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When is a pet considered a senior?
There is no set age at which every pet is considered a senior. Many veterinarians believe that a pet is considered a ‘senior’ when he reaches the last third of his normal life expectancy. For cats, this can be a little easier to judge – because most cats have a similar life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, most cats are considered senior around the same age, 8 to 10 years. Dogs can be a little trickier – because different breeds have such different life spans, the age at which a dog is considered senior can vary greatly. For instance, a large breed dog like a Great Dane that lives an average of nine years would be considered ‘senior’ at the age of six. A miniature poodle that normally lives to be 15 years old wouldn’t be considered ‘senior’ until the age of ten. These are just estimations, and owners need to remember that aging is a lifelong and gradual process.
The Effects of Aging
Owners generally start to see a ‘slowing down’ in their senior pets. All the major senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) dull, so you may find your pet has a slower response to outside stimuli. The loss of sensory perceptions is a gradual process, and may initially escape an owner’s notice. The best remedy for gradual sensory reduction is to keep your pet active – both mentally and physically – which will help keep senses sharp.
Pets may be affected mentally as they age – just as aging humans begin to forget things, your aging pet may begin to have cognitive or behavior related changes. Most of these changes are subtle and can be managed in a proactive manner – keep your pet in his comfort zone. Avoid making changes in the home such as moving furniture around – dogs remember their world in pictures, and may become confused if their surroundings don’t match their mental map. Play games and continue training – old dogs can learn new tricks!
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
If your pet’s behavior goes beyond what most pet owners consider ‘normal’ signs of old age, he may have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, otherwise known as ‘Doggie Alzheimer’s’. In addition to regular aging changes such as hearing loss, loss of vision, and arthritic changes, CCD can have other signs:
If you notice that your dog is showing signs of CCD, talk to your veterinarian. After your vet has ruled out other possible causes for the symptoms and has determined it is indeed CCD, treatments are available. Over the counter remedies such as fish oil have shown to offer some improvement, and several prescription medications are now also available through your veterinarian. Although these medications are not a cure, they have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms. If these drugs help your dog, most will need to remain on them the rest of their lives.
The physical differences in your pets are generally easier to spot than sensory changes. As the body ages, its ability to fight infection is reduced, and the healing process takes longer. Because of this it is crucial to consult a veterinarian if you notice a significant change in the behavior or the physical condition of your pet. Many of the signs that our pets are approaching their senior status are the same for cats and dogs, but they present a variety of different problems. Be on the lookout for these warning signs, as they could be the first indicator of something more serious:
Because these symptoms may indicate a more serious disease, it is important to partner with your veterinarian as soon as symptoms are noted.
In addition to these more serious symptoms, other age related changes can occur. A common and frustrating problem for many owners of senior pets is inappropriate elimination, or loss of housebreaking skills. The kidneys are one of the most common organ systems to wear out on a cat or dog, and as hormone imbalances affect kidney function, your once well-behaved pet may have trouble controlling their bathroom habits. If you are away all day, he simply may not be able to hold it as long as he used to, or urine may dribble out while he sleeps at night. Excess urination or incontinence may be due to diabetes or kidney failure, both of which are treatable if caught early enough.
Did you know the number one reason owners end up euthanizing senior animals is not due to an untreatable disease or cancer, but for inappropriate elimination? Coming home to accidents can be very frustrating, but there are solutions!
1. First, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes. A simple urinary tract infection can be cured with a course of antibiotics – there might be an easy answer to the problem!
2. Compromise – your older pet just might not be able to hold it as long. Work out a schedule that allows more frequent trips outside.
3. Be consistent – sometimes a little retraining will do the trick. Treat your senior like a puppy again, with visits outside every hour on the hour, with lots of treats and praise when they get it right.
4. Confine – If they still can’t quite make it, baby gate them in a room with easy to clean tile or linoleum, with easy to pick up potty pads or newspapers in a designated corner.
5. Contain – Though more practical for small dogs, doggie diapers are an easy way to contain urinary accidents while you are gone.
6. Medicate – After ruling out an underlying medical condition, there are additional medications that specifically help incontinence. These are designed to help tighten the bladder sphincter muscle to help prevent leaking or dribbling, and enable the dog to better control when they urinate.
Arthritis in dogs is one of the most common health problems seen by veterinarians – unfortunately, dog owners and vets rarely notice the early warning signs. Dogs have the ability to mask soreness or discomfort until the arthritic changes in the joints have progressed significantly. Arthritis is a progressive condition that involves the breakdown of cartilage, which then causes inflammation of the joint, leading to pain and swelling. Arthritis can be caused by –
The end factor of all of these is that the joint does not function properly, and the nerve endings that support the joint structure are irritated. This irritation causes pain and inflammation, resulting in a dog that limps, rests often, has trouble getting up and down the stairs, and is otherwise reluctant to move in a normal fashion.
Partner with your veterinarian to find the best combination of therapies for your pet. Fortunately, there are many safe supplements and lifestyle changes that can make your pet more comfortable –
1. Weight management – Excess weight puts additional strain on already weakened joints. Keeping your pet slim helps decrease the pressure on sore joints and alleviate arthritis symptoms.
2. High Quality Nutrition – A proper amount of protein will help support lean muscle mass, which in turn supports weak joints.
3. Glucosamine & Chondroitin – These supplements are a safe and effective way used to help decrease cartilage loss and reduce inflammation. Aim to give about 50mg/kg per day, or about 1000 mg/day for a 50 lb dog. In severe cases, doses can be doubled without risk of side effects.
4. Fish Oil – Omega-3 fatty acids are proven to decrease inflammation in the joint, therefore decreasing pain. Use in conjunction with glucosamine for maximum results. Dosage varies based on supplement.
5. Provide a comfortable place to rest – Provide a comfortable but supportive bed for your pet. Your joints would ache after lying on a hard floor all day, and so will theirs!
You Are What You Eat
Obesity management is vitally important in senior pets. One of the most common health problems, and also the easiest to prevent, is obesity. As your dog or cat ages, his metabolism slows and his caloric needs decrease. If you continue to feed a senior dog the same amount you did when he was younger, he will likely gain weight. Weight gain can severely exacerbate arthritis symptoms, and increase risk factors for problems like heart disease.
What About Protein?
You may have heard that as pets get older, they need decreased protein levels. This is a MYTH! Unless a dog has diagnosed kidney disease, there is no reason they should consume less protein. In fact, as pets age their bodies are less efficient at absorbing vital nutrients. Current research shows that healthy older benefits actually benefit from an increase in protein levels, which help maintain lean muscle mass. There are many senior foods now available that have an increased amount of protein, but fewer overall calories to prevent weight gain.
Sweatin’ to the Oldies
Exercise is another aspect of preventative geriatric care for your pets. Owners should keep pets active as they age – if kept sedentary, their bodies will deteriorate more rapidly. Don’t jump into it too quickly though- adjust the frequency and intensity of the exercise to match your pet’s abilities. Low-impact swimming or shorter, more frequent walks can help keep your dog in shape and his weight under control. If your pet has arthritis or is stiff and sore, allowing them access to a ramp to get up and down from higher areas will make it easier on their joints.
Tell Me Where it Hurts
Pets can experience pain just like humans do, but they can’t tell us what hurts. Pets may express discomfort by growling, snapping, and being less amenable to handling than before. Owners should not discount this as grumpy old age – there may be underlying pain causing them to react. Owners should work with their veterinarians to identify, prevent, and minimize pain in pets. Pain can occur suddenly as the result of an injury or infection, or can develop slowly and be chronic in nature, like arthritis. Your vet can recommend over the counter supplements or prescription anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers to help keep your pet comfortable into their twilight years.
Need a Mint?
It is estimated that 80% of dogs exhibit signs of gum disease, some as early as the age of three. Dental disease and rotting teeth can cause a horrible odor – worse than regular old ‘doggie breath.’ A good dental routine, started at an early age, is the best way to ensure that your pet will have healthy teeth and gums for the duration of his life. Your pet’s dental program should involve daily (or at least weekly) brushing, regular dental checkups, and professional cleaning as needed. Providing lots of chew toys can also help reduce tartar build up.
Dental disease can cause more than bad breath – if you notice changes in appetite, or your pet seems to have trouble chewing, chances are there could be a broken tooth or a painful infection. If dental disease is left unchecked, it can lead to –
If bacteria get from the mouth to the bloodstream due to severe infection, far more serious problems can occur. These bacteria can migrate to the heart valves, leading to heart murmurs, or cause sepsis and kidney failure.
A Visit to the Vet
Even though it may not be your pet’s favorite place, scheduling a regular wellness checkup can catch serious problems early, when they have a chance at treatment. Early detection can catch and delay the onset or progress of disease, and it is recommended that healthy senior dogs and cats visit the vet every six months for a complete exam. Keep in mind that every year for a pet is the equivalent of five to seven human years, so you don’t want to let too much time pass between checkups. Taking your pet to the vet when it’s healthy will also give you and your veterinarian normal baseline values – if you know what the blood work is like when it’s normal, subtle changes are easier to spot later on.
Just because your pet has reached their senior years doesn’t mean they can’t be healthy and a part of your active lifestyle. Higher quality pet food, preventative care, and veterinary technology are allowing our dogs and cats to live longer than ever! Utilize the many advances in nutrition, supplements, and medical care to help your pet live a long, comfortable life well into their golden years.
Just as the health care needs of humans change as they age, so do the needs of pets. As your pet ages, you can see outward signs – a gray muzzle, less exuberance, and decreased mobility. There are also internal signs you can’t see, like a slowing metabolism and changing nutritional requirements. Pet owners can use a combination of nutrition, care, and therapies to ensure their senior pet lives a long and comfortable life.
Thanks to better nutrition, improved care, and advances in veterinary medicine, pets are living longer than ever before. Unfortunately, what comes along with this increased lifespan is an increase in the types and number of ailments that can afflict our senior pets. As pets reach their golden years, there are a variety of problems they can face –
• Weight and mobility changes
• Kidney disease
• Heart disease
• Liver disease
• Thyroid imbalance
• Cognitive dysfunction
At PetPeople we are a group of dedicated and passionate pet people. We are so enthusiastic to engage our customers, exchange information, and work together to solve common pet problems. We hope you will continue to come to us with questions, problems or situations regarding your pets’ care. It is our goal to be a partner with you and your veterinarian in the health and well-being of your pet.
While we are happy to advise you and share our knowledge with you, we would never propose that our recommendations be used instead of consulting with your veterinarian about any concerns or issues. You know your pet better than anyone, and should always use your best judgement regarding obtaining the best care for your pet. ©2015 PetPeople Enterprises, LLC