The Golden Years: How to Care for Your Senior Pet

What Defines a Senior Pet?

Many people aren’t sure if their dog or cat qualifies as a senior. The American Animal Hospital Association has categorized the life stages of a dog into several stages. First is puppy, which is the period of rapid growth (around 6-9 months). From there, they’re considered a young adult until they’re emotionally and socially mature. That takes until about 3 to 4 years of age. After this life stage, dogs are considered a mature adult. This is the largest part of the life stage. That’s 3-4 years until the last 25% of the estimated lifespan of the dog.

How do you determine when the last 25% beginnings? That is going to be dependent on the breed and the size of the dog. Larger breed dogs have shorter lifespans and small breed dogs have longer lifespans. Once a dog is in the last 25% of estimated lifespan, they are considered a senior. There is one more stage known as end of life. This happens any time after a terminal or life limiting diagnosis is made.

For cats, the life stages are similar. A kitten is from birth up to 1 year. Next, a young adult cat is 1-6 years, and the mature adult stage starts at year 7 and goes through age 10. Seniors are at 10 years of age and older. The end-of-life stage for a cat is determined after a life limited or terminal diagnosis has been made.

Common Ailments in Senior Pets

With age, comes some common diseases. These include mobility issues, dental disease, weight issues, kidney disease, cancer, and cognitive function.

Mobility Issues

Mobility issues are the most common. Early intervention is key to managing these issues, such as arthritis. The best way to implement early intervention is the owner recognizing the issue. Changes in mobility should not be assumed to be part of getting older. If a dog is struggling to walk or get up, that is a sign of discomfort, and owners should start doing things right away to slow the progression by visiting the vet and starting glucosamine/chondroitin supplements, Adequan injections, salmon oil, and keeping weight off. Arthritis in cats is significantly underdiagnosed because cats won’t demonstrate symptoms as obviously. Changes for cats include hesitancy to jump or sensitivity to petting or touching.

Dental Disease

Face of an old beautiful Irish Setter pet dog as panting in summer

Dental disease is very common in older dogs and is more of an issue in smaller dogs. Prevention is always best, so starting at a young age with oral care hygiene is important. Dental disease is a chronic source of discomfort so it’s important to seek veterinarian help.

Weight Issues

Obesity is the number one nutritional problem in dogs. It’s important to recognize this because dogs kept at a lean body condition tend to live an average of 2 years longer (based on 14-year Purina study). With cats, it’s crucial to use tools to help stimulate your cat to move around the home, like this Doc & Phoebe cat feeder toy. It’s a great way to use portion control and get your cats more mobile.

Weight loss is often an early indicator of an underlying disease. Routine vet visits where your vet gets a weight is important to catch things early. Often, with weight loss, there’s going to be muscle wasting if there’s an underlying disease.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease is common in dogs and cats. Some of the symptoms include decreased appetite, increased thirst and urination, weight loss, and vomiting. Kidney disease is a chronic, progressive condition that can also include co-morbidities. As an advanced disease, at home fluid therapy is a treatment as well as anti-nausea medication and antacids. With kidney disease, dogs tend to get a sour stomach, which leads to them not wanting to eat.

Cancer

Weight loss is a common first symptom. These tumors/masses can be internal or external. The prognosis on cancer depends on the cancer type. Some cancers are amenable to surgical removal or other types of medical management, while others aren’t. Love, Vincent is a non-profit organization that supplies care packages for dogs and cats who have been faced with a cancer diagnosis and is a great way to show your support for families dealing with this type of diagnosis.

Lymphoma is a common cancer type. It’s typically internal, affecting the lymph nodes. Typically, an owner will feel under a pet’s jaw and feel a hard mass. It can be diagnosed easily. Of all the cancer types, lymphoma responds well to chemotherapy. Without treatment, lymphoma progresses quickly, from weeks to months.

Hemangiosarcoma is another common cancer type found usually in the spleen. It grows very quickly and can rupture.

Osteosarcoma is an aggressive disease process, most commonly affecting the limbs. A limp in older dogs that doesn’t respond to typical treatment is an indication of this type of cancer, and pain management is crucial.

Mast cell tumors are also common and occur most frequently in the skin. They are red and irritated and will often get bigger and then smaller. Removing the tumor and having it biopsied and rated is important for this condition.

Cognitive Dysfunction

This is dementia and is common is dogs and cats. It’s estimated that 28% of dogs over 11 years have cognitive dysfunction and well as 28% of cats over 11. It is very difficult to diagnose, so as a pet owner, it’s important to understand the symptoms to be able to get this diagnosis.

Common symptoms include disorientation, change in social interactions, sleep wake cycle changes, house soiling, activity changes, and learning difficulties or memory loss.

To counter this, it’s important to give your dog or cat environmental enrichment. Nutritionally, antioxidants and medium-chain triglycerides may help slow the progression of cognitive dysfunction.

How to Best Support Your Senior Pet

man and old cat: real love – have faith in / trusting – back-lit

Nutrition is important to keep your pet as healthy as possible. Your pet needs to like what they eat, and the diet needs to agree with their system. There are senior diets that can be helpful to feed. Ultimately, your pet’s appetite can be affected as they progress through a disease process, so it’s important to help stimulate their appetite. Softening their food with warm bone broth (rich in vitamins and minerals) is a great way to do this, as well as considering a homecooked diet. You can use the website Balanceit.com to find the right diet if cooking at home.

Making the home environment hospitable to senior dogs is also key. Elevated food bowls are great and using yoga mags or carpet runners to create more traction for your pets will improve their health.

Supporting the social and emotional health of our pets is also very important. Dogs and cats can experience anxiety and frustration from inability to do the same things they once could. Try to find new ways to maintain the activities your pet always loved. As dogs get older, new fears may develop, like separation anxiety or storm or noise phobias. If you’re seeing this develop, there are things to do that can alleviate the stress. Make sure you’re talking to your vet.

A safe space for your senior pet to go to when they need time alone is alone crucial. Having their bed, food, and water all close by will make sure they are comfortable.

From a medical standpoint, it’s recommended to have check ups twice a year for senior pets. It’s important that you advocate for your pet. Familiarize yourself with common issues so that you can bring up these things with your vet. Always bring notes about any changes in behavior and write them down.

Hospice and palliative care are also important to consider if your dog or cat may not tolerate other medical options. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care has a listing on their website where you could find a vet near you.

Sometimes we reach the end of the options in terms of traditional Western medicine. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy are good ones to try when your pet has reached that point.

Senior Pet Support: Pet Parent

rear view of a young man hug his small Mixed-breed dog, dog looking at camera

When caring for your pet for 10 plus years, there is a caregiver burden when giving daily medications, visiting vets, and maintaining hygiene for your senior pet. This is paired with recognizing the inevitable that your pet will not be with you forever. There is something called anticipatory grief that every family goes through. It’s important to recognize this so that you’re better able to care for yourself and your pet. There are resources, like the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement, that include resources and chat rooms to be able to find a support group to help navigate this difficult time for your pet. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care also has a listing on their site if you’re looking for a mental health professional who specializes in pet bereavement.

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