Part of the joy of owning a pet is growing and maturing together. As our pets become senescent it is important to understand that they will require an increased level of care, both medically and at home. Cats and dogs age at different rates and have different geriatric needs. Additionally, most large breed dogs age faster than small breed dogs.
Since cats think they are superior to dogs we will start with them. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), “seniors” range from 11 to 14 years old and your cat is considered “geriatric” after 15. Potential health concerns in an aging cat include: arthritis, cancer, cognitive (brain) disorders, constipation, deafness, dental disease, diabetes, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease, and/or vision problems. (Phew!)
The challenge lies in identifying signs of these diseases:
Did you know that an inability of your cat to jump may indicate diabetes? Most cats are very stoic and tend to hide pain or discomfort from even the most observant owners, so please share even small changes in your older cat with your Whole Pet vet. Signs of illness may include: increase or change in vocalization; inability to jump, run or play; decreased or increased appetite; weight gain or loss; changes in temperature preference (eg. 'My cat used to like sitting near the heater but now chooses to sit in the cool window sill or tiled bathroom floor'); changes in litter box habits; odor from mouth; or excessive licking over one body part.
For each calendar year, your cat ages about 6-7 years worth! For this reason, a physical exam by a veterinarian every 6 months for cats over 10 years old along with annual blood test screening contributes to early detection of illness and early treatment. Just think, that is an exam for your cat only every 3.5 years when compared to humans. Blood tests should be done on your young healthy cat annually after 3 years old to establish “normals” which allows the veterinarian to identify trends. In between exams use your observation skills to monitor for changes in weight, behavior, activity, or personality.
You can help your aging cat by making some changes at home. For pets with arthritis put food and water bowls in easy to access places or build a ramp or steps to the bowl. Add an extra water bowl or fountain because most aging pets, and people, need plenty of water. Add a component of moist food to your cat's diet at an early age to fend off dehydration and kidney disease. Supplements like glucosamine and fish oil should be started early to minimize arthritis pain and enhance organ health. Incorporating another litter box in a convenient area may be necessary. Since older cats are not as active as when young you may need to trim their nails more often to prevent overgrowth that can get caught in carpets and tear. Check them monthly. Cats may need help grooming when they are very aged so gently brush if they will allow. Be mindful: a 12 year old cat that is not grooming may be a sign of pain.
In general, a dog is considered senior between 7-10 years of age, although this varies between size dogs. Small breed dogs (become senior later) tend to live longer than the giant-breed dogs(senior earlier). The list of potential health problems for a dog is similar to that of a cat but with some variations. Arthritis, cancer, prostate disease, cognitive disorders, intestinal problems, deafness, dental disease, diabetes, heart disease, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, urinary incontinence, liver disease, and/or vision problems.
Many people believe falsely that a limping dog is NOT in pain. However, if you see your dog limping, it is most likely because the leg with the limp hurts. Sometimes limps are subtle and need a veterinarian to identify. Additional signs of illness may include: urine accidents; skin lumps; constipation or diarrhea; shortness of breath, coughing, or other difficulty breathing; weakness; changes in weight, appetite or water intake; increased vocalization; or uncharacteristic aggression.
Did you know that a 7 year old labrador is 50 in “dog years” and at age 13 they are 82! For this reason, a physical exam by a veterinarian every 6 months for dogs over 7 years old along with annual blood test screening contributes to early detection of illness and early treatment. Compared to human years that is really only a good check up about every 3 years. Blood tests should be done on younger dogs to establish “normals” which allows the veterinarian to identify trends. In between veterinary visits your dog relies on you to read subtle cues of illness.
Addressing your older pet's diet is one way that you can keep your senior canine healthy. Diets for senior pets should be lower in fat but not lower in protein. A good quality diet should contain a high quality protein as one of the first listed ingredients. Some high-end senior diets will be rich in antioxidants which will slow brain aging (Hills B/D).
Supplements are usually beneficial and should include fish oil for arthritis and organ health. A good quality glucosamine and chondroitin joint supplement reduces arthritis pain in most dogs. Finally if your pet is showing signs of brain aging there are several supplements available that have great promise. Recent research has also shown that behavioral enrichment and continued physical exercise in older dogs helps to slow dementia.