as much as brushing.

Regular dental cleaning can also help your pet keep their teeth as long as possible. Removing infected, loose and diseased teeth when needed can help keep your pet in better overall health too, just like in humans.

Skin and Coat Issues

Keeping a close eye on your pet’s coat and skin is the best way to find problems early. Fleas and ticks can make them uncomfortable and lead to other problems.

Watching for lumps and bumps, especially those that change quickly, is just as important as checking your pet’s teeth and watching for changes in behavior. Significant changes in size, texture or sensitivity, especially if changes happen over a short period of time should always be checked. If a growth should be removed, it is always better to do it when it is small than when it is large.

The best time to treat a problem is when it’s still a small problem.

Don’t Hesitate to Act if You Notice a Change in Your Pet

I often recommend watching for changes in your pet’s appetite, mobility, behavior, bowel and urinary habits as well as checking teeth and skin or anything out of the ordinary. A few of my clients use a little calendar book to write down things they see. Some just keep notes on their cell phone.

If in doubt, make an appointment so we can take a look. Much better to find out it’s nothing to worry about than wait until you have a life threatening problem on your hands.