So you’ve noticed that Tippy is getting gray and tends to run into things more often. Or that Tabby seems to be sleeping more and doesn’t respond as quickly to the sound of the can opener. What’s going on? Does old age affect our pets the same way it affects us? You bet it does. And as our playful companions begin to age, their needs can change dramatically. Understanding these changes and what you need to do can help your pets live longer, fuller lives.

As animals move into the geriatric phase of life, they go through changes that are remarkably similar to aging humans: hair turns gray, the body begins to wear out, and senses dim. Diseases that are commonly known to afflict humans also affect our furry friends: kidney, heart, and liver disease; tumors; cancers; diabetes; depression; Alzheimer’s; and neuroses.

Since breeds and individuals have different lifestyles and different life expectancies, it is impossible to predict at what age you can expect to see changes. Generally, smaller breeds of dogs live longer than larger breeds, and cats live longer than dogs. Beyond that, the life span will vary with each individual, and your veterinarian will be able to help you determine what stage of life your furry friend is in.

Regular Exams May Save A Life

You know Tippy needs special care as she grows older, but what kind of care is needed and what exactly does it entail?

Geriatric care, which starts with a yearly physical exam, is needed to catch and delay the onset or progress of disease and for the early detection of problems such as organ failure. Regular screening throughout a pet’s life also provides your veterinarian with a benchmark against which to measure future test results.

If Tippy or Tabby have a history of serious, chronic medical problems, they may need to see the veterinarian for a routine exam more often. Even if your pet has no unusual problems, regular screenings and advice from the veterinarian can help you maintain Tabby’s body weight and condition and ensure a good quality of life during those senior years.

Chasing The Invisible Fly

As their major senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) dull, you may find that your pet has a slower response to general external stimuli. This loss of sensory perception often is a slow, progressive process, and it may escape your notice all together (yet another reason to take your pet to the veterinarian for a yearly physical exam). The best remedy for gradual sensory reduction is to keep your pet active-playing and training are excellent ways to keep their senses sharp. The same goes for pets as for humans: If they don’t use it, they’ll lose it.

Pets may also be affected mentally as they age. Just as your grandma and grandpa begin to forget things and are more susceptible to mental conditions, your aging animals may also begin to battle mental problems. Dogs, for example, can develop Alzheimer’s disease. (It is suspected that cats do too, but they wouldn’t dream of letting us know!) Depression and neuroses (mental conditions) may also be noticeable in your cat. She may chase invisible flies, or her behavior may seem more irritable or sad. As with any other condition, regular visits to your veterinarian can help catch and treat these problems before they control your pet’s life.

Physically Speaking

The physical changes your pets experience are generally easier to spot than the sensory changes. As the body wears out, its ability to respond to infection is reduced, and the healing process takes longer. Therefore, it is crucial to consult a veterinarian if you notice a significant change in behavior or the physical condition of your pet. Many of the signs indicating that animals are approaching senior citizenship are the same for both cats and dogs, but they can indicate a variety of different problems.

A very common and frustrating problem for aging pets is incontinence. The kidneys are one of the first organ systems to wear out on a cat or dog, and as hormone deficiencies affect the function of the kidneys, your once well-behaved pet may have trouble controlling his bathroom habits. If you are away all day, he may simply not be able to hold it any longer, or urine may dribble out while he sleeps at night. In addition, excessive urination or incontinence may be indicative of diabetes or kidney failure, both of which are treatable if caught early enough. So don’t be too angry if your once-obedient pet is suddenly unable to follow your established bathroom schedule. Be understanding and work with your veterinarian for treatments or tips on coping with these changes.

You Wouldn’t Send Grandma Out Into The Snow

Old age is inevitable, but many of the problems associated with it are preventable with diet, exercise, and regular checkups. Keeping your pets indoors as they get older is also an important change. If your elderly pets are not allowed to run around loose, they are less likely to be exposed to diseases, get in fights, or get hit by cars. And, just as you wouldn’t send your 90-year-old grandma out in a snowstorm, you don’t want to expose your pets to the wild elements. Even if they have been outdoor pets their entire lives, giving them shelter when the weather turns bad is important for their health and their longevity.

Many older pets benefit from specially formulated food that is designed with older bodies in mind. Obesity in pets is often the result of reduced exercise and overfeeding and is a risk factor for problems such as heart disease. Because older pets often have different nutritional requirements, these special foods (often high in fiber and low in fat) can help keep your pet’s weight under control and reduce consumption of nutrients that are risk factors for the development of diseases, as well as organ- or age-related changes.

Exercise is yet another aspect of preventive geriatric care for your companions. You should definitely keep them going as they get older-if they are cooped up or kept lying down, their bodies will deteriorate much more quickly. You may want to ease up a bit on the exercise with an arthritic or debilitated cat or dog. Otherwise, you should keep them as active-mentally and physically-as possible in order to keep them sharp.

And don’t forget an older pet’s physical limitations when it comes to little children. Quick and busy hands may be far more frightening to an older pet who can’t see, hear, or move easily away from the quick advances of a toddler. Avoid traumatic incidents for both the child and the pet by limiting a child’s accessibility to your older pets-no matter how well-behaved the child is or how good Tippy and Tabby were with children in their younger years.

Overall, each pet is different and will encounter different changes than their canine and feline companions. Not all preventive measures, such as a change in diet, may be necessary or even good for your pet. Be sure to monitor behavior and physical conditions and report anything unusual to your veterinarian, who can help all of you head into the twilight years with ease.

Recommendations for Aging Pets

  1. Keep vaccinations current
  2. Brush frequently to keep fur from matting
  3. Clip toenails to prevent overgrowth and to avoid slips and falls on slick surfaces
  4. Keep plenty of fresh water available and monitor consumption
  5. Keep other pets from preventing free access to water
  6. Keep indoors most of the time, especially in inclement weather
  7. Weigh on the same scale and record results every 60 days

Signs of a Problem

  1. Sustained, significant increase in water consumption or urination
  2. Weight loss
  3. Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than two days
  4. Significant increase in appetite
  5. Repeated vomiting
  6. Diarrhea lasting over three days
  7. Difficulty in passing stool or urine
  8. Change in housebreaking
  9. Lameness lasting more than five days or lameness in more than one leg
  10. Noticeable decrease in vision
  11. Open sores or scabs on the skin that persist for more than one week
  12. Foul mouth odor or drooling that lasts more than two days
  13. Increasing size of the abdomen
  14. Increasing inactivity or amount of time spent sleeping
  15. Hair loss, especially if accompanied by scratching or if in specific areas (as opposed to generalized)
  16. Excessive panting
  17. Inability to chew dry food
  18. Sudden collapse or bout of weakness
  19. A seizure (convulsion)
  20. Persistent coughing or gagging (dog)
  21. Breathing heavily or rapidly at rest (cat)