Dr Mitry shows us how a little preventative care can help make your pet’s senior years as happy and healthy as possible.
I’m often asked exactly when a dog or cat can be officially considered a ‘senior’ animal – but the fact is it’s impossible to give a blanket answer to that question – you’re asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’
All animals ‘age’ differently and at different rates for a variety of reasons, some related to environment, some to lifestyle, some to size, some to species and genetics. So the word ‘senior’ is really only useful in this sense if we take it to mean ‘the age at which the animal’s health needs have become more acute’.
On average this will begin at around seven years of age in dogs and cats, but rather than worrying about a specific number, you really just need to know that the older they get, the more important it becomes to keep a stronger preventative eye on the sort of health problems that naturally emerge in animals as they age.
So, I thought it would be useful to have a quick run through the basic things you can do to spot, avoid and manage health and well-being issues in elderly dogs and cats (although the principles I’m talking about generally apply to any companion animal).
1. Ensure regular veterinary check-ups
You’ll note a common thread in many of the conditions I discuss below is that early detection and diagnosis is almost always key to making sure that the severity of non-preventable ageing issues is minimised so your dog or cat can continue to enjoy their senior years and you keep them happy and healthy by your side as long as possible.
Once your pet starts showing signs of any of the following chronic ageing issues, we strongly recommend following a regime of veterinary checkups every six months.
2. Ensure they get regular, appropriate exercise
As your dog or cat ages, you may find their enthusiasm for exercise declines, which can result in a tendency to develop obesity, diabetes, heart and even toenail and claw problems.
I recommend ensuring that your senior dog continues to get regular routine exercise, but in many cases, you will probably want to reduce the intensity of walks or play sessions as your dog ages.
For indoor cats in particular, exercise can be difficult to facilitate as they age. I recommend that you schedule regular routine play sessions with your cat’s favourite toys – chase toys are often the best for giving your senior cat a good workout.
Encouraging your outdoor cat to continue to enjoy their outdoor time is important, but in many cases, their urge to range so far from home will reduce as they age. Keep giving your cat outdoor time, and let them climb and range as far as they feel comfortable. They will be the best judge of their own limits. They might also start to feel more comfortable indoors as they start to feel anxious about not being able to mark/defend their territory.
3. Watch their weight and diet
You will be in the habit of regularly putting the same amount of food in your pet’s bowl every day, and your dog or cat will be expecting that same amount too! But as their activity levels decline with age and they are burning fewer calories, their appetite doesn’t necessarily decline at the same rate, which can quickly lead to complications from obesity – amongst the most serious of which is diabetes, which is potentially life threatening.
Managing your elderly pet’s diet becomes more important as they age – if you’re in the habit of giving them extra scraps or treats outside their regular feeding times, it can be a good idea to wind this back a little.
The easiest way to weigh your dog or cat is to pick them up in your arms if possible, weigh both yourself and your fur baby on a set of bathroom scales together, then weigh yourself and subtract your own weight. Doing this regularly can help identify any obesity problems – although weighing larger dogs can be more of a challenge, in most cases you will be able to spot your dog or cat putting on weight just by looking at them. Either way, regular vet checks mean your vet will be able to spot changes in your pet that might not be obvious changes to you, as you see them every day.
4. Ensure they are properly vaccinated & protected from parasites
Your pet dog or cat will naturally start to range less as they age – making them less prone to develop communicable diseases and pick up parasites. But that doesn’t mean you can rest easy, because their ability to resist and recover from any such diseases also declines markedly as their elderly immune system means their ability to fight off any infection is reduced.
Make sure that you maintain your vet’s recommended programmes for anti-worm, flea and heartworm in particular.
5. Ensure their toenails are kept maintained
As your ageing dog or cat starts to exercise less, they naturally wear their claws and toenails down less and less. Cats will generally self manage the issue – they trim their claws through sharpening, but dog toenails in particular can start to grow excessively long. If you feel comfortable trimming your dog’s nails, you should do so regularly, very carefully, just a small amount at a time – otherwise regular veterinary checkups can keep the issue manageable.
6. Watch for joint problems
Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of joint pain and stiffness in dogs and cats, and they will tend to experience symptoms related to this more often in the colder months. So, as winter approaches, it’s a good idea to have your pet checked for any developing issues because early identification before the condition becomes serious can be critical to managing it effectively without too much pain to your furry friends in their final years.
Keep an eye out for any difficulty or discomfort your dog or cat may have in getting up or down from a sitting or lying position, and see your vet immediately if you see any sudden deterioration. You should also notice that your cat is far less inclined to jumping than before – you may notice them meowing for assistance in situations they were previously comfortable with, or even injuring themselves mis-judging their jump.
It’s a good idea to make sure you provide your elderly pets with good comfortable, soft bedding – particularly in the winter months, and watch out for any obesity issues which can further strain ageing joints, while maintaining a regular, reduced intensity exercise regimen.
Poor diet can be a major contributing factor in the development of osteoarthritis, so it’s important to ensure your pets are getting an adequate, regular and nutrient-rich diet. A number of special formula foods are available, formulated to meet the needs of senior animals and their bone health in particular. Ask your vet about whether this would be appropriate if you have any concerns.
7. Check them for lumps and bumps
Cancer is a common concern for all elderly animals – and they become increasingly prone to developing unusual ‘lumps and bumps’ on their bodies as they age. Fortunately not all of these are cancerous, but you should conduct regular “hands on” inspections of your senior dog or cat from ‘tip to tail’ (this is one medical examination your pets tend to enjoy!) If you identify any new or unusual lumps during the inspection, you should contact your veterinarian immediately to have it diagnosed and treated as early as possible, just in case it does prove to be something serious.
8. Watch for hearing and vision loss
From a preventative perspective, as with humans there’s not a lot that pet owners can do to avoid the natural degeneration of their hearing and eyesight – other than avoiding aggravating factors like exposure to excessive amounts of loud noise. Consistently cleaning senior animals’ ears can help reduce the risk of any ear infection, which can be helpful as even mild infections can often compound your dog or cat’s natural rate of hearing loss.
It’s important that any potential hearing or eyesight issues in your dog or cat are identified as soon as they start developing so that a proper management plan can be put in place to ease the confusion and discomfort for your pets that can arise from degeneration in these vital faculties. This is one reason why we recommend senior dogs and cats over seven years of age receive regular, specialised and more frequent veterinary checkups than when they were younger.
Keep an eye out for signs of cloudiness in your dog or cat’s eyes as a sign that they may be developing cataract disease, as well as any signs they appear wobbly on their feet, start bumping into objects, or appear confused in familiar surroundings. Hearing loss can also cause them to appear occasionally confused, however the most obvious symptoms will be an apparent failure to hear or respond to commands from a distance or from the next room.
9. Watch for emerging dementia issues
Dementia often accompanies the ageing process in all animals – usually it is relatively mild and easily manageable, but in some cases the symptoms are severe. Like osteoarthritis, there is no cure for dementia in pets, but it can often be helped with certain specially formulated foods and medications.
If you notice that your senior animal is becoming confused in familiar surroundings, seems ‘vacant’ or significantly less responsive to commands than usual, or they appear to be making unusual vocal sounds to themselves or for no reason, these are often signs of the onset of dementia. If you observe any of these symptoms, you should contact your vet immediately, in order to put an effective management plan in place as soon as possible.
10. Watch for heart problems
Heart health naturally declines in all animals with age. Making sure they are maintaining an adequately nutritious but not excessive diet is important for avoiding obesity, which is a major contributing factor in the development of many heart conditions.
Heart conditions can be notoriously difficult to detect in dogs and cats. Keep an eye out for the most common symptoms – coughing, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance, loss of consciousness or unexplained vomiting in your senior pet, and see your vet immediately if you have any concerns.
Even though senior animals may have less exposure to the sort of outdoor areas where they are likely to acquire heartworm, we strongly recommend maintaining your pet’s heartworm protection regime into their senior years, ask your vet what’s most appropriate for them, based your animal’s unique circumstances.
11. Watch for gastrointestinal issues and incontinence
Elderly animals are increasingly more prone to develop gastrointestinal issues. Keep an eye out for any persistent vomiting or diahorrea in your senior dog or cat, which can be a sign of serious gastrointestinal problems. Nutrition and diet are obvious contributing factors, and many senior animals can benefit from switching to specially formulated age-appropriate foods.
If you notice any white or discoloured flecks in your pet’s stool, these can also be a sign that worms are present. It’s important to maintain your elderly pet’s worming regime, even though they are less likely to be exposed to risk factors as they roam less.
Older animals can sometimes experience toilet ‘accidents’ as the muscles controlling their bladders weaken, but incontinence can also be a sign of a bigger problem like a urinary tract infection. Accidents can also be an indicator of possible dementia or arthiritis.
If you see any of these signs in your senior pet, it is best to talk to your vet as soon as possible to get a clearer diagnosis of the issue.
12. Watch for kidney issues
Aging kidneys tend to lose their function as dogs and cats get older, and can be tricky to spot without a formal blood test by your vet. While chronic kidney failure can’t be cured, it can be managed with proper treatment, significantly reducing the effects, and improving your pet’s welfare in their final years. The correct diet can also assist in the management of any kidney issues.
Thyroid disease and/or high blood pressure are other common causes of renal failure whose risks also increase with age.
Excessive drinking or increased urination are two key symptoms to watch for – but the best way of ensuring any problems are diagnosed in a timely way is through regular veterinary checkups. At Clyde vet, we run an early kidney failure test to ensure any emerging kidney issues are quickly diagnosed and treated.
There are of course a million other little ways that you can give your dog or cat the preventative care regime they deserve – but following these twelve broad principles (none of which are hard work – it’s really just a matter of paying them a small amount of regular special attention) will ensure you’re across all the major issues that could possibly arise.
Consider after all the love and care they’ve given you down the years, that little bit of extra work is the least you can do. The reward is they’ll be happy and healthy by your side for many years to come.