Caring for Your Senior Pet

By: Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC

TVMA Member
Flower Mound, TX

Published June 2014

It’s tough getting old, and it can be for your pet too!

Aches and pains, slowing down, gaining or losing weight, diminished sight and hearing, memory shot to pieces—we can use these words to describe ourselves and our pets!

So what is a senior pet? When does a dog or cat transition from mature to senior to geriatric? For an owner and the veterinary staff, the first step is to determine the relative age of the pet as compared to human years. The old adage of one dog year equaling seven human years can provide an estimate, but dogs and cats age at different rates, primarily based on their size. Smaller pets have longer expected lifespans, and giant breeds are often considered senior at only five or six years of age.

Some common health issues to watch for in your older pets include:

  • Weight management: Being overweight or obese can have a major impact on other diseases, such as osteoarthritisDegeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone, most common from middle age onward. or diabetes, but losing weight may be the primary sign that another disease is affecting your pet, from kidney disease to cancer.
  • Excessive urination and/or drinking: Polyuria/polydipsia (PU/PD) can occur in pets that have kidney disease, diabetes or other endocrine (glandular) problems.
  • Heart disease: From enlarged hearts to mitral valve disease to heart failure, heart problems occur in pet, but usually not quite the same as in people (atherosclerosis A disease of the arteries characterized by the deposition of plaques of fatty material on their inner walls. and heart attacks). LethargyA lack of energy and enthusiasm., exercise intolerance and coughing in later stages may be signs that the heart is not functioning properly.
  • Dental health: As pets reach their senior years, periodontalSurrounding or encasing a tooth. disease and other oral diseases often intensify and can cause significant pain, especially in smaller patients. The infection of dental disease can make other diseases worse (heart, kidney, lung), so regular dental care is needed to keep infection under control.
  • Nutrition: Even healthy senior and geriatric pets will have changing nutritional needs, and when a specific disease is present, dietary requirements can get even more complicated. Your veterinarian is the best resource for diet selection.
  • Behavior: While some decrease in mental capabilities is normal in older pets, more advanced cases may exhibit cognitive dysfunction, in which sleeping cycles are disrupted, house-soiling may start, activity may be decreased or seem aimless and pets won’t respond to family members.
  • Cancer: While you never want to hear the dreaded word, discovering a cancer in its early stages will give your pet the best options. Be familiar with your pet so if any unusual lumps or bumps start to appear, you can have them checked out by your Texas veterinarian.

Preventing Older-Pet Health Issues

With many of these conditions, early detection before the problem is too advanced may be critical in keeping your pet as healthy as possible. Clinical screening of healthy pets prior to their senior years can set baselines for comparison when your pet’s systems begin to experience changes. Regular physical examinations at your veterinarian’s office (yearly to twice-yearly) can be paired with discussions about any minor changes you may be noticing. Bloodwork and urinalysisAnalysis of urine by physical, chemical, and microscopical means to test for the presence of disease, drugs, etc. can help give an indication if there is any organ dysfunction occurring. Radiographs (X-rays) of the chest and abdomen can be helpful to monitor for heart and lung disease in your older pets, as well as possible issues in the abdomen. Maintaining preventative care, such as regular vaccinations, dental and oral care and appropriate nutrition, can optimize the “health span” of your pets.

Difficult Decisions for Older Pets

So when does it—or should it—all end? Many conditions in seniors are not acute episodes where something can be cured but involve long-term management and therapy, with a goal of providing the best quality of life for that patient. Some important considerations in evaluating the life quality of your older pets include how well the pets are eating. Does it seem to be in any pain? Is your senior able to eliminate (urinate, defecate) fairly normally and in appropriate places? Is there still a reasonable amount of purposeful activity, interaction and play?

Most often, this is gradual decline, without a specific event that lets you know when it’s “time.” This is the most difficult decision a pet owner has to make, but if you keep focused on the good times you had together and realize their current quality of life may not justify keeping your beloved pet around a bit longer, then it’s time to do the right thing for your senior pet. Many clinics will discuss with you the special procedure and work with you to make this as peaceful as possible for both you and your pet.

Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DAVDC (Diplomate, American Veterinary Dental College), practices dental specialty at Main Street Veterinary Hospital.