By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you’ve raised a puppy or kitten, you know they’re a lot of work. Well worth it, but nevertheless hard! Taking care of a senior pet can be just as challenging, and for totally different reasons.
The good news is, dogs and cats are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, thanks to improved diets and thorough veterinary care. That translates to more time that you get to enjoy with your loyal furry friend.
But in order to make their lives as comfortable as possible in their later years, you do have to make some adjustments to how you handle their care. After all, older animals have unique dietary, physical, and health care needs.
When Are Dogs and Cats Considered “Senior” Pets?
Not all dogs are considered “senior” at the same age. It really depends on breed and genetics. Generally speaking, large breeds age faster and have shorter lifespans than smaller breeds. Chihuahuas, dachshunds, and other small breeds are considered senior when they reach about 10 years old. Medium breeds (Golden Retrievers and Bassett Hounds, for example) become senior citizens closer to age 8–9, and the largest breeds (like Great Danes) around age 5.
Cats tend to live much longer than dogs. They hit their senior years around 12 (give or take a year or two). It’s not unusual for a feline to live well into its late teens or twenties.
Signs of Aging in Dogs and Cats
The first signs of aging you might notice in your cat are gray hairs and subtle changes to eating or playing habits. Over time, your cat also might sleep more than usual, and start to develop vision, hearing, or dental problems. Arthritis is also a significant problem for older cats, and you may notice that your feline friend is no longer jumping on countertops. Older cats also may change their litterbox habits.
Dogs may also start to go gray as they enter their senior years, often in the face and muzzle. Some of the first major signs that your pup is starting to get old, though, are arthritis and joint/mobility issues. Other signs of aging in dogs include lumps on the skin, weight gain or loss, and incontinence or other changes in urinary/bowel habits.
Keep in mind, genetics and lifestyle play a big role in how well or poorly your dog or cat ages. So even if your pet is a “senior,” he may not show any signs of advanced age until years down the road. Hitting a certain age doesn’t mean health will automatically go downhill. By taking excellent care of your pet from adolescence straight through the senior years, you help manage—even slow—the aging process.
Tips for Caring for a Senior Pet
Here are some tips to better handle your dog’s or cat’s health and well-being through this time.
Keep Up with Veterinary Appointments
As your pet gets up there in age, you should be seeing your veterinarian more, not less. Both dogs and cats experience weakened immune systems as they get older, which makes them more prone to all sorts of ailments. Ideally, you should get wellness checkups every six months.
Once a year (or more, if warranted), the vet will want to do lab tests to help detect the onset of silent health issues. Remember, your animals can’t tell you if something hurts or feels off. This is why bloodwork and urinalysis are so important. For many potentially serious illnesses, there’s a grace period where, if caught early, they’re much easier (and usually less expensive) to treat and/or cure. This is often the case with diabetes, kidney problems, thyroid disease, just to name a few conditions.
Feed a Senior-Appropriate Diet
Figuring out the best diet for your senior pet is another good reason to stay in close contact with your veterinarian. Older dogs and cats have different nutritional needs than younger ones, and the vet can help you figure out what’s best for your pet.
One of the biggest obstacles to a pet’s health as they age is maintaining a healthy weight. For dogs, weight gain due to lack of energy or joint pain/mobility limitations is usually the issue. Overweight dogs and cats have a higher risk of developing many health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. On the other hand, cats also tend to lose weight with age, which can be sign that something more serious is going on.
The vet can help you select a food that ensures your pet gets all the nutrients he needs without gaining any excess weight. Many of these specialized senior formulas also contain extra nutrients, like L-carnitine, that can help ease some of the issues that plague older animals.
For cats in particular, digestive issues become more common with age. You may want to consider dosing food into smaller, but more frequent, meals throughout the day. And don’t forget to make sure your cat drinks plenty of water. If getting enough water becomes a concern, provide wet food or mix it into dry kibble.
Finally, it’s not uncommon for dogs and cats alike to become pickier with age. They may only want junky “treats” or human food, and turn their noses up to their regular food. Do your best to offer the healthiest foods possible— and try a healthy food topper to entice them. And if treats are all they want, look for healthier options, like freeze-dried varieties. Eventually dogs will get hungry enough to eat what’s put in from of them. Cats are trickier – they may actually refuse to eat and end up in liver failure if they are not provided with a diet they approve of. Do the best you can.
Fortifying your pet’s diet with certain supplements can help alleviate joint pain, digestive issues, and other common age-related health problems.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be helpful for dogs and cats with inflammation and mobility issues due to arthritis and kidney disease. These fatty acids also keep the skin and coat healthy. The best source of omega-3s for dogs is EPA and DHA from fish oil. They’re unable to effectively metabolize vegetarian omega-3 sources like flaxseed. Either give your dog fish or krill oil supplements, or feed whole anchovies or sardines.1
Glucosamine and chondroitin are also beneficial for senior dogs and cats with joint problems. One study found that arthritic dogs treated with this combo showed “statistically significant improvements in scores for pain, weight-bearing and severity of the condition by day 70.”2
Probiotics are excellent for improving digestive health—and so much more. Research shows that boosting the health and diversity of the microbiome can help dogs and cats with allergies, oral health, weight management, diabetes, and kidney disease.3
Finally, I highly recommend the addition of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). This powerful antioxidant supports immune and heart health, and cellular energy production. It may also keep gums healthy, which becomes much more difficult with age.
Speaking of dental and oral health…
Don’t Neglect Dental Health
You should be taking care of your pet’s teeth and gums from an early age, but it becomes even more critical in their senior years. Gum disease, cracked teeth, oral tumors, and other dental problems can cause a lot of pain and increase risk of other health concerns. Infections in the mouth can enter the bloodstream and eventually affect the heart, kidneys, and liver.
Be sure to brush your pet’s teeth regularly, using a finger brush and dog- or cat-friendly xylitol-free toothpaste. If he won’t let you do this, consider dental treats and toys that can help clean the teeth.
Schedule yearly cleanings with your vet, as well.
Older animals may have a harder time grooming themselves. Not only that, the coat and skin on dogs and cats can get dry, flaky, dull, and irritated if it’s not cared for properly.
Brushing your dog regularly can help, as does bathing him using gentle, naturally-sourced shampoos that nourish and heal irritated skin. When necessary, schedule more thorough grooming sessions with a professional groomer.
Proper grooming goes a long way for senior cats, too. Many older cats are unable to efficiently groom themselves, so owners need to pick up the slack. Long-haired cats need extra attention, as their fur can become very matted and tangled. Brushing regularly removes loose fur and stimulates circulation and secretions from the sebaceous glands, making the coat shinier.
Exercise and activity are valuable for all pets, but even more so as they age.
Movement not only keeps your dog lean, it helps maintain joints, muscles, and mobility. Tailor walks to your dog’s abilities. Maybe a half-mile walk back in the day was “just getting started,” but today it’s all your pup can take. That’s ok. Any exercise is a good amount of exercise! If walks are too much to handle, try other physical activities like dog parks or swimming.
Mental stimulation is also important. Provide food puzzles or puzzle toys, play hide-and-seek, do scavenger hunts, or create indoor obstacle courses. These activities keep your dog’s mind sharp.
Even the simple act of getting your pet outside is beneficial. If he suffers from arthritis and can’t walk, use a pet stroller. Or simply lounge around in your backyard or at a park so you both can enjoy the connection to the Earth.
When your pet was a baby, you probably puppy- or kitty-proofed your home. Well, now is the time to optimize your space to accommodate your senior pet’s needs.
- Baby gates may be needed to restrict access to stairs if your pet has vision or joint issues.
- Ramps help dogs get into or out of a bed or couch safely, without jumping and aggravating joint problems.
- Rugs may need to be added to prevent slips or falls; there are also products you can use on their nails or feet to help pets gain better traction
- Soft, orthopedic bedding can help keep your dog extra comfortable when he rests of sleeps.
- Provide carpeted cat ramps, which can help them climb to their favorite places safely, while also serving double duty as a scratching post.
- Move food and water from countertops to the floor, to prevent unnecessary jumping.
- Place litter boxes on every floor of your home to prevent accidents.
- If your cat has vision problems, you should address this with your vet.
Without a doubt, watching your dog or cat get old can be tough. But rather than stress or get depressed about the inevitable, do everything you can to provide a fun, warm, safe, healthy, and loving environment for your furry friend in his golden years. This will allow you both to cherish your time together a lot more.
*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners.
- Canine Arthritis Resources and Education (CARE). Overview of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for OA.
- McCarthy G, et al. Randomised double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis. Vet J2007 Jul;174(1):54-61.
- Wernimont S, et al. The effects of nutrition on the gastrointestinal microbiome of cats and dogs: Impact on health and disease. Front Microbiol. 2020;11:1266.
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