Due to lifestyle improvements and advancements in health care, just like us, our pets are living longer. Their needs change as they age just as they do with us also, and there are some simple things you can do to help your pet remain healthy and happy throughout their senior years. Unsurprisingly many of them are common-sense approaches that apply to us as well, and if we can have “grey power” as we age, so can they.
Because they are all different, individual animals age differently, however there are some common issues that affect most dogs and cats
. For dogs, the size and breed is relevant, and larger dogs generally age more quickly than smaller dogs. A larger dog such as German Shepherd could be considered senior at seven to eight years, whereas a miniature poodle would not be considered senior until the early teens.
There is less variation with cats, who at seven to ten are in their “mature” years, but aren’t really considered to be senior until over ten. At 15 and above, they are very senior. With all animals, general health, medical history, nutrition and environment will influence aging. Genetics can also play a significant role.
How can I tell the age of my pet?
If you’ve adopted a pet, you may not know its age. Whilst that isn’t necessarily an issue when they’re younger, signs of ageing are important to watch for in case health care issues arise. Your vet will be able to estimate an animal’s age and point out the issues to which your pet might be more susceptible.
There is a variety of things to be aware of that are signs that your pet is reaching the senior years. Loss of vision and hearing can be signs, as can a reduction in mobility. A loss of cognitive function can be an indicator, however it may not always be easy to identify. Dental problems such as cracked or lose teeth can also be signs of age.
Time for colour and perm?
In dogs, greying is one of the more obvious signs, and dogs’ hair greys as they age just as ours does. It can start at a variety of ages and progress at different rates, but greying on the muzzle is usually indicative of older age. Remember that like us, some dogs will grey earlier than others, therefore it’s not an accurate way to estimate age. Golden Retrievers grey earlier for example, and with dogs who are grey in colour it could be impossible to detect. Cats also grey and may develop patches of white or grey hairs in their senior years.
Look into my eyes…
A discolouration of the lens of dogs’ eyes often changes as they age and if you look into their eyes you may notice greyish-blue discoloration. It is usually benign and can be a way to identify middle-aged to older dogs. Cloudiness could be a sign of cataracts, and is something that should be checked by a vet. In their later years, a cloudy appearance can appear in cats’ eyes which may be accompanied by tearing and/or discharge.
Say “cheese” so I can estimate your age
Like us, dogs and cats have two sets of teeth which can make estimating their age easier when they’re infants, but judging an animal’s age by its teeth gets more difficult as they age.
The teeth of adult dogs and cats change over time by accumulating tartar and stains, but the rates at which these changes occur varies by animal, and is influenced by diet and previous dental care. Teeth are therefore not a reliable way to judge age.
You don’t need a research grant to conduct your own behavioural studies
As dogs and cats age, their activity levels usually begin to decline. They may start to have difficulty climbing stairs, getting up from a nap, or jumping onto a couch. They may also start to sleep more. Declines in their cognitive ability could be indicated by confusion or seeming depressed. Keep an eye on how they appear to be coping. Symptoms similar to those in human senility can affect our pets and if you suspect that something’s awry, seek advice from your vet.
Veterinary care becomes increasingly important with age
Pets should receive regular check-ups by their vet at all ages, to identify and prevent potential health care issues as early as possible. They become even more important as pets age, as age-related issues may start slowly and symptoms can consequently be easy to miss. Regular check-ups will enable your vet to establish a baseline of what is normal so that changes can be detected and investigated. Blood tests and physical examinations will assist in determining what’s normal versus what’s not, and identify diseases early.
Eating for good health
Older animals that are less active will require fewer calories as they will have less opportunity to burn them. Maintaining serving sizes as activity levels decrease can lead to animals becoming overweight, which can put more stress on joints and contribute to other health issues. Animals require balanced, portion-controlled diets, just as we do and your vet can calculate a healthy weight for your aging pet by recommending an appropriate diet.
Being a couch potato isn’t good for anyone
In order for a senior pet to maintain a healthy body weight they will continue to need regular exercise even though their energy levels may be waning. Controlled xercise helps to keep joints healthy and to slow the progress of diseases such as arthritis. Walking is great exercise for dogs, and games around the home can help keep cats active.
When exercising older dogs, pay careful attention to signs that they could be tiring. They will instinctively try to keep up with you, so head home if they start to slow or appear tired. Take a bottle of water, and in particularly hot and humid weather walk them during the cooler times of the day and consider reducing the length of the walk. Swimming is great low impact exercise for dogs, but it must be carefully supervised the entire time the dog is in the water. Home swimming pools are often a safer and more controllable environment than open water, but the dog must have something it can reach quickly, such as steps or a ramp, to easily get out of the water without assistance. Specially designed canine swimming vests can help dogs who have difficulty with buoyancy.
Brush, brush, brush
Dental hygiene is important for our pets at all ages. They can’t tell us when they have a toothache therefore we need to keep their teeth and gums in good condition. Dental disease can lead to a range of health issues as well as causing pain and making eating difficult. Ideally, pets’ teeth should be brushed regularly and if the prospect of brushing their teeth is a little daunting then your vet can show you how.
A check-up and professional cleaning by your vet should be the starting point, followed by daily brushing at home and regular ongoing check-ups. Some animals won’t tolerate having their teeth brushed and in these cases dental treats, specially designed dental diets, and dental toys, can help. There is a variety of specifically designed dental products for dogs and cats, and remember to never use human toothpaste.
Use it or lose it…
Mental stimulation is important for us all at any stage of life, and it’s just as important for our pets. Games and interactive play help to keep their minds and bodies active, and the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks isn’t true. Teaching older dogs and cats tricks can help them to remain young at heart. The stimulation they get from a physical contact is also very important, therefore activities such as grooming, cuddles and petting helps to strengthen your bond and make them feel loved.
Improve mobility without a wheelie-walker
Arthritis and other joint problems can make mobility harder for senior pets. Ramps around the home can help to overcome the challenge of stairs and assist with their independence. Review the location of things such as beds, food bowls and litter to make sure they remain easily accessible.
Orthopaedic beds can help to relieve pressure on joints and some are available with heating elements. Rehabilitation therapies such as hydrotherapy, laser therapy and therapeutic massage can also help with pain management and assist in reducing the impacts of degenerative diseases. Vets4Pets offers an extensive range of rehabilitation therapies, including hydrotherapy at our Northgate hospital.
Seeing eye humans for dogs and cats
Loss of hearing and/or sight may be experienced by senior pets, and those who are affected will need extra assistance to keep them out of harm’s way. Ensure their homes are safe spaces by removing trip hazards, sharp and dangerous objects, as well as things that can fall and injure them if bumped. You may need to steer a pet through a room if they’re blind and deaf or use hand motions to guide a pet with hearing loss. As with any health care issue, check with your vet whether it can be improved or reversed. The removal of cataracts, for example, may resolve vision impairment.
Awareness of the symptoms of age in pets, prompt attention when issues arise, and regular ongoing veterinary care will help your senior pet enjoy their golden years. They can’t tell us the changes they’re experiencing, therefore it’s essential that we keep an eye out for them and take steps to minimise the negative impacts. We’re fortunate to have them with us for a longer time therefore we both reap the rewards of good senior health and the team at Vets4Pets can help navigate the pathway to it for your pet.