Caring for senior pets

Age is just a number, right? With all the advances in veterinary care over the years our pets are living longer healthier lives. That being said, it’s key pet owners are aware that the needs of your pet WILL change with age. Just because your pets are aging however, doesn’t mean they still can’t have a fantastic quality of life. Today’s blog is going to focus on important considerations for senior pet parents to help keep our golden oldies happy!

Regular vet visits are a must.

Pets are great at hiding problems, especially cats. While annual vet visits are important for pets of all ages, senior pets benefit from being seen more frequently. An exam with your vet every 6 months with your vet may be more appropriate for your senior pet. This allows for a good once over and potentially blood/urine testing to check organ function. 

Dietary needs change as pets age. 

Senior pets tend to require nutrients in different quantities than young and adult pets. Check that the food you are feeding is labelled for “senior” life stages or “mature adult”. Some products may also say best over a certain age like “7+”. There are even great diets out there that can support brain health in senior pets, particularly those with cognitive changes (see below). 

Weight management has always been key to good health, but it’s crucial for senior pets. 

Maintaining a healthy weight is essential for pets of all ages, but in our senior pets it’s even more crucial we avoid excess weight. Any weight above your pets “ideal” body condition not only exponentially increases their risks for developing diseases like diabetes or cardiac problems, but also skyrockets the amount of pain and inflammation in their joints. Senior pets are much more likely to suffer from arthritis and chronic pain, with overweight pets experiencing discomfort at a higher level. 

Routine is our friend. 

Senior pets are often more easily stressed by change. New places, people, and schedules are a common source of anxiety. Sticking as best as you can to a daily routine helps decrease anxiety. This can include waking up/going to bed at similar times, feeding at the same time in the same place, and engaging in activity at the same times. 

Decline in mobility and chronic pain are a common obstacle.

Like we mentioned in the weight section, arthritis is an issue in many senior pets. This contributes to a decline in mobility and difficult performing tasks that used to be easy or normal. Even changes as simple as sleeping more, being slower to get up or lay down, or not following you around the house may indicate pain. 

We need to consider joint support much more seriously as patients age, which may mean interventions such as joint support diets, supplements, pain control, weight control, etc. This may also mean changing your home, such as laying down carpets on slippery floors, blocking off stairs, making a ramp/small stairs to get on beds/couches, and ensuring easy access to food/water/litter boxes. 

TIP: Consider low walled non covered litter boxes on each level of your home for senior kitties! They’re much more likely to use them if they are easy to get TO and get IN.

Is your pet ignoring you? It might be a decline in their hearing or vision. 

While I firmly believe my older golden retriever has “selective hearing” (i.e. ignores me when I call him to come inside, but comes running to the kitchen if I open a bag of cheese), your pet ignoring you may actually be a sign that they are losing their hearing or vision. Making adjustments to how we signal our pets can help them adjust to these changes.

  • For pets losing hearing, start training for visual cues for sit/stay/come. 
  • For pets losing vision, consider soft verbal cues with an associated touch for commands. 
  • Avoid moving furniture if you can for pets with vision loss, as they often memorize the location of things within the home and associate them in relation to surrounding objects and smell.

Changes in behaviour might be more than just “getting old”….it could be cognitive dysfunction. 

Some changes in behavior with age are inevitable, but disorientation, confusion, anxiety, and changes in sleeping patterns may indicate a bigger problem. Check out our blog on canine cognitive dysfunction for more detailed information about this neurobehavioral disorder, and the importance of discussing it with your vet. 

Regular, short, low impact activity is encouraged!

Older pets may have the inclination to not participate in activity as whole heartedly as they used to. This may simply be due to normal changes like increased sleep needs and lower energy level, but also can be related to chronic pain. Keeping our senior pets moving in a safe and low impact manner is strongly encouraged. This helps promote a healthy weight, happy joints, and provides mental stimulation. Short walks are an easy free way to keep your pet moving, but also things like hydrotherapy (water therapy) or chiropractic work with a vet can make a major difference in comfort level. 

Vaccinations and parasite prevention are STILL important.  

Just because your pet is older, doesn’t mean they aren’t targets of infectious disease and parasites. Their risk level for certain types of these may differ based on lifestyle, however age alone does not prohibit pets from picking up things like viruses or worms. Vets regularly see adult and senior dogs positive for intestinal parasites that are not receiving regular preventatives. Senior pets still require protection, and the needs of your pet should be discussed with your vet. 

Love them a little (or a lot) extra.

Even though our senior pets might not be quite as active or rambunctious as they used to be, they’re still our babies. They still rely on us to provide for them, and cherish our days together more so than ever. I encourage people to remember to give their senior pet a little extra love every day, and remember how many wonderful times you’ve shared!

Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS