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Your Aging Pet

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Your aging pet still needs cuddling.

Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, so are our pets. The proper care and attention we owners give to our pets’ changing needs as they age are giving us years of happy companionship.

As a pet caregiver, your aging pet will depend on your care more than ever to stay as healthy and comfortable as possible. Here are some things to consider as you care for your aging pet.

Aging Pets are More Common Today

Pets are living longer than ever. Your pet’s breed and/or lineage, diet, veterinary care, living environment and other factors can affect its length and quality of life.

Life expectancy facts: Dogs

  • The average dog lives 10-12 years.
  • Dogs that have good nutrition, daily care at home, and veterinary care live the longest.
  • Dogs live longer when they are confined to their home and yard and and have been neutered or spayed.
  • A giant-breed dog is considered a senior pet at six years of age, while a medium-sized dog is a senior at eight.

Life expectancy facts: Cats

  • The average domestic indoor cat lives 14 years.
  • Feral cats live about half as long as domestic cats because they have more fights, accidents, illnesses, predators, and food shortages.
  • Cats can continue to breed even in their senior years. Twenty-year old cats have reared kittens!

Age-related Behavior Changes in Pets

All pets will develop some behavioral changes as they age which may affect their behavior to some extent. If they develop heart or liver disease, there is an additional risk to brain function. Heart disease decreases blood flow to the brain while liver disease affects the liver’s ability to rid the body of toxins, which can then enter the brain and alter behavior.

Pets fed diets low in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and Omega 3 fatty acids may also experience deterioration in brain function and show behavioral changes over time.

Behavior changes in your aging pet. Behavior changes in aging pets are similar to those we humans may experience with age. Here are a few specific examples:

  • Orientation problems. Aging pets may become confused and get lost in familiar locations. This is called disorientation. Your pet may get stuck on the wrong side of the door or stand frozen in the middle of a room. Impaired vision from cataracts also contribute to disorientation in an aging pet.
  • Social interactions. Some older pets may no longer enjoy being petted or won’t come to greet you like they used to. They may appear depressed. Pets with arthritis may become so irritable that they snap at your touch.
  • Activities and exercise. A senior pet may have joint pain so severe that it cannot go for walks, climb in or out of the bed, or jump in the car.
  • Grooming. Some pets stop cleaning themselves after eliminating.  Many dogs “go gray” in spots, a visual reminder of their aging. The coats on many aging pets may appear bedraggled as well. An increase in scruffy or poor coats is a sign of possible diabetes or Cushing’s disease.
  • House training. Many senior pets lose bladder or sphincter control and dribble urine. Others become chronically constipated and have difficulty with bowel movements. Straining to defecate causes pain. Cats may start to associate pain with the litter box and dogs might link pain with going outside. So they avoid these places. Not knowing what else to do, they may defecate around the house. Having a pet caregiver at home more often can aid in less accidents in the house. You can also consider enlisting the services of a pet sitter to help.
  • Sleeping. Aging pets often sleep poorly due to pain, anxiety, or because they don’t get enough aerobic activity during the day. Pets may cry and pace if they can’t sleep. Orthopedic pet beds can provide comfort for restless aging pets.
  • Eating. Your senior pet may have a poor appetite or become anorexic because his/her senses of taste and smell aren’t strong. Food loses its appeal.
    • To compound the problem, senior pets may have dental disease or stomach ulcers. A veterinarian can diagnose a problem and provide treatment and medication.
    • Elevated feeders can help alleviate strain for pets at meal time and avoid the discomfort or pain from stretching his head down to the floor.

Caring for your aging pet

Visits to your veterinarian are still important. Older pets should be examined at least once a year.  Your veterinarian can perform “senior” tests to identify age-related problems, sometimes before they become serious and more complicated to treat.  A single blood draw can check your pet’s liver, kidneys and pancreas function. An electrocardiogram can detect signs of heart disease. Vision and hearing tests can be performed. Your veterinarian can also give you suggestions on how to make life more comfortable for your older pet.

Home dental care for aging pets. Clean teeth free of tartar can help prevent serious problems such as heart disease resulting from tooth decay. Chewable dental sticks, pet toothbrushes and enzymatic toothpaste aid in the dental care process.

Addressing your aging pet’s dietary needs. Decreased activity means you aging pet may not need as much food to maintain his ideal weight.  Your veterinarian may recommend you switch to a geriatric or senior formula pet food. They contain more easily digestible nutrients and have limited fats to prevent obesity and gastrointestinal upsets. Many special diets can be purchased at Petflow.com or RxPetfood.com

Dehydration is common among aging pets (and people!). It can also diminish blood circulation and immunity, so make sure plenty of water is available for your senior pet.

Finally, dogs may lose teeth as they age, which makes chewing difficult and reduces the quality of life. They may benefit from soft food or softened dry food.

Grooming the older pet. Older pets groom themselves less effectively than younger pets, which can result in matted hair, skin odor, and inflammation. Be prepared to bathe and brush your aging pet more often. This will help your older pet look better and also gives you an opportunity to examine him for lumps, tumors, or other abnormalities which should be brought to your vet’s attention.

Mobile groomers are available to assist pet caregivers in grooming pets as well. Many offer senior pet packages and services.

Addressing arthritis. Many senior pets develop arthritis. This leaves them feeling stiff and sore, particularly when they get up after sleeping or resting.  Arthritic pets can become lame and need help to climb the stairs or get in and out of bed.

Despite decreased mobility, these pets still need some form of daily exercise.  Your veterinarian can recommend exercises that may help, as well as prescribe aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain and stiffness.  Glucosamine chondroitin, specifically sold for pets, may help with aching joints just like it does with people.  Most experts agree that it won’t regrow cartilage, but it can reduce inflammation of the joint.  Be sure to discuss medications with your veterinarian before dispensing any to your pet.

You can also assist your aging pet’s mobility and independence with pet ramps, stairs, and lift harnesses.  Consider, too, pet strollers and carriers to assist you in taking your aging pet on trips outside if it can’t walk on its own.

Hearing and vision problems. You may notice that your pet is less responsive to greetings or commands.  This is likely because of hearing or vision problems.  Your veterinarian can confirm the extent of the problem.

  • Use touch and hand signals to communicate with hearing-impaired pets.
  • Do not disturb a sleeping hearing-impaired pet or approach one from behind

Vision problems may become apparent in an aging pet. Your veterinarian or pet ophthalmologist can determine the extent of the problem.

  • Help your senior pet adjust to vision problems by maintaining a consistent environment for him
  • Don’t add clutter, rearrange the furniture or move toys or feeding bowls to a “new” place

Keep your aging pet comfortable. Do your best to ensure that your older pet is comfortable with a soft bed in a warm place, away from drafts. Limit time outdoors in extreme temperatures, be careful with rambunctious play, and reduce loud noises and disturbances from children and other pets to help keep your senior pet comfortable at home.

Try to keep doing things that you’ve always done together.  Within reasonable limits, continue to play with a favorite toy, sit in a favorite spot, or provide special treats. This will help keep the bond between you and your senior pet strong.

Remember, at this point in your pet’s life, the human touch—your touch—is more important than ever. Stroke and hold your pet more often. Photograph your special times together or record them by writing in a diary, journal or blog.  Continue to create lasting and meaningful memories!

More information can be found in the book Complete Care for Your Aging Pet (www.amazon.com/Care-For-Your-Aging/Pet)

View our Quality of Life page for more on what to look for in your pet’s quality of life.