Getting older. As much as we might try to fight it, it’s something that happens to us all and pets are no exception. Just as your best friend’s needs changed when they grew from a puppy or kitten into an adult, they will change again as they transition into a senior. It is up to us, their guardians, to make sure that they are comfortable and cared for as they age.
Exactly when a pet is considered a senior depends on the animal’s species and breed. For dogs, it is generally between seven and ten years of age. Large and giant dogs become seniors earlier in life than small dogs. Cats are classified as senior around ten years of age.
What does seniority mean for animals? Much of the same things that it means for us- a slowing metabolism, decreased sharpness of the senses, and a growing fondness for naps. Health problems are more likely to start cropping up in older animals, so it’s important to see your veterinarian regularly. Every six months is recommended for healthy elders. Senior pets are at a higher risk for diabetes, kidney and liver problems, arthritis, intestinal diseases, and cancer. Catching these conditions when they start will be easier on you, your pet, and your wallet.
Though pets may not be considered seniors just yet, it’s generally suggested that owners start feeding senior diets around seven or eight years of age. This is the time when the metabolism begins to slow and the nutritional needs of animals change. Senior diets have less fat and more protein than foods labeled as being for adults. Many older pets who decline to eat have problems with their teeth; thankfully, these are usually easy for a veterinarian to fix. A loss of smell may lead to indifference toward food – if that is the case, you can try adding a bit of broth or canned food to their meal. Warming the food to roughly body temperature will help it smell more appetizing. If your pet is refusing to eat and/or losing weight, make an appointment with your veterinarian ASAP.
You may notice your pet’s body changing as they age. Like people, animals lose much of the fat that fills out their faces and may start to look more thin. There is a fat pad behind the eye that also starts to shrink, thus giving their eyes a sunken-in appearance. Their fur may change in texture and start to grey, especially around their muzzle. Cats may not be able to groom themselves as effectively as when they were younger, so regular brushing is a must. They may not scratch as much, either, necessitating that you keep their claws trimmed for them.
Like their human companions, animals can experience stiff joints and even arthritis as they age. You may have to make some changes to accommodate them, like a ramp off the porch instead of stairs or a litter box with lower sides. Extra blankets or cushy, supportive beds are appreciated by achy pets. Dogs may need to go for shorter runs or switch to walks. Never give them human pain relievers, especially aspirin or acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). These are deadly to pets! If you feel that your pet needs medication, make an appointment with your vet.
Older pets may have a harder time adapting to change, especially if their ability to see or hear is diminishing. To help them out, try to keep clutter to a minimum and resist rearranging your furniture. Use caution (and teach children to do the same) when approaching those who are hard of hearing or cannot see very well. Move slowly and make sure that the animal is aware of your presence before you reach out to touch them. Animals who are startled may bite as a reflex. When walking dogs who have troubles seeing, hearing, or act like they sometimes get confused, be sure to always have them on a leash. That way they cannot wander off and get lost.
Cats and dogs have a harder time regulating their body temperature as they get older. Be sure to provide them with warm, dry places to sleep and a way to cool themselves in the summer. Elder “outside” pets, like barn cats or ranch dogs, may need to transition into an indoor or semi indoor lifestyle.
Older pets can bring great joy to their human companions. They are often more mellow and don’t exhibit the behavioral problems that younger, more energetic pets might. We just need to be aware of what’s happening with them and be sure to give them the extra accommodations that they need.