Caring For Senior Pets - What You Need To Know

In recent years there has been extensive research on the problems facing older pets and how their owners and veterinarians can best handle their special needs.

Older pets, especially large dogs, are vulnerable to arthritis and other joint diseases, and the signs you see can vary. Due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, pets are living longer now than they ever have before.

One consequence of this is that pets, along with their owners and veterinarians, are faced with a whole new set of age-related conditions.

Q: When does a pet become "old"?

It varies, but cats and small dogs are generally considered geriatric at the age of 7. Larger breed dogs tend to have shorter life spans and are considered geriatric when they are approximately 6 years of age. Owners tend to want to think of their pet's age in human terms.

Age: Human Equivalents for Older Pets

Q: What kinds of health problems can affect older pets?

Geriatric pets can develop many of the same problems seen in older people, such as:
  • cancer 
  • heart disease 
  • kidney/urinary tract disease 
  • liver disease 
  • diabetes 
  • joint or bone disease 
  • senility 
  • weakness 

Q: I know my pet is getting older. How do I help them stay happy and healthy for as long as possible?

Talk to your veterinarian about how to care for your older pet and be prepared for possible age-related health issues. 

Senior pets require increased attention, including more frequent visits to the veterinarian, possible changes in diet, and in some cases alterations to their home environment.

Here are some basic considerations when caring for older pets:

Area of concernDescription
Increased veterinary careGeriatric pets should have semi-annual veterinary visits instead of annual visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected early and treated. Senior pet exams are similar to those for younger pets, but are more in depth, and may include dental care, possible bloodwork, and specific checks for physical signs of diseases that are more likey in older pets.

Diet and nutritionGeriatric pets often need foods that are more readily digested, and have different calorie levels and ingredients, and anti-aging nutrients

Weight controlWeight gain in geriatric dogs increases the risk of health problems, whereas weight loss is a bigger concern for geriatric cats.

Parasite controlOlder pets' immune systems are not as healthy as those of younger animals; as a result, they can't fight off diseases or heal as fast as younger pets

Maintaining mobilityAs with older people, keeping older pets mobile through appropriate exercise helps keep them healthier and more mobile.

VaccinationYour pet's vaccination needs may change with age. The vaccinations your pet received when younger last the lifetime of your pet. See Dangers of vaccinations.

Mental healthPets can show signs of senility. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active. If any changes in your pet's behavior are noticed, please consult your veterinarian.

Environmental considerationsOlder pets may need changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs, more time indoors, etc. Disabled pets have special needs which can be discussed with your veterinarian

Reproductive diseasesNon-neutered/non-spayed geriatric pets are at higher risk of mammary, testicular, and prostate cancers.

Q: My older pet is exhibiting changes in behavior. What's going on?

Before any medical signs become apparent, behavioral changes can serve as important indicators that something is changing in an older pet, which may be due to medical or other reasons. 

As your pet's owner, you serve a critical role in detecting early signs of disease because you interact and care for your pet on a daily basis and are familiar with your pet's behavior and routines. 

If your pet is showing any change in behavior or other warning signs of disease, contact your veterinarian and provide them with a list of the changes you have observed in your pet. 

Sometimes, the changes may seem contradictory - such as an older pet that has symptoms of hearing loss but also seems more sensitive to strange sounds.

Possible Behavior Changes in Older Pets

  • Increased reaction to sounds 
  • Increased vocalization 
  • Confusion 
  • Disorientation 
  • Decreased interaction w/humans 
  • Increased irritability 
  • Decreased response to commands 
  • Increased aggressive/protective behavior 
  • Increased anxiety 
  • House soiling 
  • Decreased self-hygiene/grooming 
  • Repetitive activity 
  • Increased wandering 
  • Change in sleep cycles 

Q: Is my pet becoming senile?

Possibly. Once any underlying or other disease causes have been ruled out, there is a chance your pet may be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. 

Studies conducted in the early 1990s were the first to identify brain changes in older dogs that were similar to brain changes seen in humans with Alzheimer's disease (ie, ß-amyloid deposits). 

Laboratory tests were also developed in the 1990s to detect learning and memory deficits in older dogs. Recently these studies have started on younger dogs in order to fully understand the effect of aging on the canine brain. Similar studies in young and older cats are also ongoing.

While researchers are still not able to identify any genetic cause of why certain animals develop cognitive dysfunction, there are drugs and specific diets available that can help manage cognitive dysfunction in dogs. 

If you think your pet is becoming senile, discuss it with your veterinarian.

Q: What are the common signs of disease in an older pet?

The signs you might see will vary with the disease or problem affecting your pet, and some signs can be seen with more than one problem. As the pet's owner, you can provide your veterinarian with valuable information that can help them determine what is going on with your pet.

Common Warning Signs of Disease in Older Pets

  • Kidney disease 
  • Urinary tract disease 
  • Heart disease 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Increased urination/spotting or "accidents" in the house 
  • Coughing 
  • Increased thirst 
  • Straining to urinate 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Increased urination 
  • Blood in urine 
  • Decreased tolerance of exercise 
  • Decreased or no urination 
  • Weakness 
  • Poor hair coat 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Vomiting 
  • Sore mouth

Q: How common is cancer in older pets?

In pets the rate of cancer increases with age. 

Cancer is responsible for approximately half the deaths of pets over 10 years of age. 

Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, while cats tend to have lower rates of cancer. 

Some cancers, such as breast or testicular cancer, are largely preventable by spaying and neutering. 

A diagnosis of cancer may be based on x-rays, blood tests, physical appearance of tumors, and other physical signs. The ultimate test for cancer is through confirmation via a biopsy.