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Care Guide for Your Senior Pets

Just like people, pets go through physical and mental changes with age. Unfortunately, they can’t tell us
the specifics about these changes, their needs, or concerns – or can they? Don’t speak dog? Can’t talk cat? No problem! Your older pet is cluing you in through changes in behavior, activity level, and daily routine. 

While the age a pet is considered a senior varies based on species and size, there are many ways you can help keep Fluffy and Fido happy and healthy. 

First, let’s look at common conditions in older pets. 

Cognitive dysfunction. With advances in modern veterinary medicine come a longer life span for many pets. Along with this, age-related cognitive changes occur. Examples include house-soiling or changes in litter box use, increased anxiety or aggression, and increased or decreased social interaction.

Aches and pains of aging. Detecting pain in cats and dogs can be difficult. Unlike people, pets can’t say, “Hey, my hips are really starting to bother me. Can you call the vet?” Your pet may be communicating discomfort through changes in behaviors. Increased panting (in dogs) and changes in hygiene (decreased grooming, especially with cats) are two examples. Difficulty or reluctance to get up and/or jump are also signs your pet may be experiencing age-related aches and pains.

Health conditions. As pets age, they become more susceptible to illness and disease. What to look out for? Changes in behavior, social interaction, activity, and hygiene. Additionally, it is important to pay close attention to eating, drinking, bathroom habits, weight, energy level, mobility, and sleep patterns.

Help your beloved pets as they age.

Stay in tune to how your pet is aging, and you’ll add years of enjoyment to your relationship. Here are some things to look out for and strategies for making the most of senior years: 

Environmental enrichment. You can teach old dogs (and yes, even cats) new tricks! Senior pets may have limitations in mobility, vision, and/or other senses, but don’t let that stop you from creating new activities you can do with them. Creating and maintaining social interactions, sensory stimulation, and exercise are critical in slowing cognitive decline. It is important to take into consideration your pet’s limitations.

Pet puzzles are becoming increasingly popular. These aid in sensory and mental stimulation. You might try creating a shell game with lightweight cups or small boxes and hide treats under a few of the shells. Encourage your dog to sniff out the treats. Games and puzzles are especially important for pets with limited mobility that cannot get up and experience a variety of stimuli.

Positive reinforcement training that includes praise, treats, or a toy reward can be used to help your pet perform mind-stimulating tasks that aren’t too physically taxing. For example, train your dog to touch its nose to your hand. Other ways to engage your senior pet include visual and auditory sensory stimulation with car-rides, daily walks, and species-specific pheromones.

Weight management and exercise. Pets with decreased or limited mobility are prone to weight gain. As pets age, this added weight is more challenging for joints to handle.

Low impact, daily exercise can help with weight management and joint disease. Daily walks are ideal for dogs, and perhaps, some cats. If your cats enjoy toys, make play a daily activity, even if it’s for a limited time. Every minute counts.

Talk with your veterinarian about diet, including brand, amount, and frequency. Senior pets have different nutritional needs. Your veterinarian is the best resource for diet and/or supplement recommendations.

Stay on top of your pet’s wellness schedule. Don’t let the hustle and bustle of work and daily life take over! Many clinics will book your pet’s wellness visit months in advance. Some clinics have added the convenience of online and/or app scheduling. Plan for your pet’s wellness visit by writing down any questions you might have for the veterinarian.

Depending on your pet’s age and health, your veterinarian may recommend more frequent check-ups. Have your pet’s veterinary team examine your pet to help detect diseases sooner, rather than later.

No matter how old your pet is, understanding your pets’ needs as they age, keeping mind and body sharp, and planning in advance can not only keep them healthy and happy, but it can also enhance your bond with your faithful companion. 

Kaitlyn Hemsley, DVM, graduated from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. Her interest in integrative care and dedication to improve her patient’s overall health and wellbeing provided the foundation for her practice House Call Vet RVAA. She provides mobile and end-of-life care for companion animals in the greater Richmond area.
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