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How to care for your senior pets?

We all wish for a long and happy life for our pets. Thankfully, with better homecare, nutrition and veterinary medicine, pets are living longer than ever. There are some considerations for owners of our more elderly companions to help them live full, rich lives for as long as possible.

What age is considered ‘senior’?

Knowing when your pet is reaching their senior years is important to ensure you can provide the best care for them. Our golden oldies may need more support in their older years and may need some lifestyle changes.

The International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM) classifies a cat as being ‘senior’ once they reach the age of 11 and grants the excellent status of ‘super senior’ to those over 15 years.

Calculating when a dog becomes a senior is more complicated. The main consideration is size: small dogs generally live longer than large ones. Breed and lifestyle also play their roles. In general, small dogs become senior when they reach 9-10 years, medium sized dogs when they are 7-8 years, and large or giant breed dogs when they are just 5-6 years.

What happens to pets as they get older?

The ageing process is a gradual and natural one, but it comes with some challenges for our furry companions. They become more vulnerable to certain illnesses, and their immune system declines. Their senses of smell, taste, hearing and vision may decline, which can lead to behavioural change as well as medical challenges. They will need more rest throughout the day, and tolerate exercise and stress much less well. Some pets will experience some decline in their mental function.

How can we help our senior pets?

Our pets cannot tell us when they need extra support, so it is up to us owners to be on the lookout for signs that they might need some help. There are lots of small changes to our older pets’ lifestyles that can help them age gracefully and comfortably.

Regular health checks

As our pets age, their immune systems become less robust. There are also certain heath conditions that are more common in older animals, such as arthritis, kidney problems and heart disease, among others. Dental health is also likely to decline at this age. It is recommended that senior pets are seen twice yearly by a vet instead of just the one annual check, in order that any early warning signs of disease are picked up quickly, leading to more effective treatment. Your vet will perform a thorough examination, but may also discuss additional tests such as urine testing, blood pressure measurement or blood tests.

There are some signs that you might notice in your elderly companion that would be a good idea to get checked by a vet. If your pet starts drinking or weeing more, losing weight, not eating, changing their behaviour or struggling to get about and exercise, please do contact your veterinary surgeon for advice.

Diet

Older pets can struggle to maintain weight, mostly due to their decreased ability to digest fat and protein. Some also become less interested in food as their senses of smell and taste lessen. Older pets often benefit from a diet designed specifically for their senior years, to provide the correct nutrients in an easily digestible form. Remember to make any changes to your pet’s diet gradually, so as not to cause a tummy upset.

If your furry friend seems reluctant to eat, and dental problems have been ruled out by a vet, they may need their appetite tempted. Offer food little and often, somewhere calm without any noisy distractions. Try warming the food to room temperature to increase palatability, and try different textures – some elderly pets prefer softer foods without hard lumps.

Grooming and homecare

Our beloved golden oldies can find it more difficult to keep themselves clean and groomed, especially if they suffer from arthritis or other joint issues. Keep a close eye on their claws, coat condition, ears and bottom end to make sure they are clean, unmatted and free from parasites or infection. Many older pets enjoy a cuddle and gentle groom, and it is an excellent chance to check for any lumps or bumps. If your companion reacts negatively to a particular area being touched or groomed, seek advice from a vet as they may be painful.

Accessible home

Older pets may need extra support in your home: they might struggle with slippery floors, stairs or steps. They need plenty of rest in well-padded beds somewhere quiet away from drafts. They may need to go to the toilet more often, and so easy access to the outdoors, or litter trays in the case of cats, is important. It is worth thinking about how to make sure they can reach all their needs, such as water and food bowls, beds and toys, without having to go too far.

Exercise

Regular exercise is important both for maintaining good mental health and also to keep your pet’s bones and muscles active. Dogs may not need as long a walk as they did when they were younger, and cats may not go outside as often, but exercise should still be provided. Short walks for dogs, with plenty of opportunity to sniff around, alongside playtime at home with treat balls or puzzle feeders will keep you dog active but also happy and stimulated. Cats may benefit from puzzle feeders, toys and gentle playtime.

Specific concerns

If you are worried about the health of your pet, please do contact a veterinary surgeon. There are many ways we can help our senior friends to age gently and comfortably.