Caring for a senior pet
Cats and dogs may need special attention as they age, so it helps to understand what to expect as your pet gets older.
Cats and dogs age differently than humans. By the time your pet is a year or two old, she’s already a teenager in human years. By the time she’s ten, she’s considered middle-aged, and when she’s just a few years older than that, she’s well into her golden years.
But, like humans, pets experience changes as they age. Many of these common “senior signs” are normal, but it helps to understand what you might expect as your pet gets older. And remember, if you notice something very out of the ordinary, take your faithful friend to see your veterinarian.
- Dental disease – As cats and dogs age, they may develop dental issues or tooth loss. These issues may cause discomfort, difficulty eating, and potential health complications. If you suspect dental problems—perhaps your cat is drooling abnormally or your dog isn’t eating as much—consult your veterinarian.6
- Weight change – Older dogs and cats may have reduced activity levels and often experience weight gain. While weight gain is not uncommon, it’s crucial to pay attention if your senior dog or cat starts losing weight unexpectedly. This could be due to muscle loss, decreased appetite, decreased nutrient absorption, or underlying conditions such as hyperthyroidism in cats, diabetes, or renal disease. Any change in body weight that is not intentional can be a sign of an underlying disease. Contact your veterinarian if there is a drastic weight loss of 10 percent of their body weight or more. Making adjustments to their diet and exercise routine may be necessary to maintain a healthy weight.6
- Slowing down – Are you slowing down as you age? Your pet probably is, too. Your dog or cat may no longer be able to jump as high as she did in her prime, and she may sleep a lot more than usual (as hard as it might be to imagine her sleeping more!) Her grooming habits may trail off a bit, as those hard-to-reach areas become more difficult to groom. Older cats tend to lose muscle mass, causing them to slow down considerably and even have gait problems, especially in their hind legs.2
- Vision problems – Cat and dog eyes often become cloudy with a bluish tint in the pupil as they age. These are not cataracts. The condition is called lenticular sclerosis and is a normal sign of aging.3 You may want to have your pet’s eyes checked by your veterinarian just to make sure that the condition is normal and not another medical issue. Also, as pets age they can become more photosensitive, so older animals may not appreciate bright sunlight or well-lit areas.
- Hearing loss – Many cats and dogs experience hearing loss as they age, sometimes eventually resulting in a total loss of hearing.1 If you notice your older cat or dog not coming when you call as they used to, don’t be alarmed. It’s likely just a natural part of the aging process. However, hearing loss can also be caused by parasites, infection, or other ailments of the ear, so have your veterinarian check your pet’s ears to make sure that the loss isn’t caused by something treatable.1
- Incontinence– Involuntary loss of bladder control or difficulty with urination are signs to watch for in your pet. If you observe sudden lapses in housetraining or notice your pet straining during urination, it could be indicative of a urinary tract infection or kidney disease. Incontinence is not uncommon in senior pets. There are various medications and treatments available that can provide relief and help manage these conditions effectively. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the cause and find appropriate solutions for your pet.7
- Senility – Just like humans, pets can develop memory loss and dementia associated with old age.4 In cats, this may mean that they have trouble finding their litter box, they might meow or cry for no apparent reason, or they may undergo a general change in behavior. Research suggests cats can also develop Alzheimer’s disease.5
To care for your senior pet, make sure that she’s on the correct diet for her age group — your veterinarian should be able to give you dietary advice. Also, provide your pet with a couple of comfortable beds in her normal sleeping area(s). Try to keep her away from busy or noisy situations if these situations seem to be a source of stress (some animals love to be social). She may need a little more peace and quiet in her old age.
- Strain, George M. Deafness in Dogs. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/ear-disorders-of-dogs/deafness-in-dogs
- The Special Needs of the Senior Cat. Cornell Feline Health Center. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/special-needs-senior-cat
- Bromberg, Nancy M. Geriatrics. American College Of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. https://www.acvo.org/common-conditions-1/2018/2/2/geriatrics
- Cognitive Decline in Aging Dogs: What to Know. School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cognitive-decline-in-aging-dogs/
- Chambers, James. Cats get Alzheimer’s, too!? The University of Tokyo. https://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/focus/en/features/z1304_00042.html
- When should I switch my pet to a senior diet? Tufts University. https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2016/03/when-should-i-switch-my-pet-to-a-senior-diet/
- Urinary Incontinence in dogs. Veterinary Teaching Hospital. https://hospital.vetmed.wsu.edu/2021/10/26/urinary-incontinence-in-dogs/
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