Senior dogs and cats make wonderful companions but often require more care than their younger counterparts. It can also be hard to realize that our pet is getting older and slowing down because it seems to us like just yesterday, they were puppies and kittens. Cats especially are very good at masking illness and disease that may be present. If a disease can be detected early on, before a cat shows signs of illness, then steps can often be taken to manage or correct the problem before permanent damage occurs. The old saying that a dog’s year is worth 7 human years is not very accurate. It is difficult to exactly determine a dogs age in human years, as breed size and lifespans vary greatly. The general guidelines suggest that dogs are considered ‘mature’ when they have reached 50% of their lifespan (middle-aged), ‘senior’ when they have reached 75% of their lifespan and ‘geriatric’ when they have passed their life expectancy. Large dogs such as Labrador Retrievers are considered to be a senior dog at age 7 or 8 whereas small dogs such, as Shih Tzus are not considered to be a senior dog until they are around 10.
Why Do Older Dogs Need Special Care And Attention?
Age is not a disease, but many changes happen as dogs age, which can result in different diseases or disabilities.
• Vision and hearing can be impaired causing anxiety or reactive behaviors if your dog does not realize he is being approached.
• Older dogs have reduced energy requirements and can easily become obese.
• Obesity and age can both lead to arthritic pain and stiffness getting around.
• Cognitive function can decline, and dogs can experience similar symptoms to people with dementia, causing many behavioral changes.
• Immune function declines reducing the ability to fight infections including urinary tract, skin, and other infections.
Why Do Older Cats Need Special Care And Attention?
Common issues we see in older cats:
• The thyroid gland acts like a thermostat and sets the metabolic rate of the whole body (for more information, see handout “Thyroid Hormone Testing in Cats”). Thyroid disease is common in older cats, and hormone levels should be measured in all cats eight years of age and older as part of routine wellness testing. The most common thyroid disease in the cat is called hyperthyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone. This causes a marked increase in the body’s metabolic rate, and puts a strain on the heart, liver, and kidneys. Typical signs of hyperthyroidism in the cat are unexplained weight loss, increased appetite, restlessness, increased activity, increased thirst and urination, vomiting, and diarrhea.
• Obesity is a common fining in older cats. As your cat ages activity level may decrease. Indoor cats are especially at risk of developing weight problems due to sedentary lifestyle. When cats are overweight, they are higher risk of developing diabetes and many other issues.
• Just like in humans, the risk of developing cancer generally goes up with age. Chronic inflammatory processes can lead to cancer, so as out pets age their risk increases.
• Dental disease is a slowly progressing disease, but since our pets do not brush their teeth on a daily basis they can develop severe dental disease over their lifetime. Studies have shown that 50 to 90% of cats over the age of 4 have dental disease. Cats can experience gingivitis, cavities, reabsorption of teeth and bone infections from tooth decay. Signs of dental disease include bad breath, salivation, raw/bleeding gums and in some cases, reluctance to eat.
• Kidney disease is probably the most common health problem of older cats. Cats have specific dietary requirements because they are carnivores (meat eaters). Their kidneys are very efficient at removing the waste produced from metabolizing protein. As cats age, their kidneys sometimes become less efficient and they develop kidney disease. In most of these cases we see chronic kidney disease (CKD), which means it happens over a period of time. CKD can be caused by infections, genetics, and age related changes. The most common signs of older cats with kidney disease are drinking and urinating more, weight loss and vomiting.
• Cats are very agile. In their regular everyday activities they are often climbing and jumping. These activities can be very taxing on their joints, and as our cats age they often develop osteoarthritis. Cats are very good at masking joint pain, but there are subtle signs to look for. Arthritic cats may spend more time than usual sleeping and less time playing or hunting. Arthritis can present as stiffness and lameness, or your cat may not like to be petted or picked up if they are experiencing pain.
It is important to keep in mind that the aging process cannot be stopped and is normal, age is not a disease and is not a reason not to treat our pets. It is important to recognize and manage the illnesses that can occur as dogs age early so that we can help them have a higher quality of life even as a senior pet. Dogs and cats are much more stoic than humans and usually do not clearly show signs of disease or pain, so close observation is key. The earlier a problem is detected and identified; the more successful treatment is likely to be. Keep track of your pet’s energy levels, especially how long they are able to walk. If you notice significant declines, it could be a sign of pain, heart disease, or other illness. Regular veterinary examinations and discussions about your pet’s behaviors at home will allow your veterinarian to provide recommendations on how to keep your senior pet healthy. Working closely with your veterinarian will help detect disease earlier, enabling more effective management and treatment which will ensure the best quality of life for your senior pet.