Just like people, pets slow down and can become more fragile as they age. Most cats and dogs over the age of 7 are considered senior, and it’s important to keep an eye out for any physical and/or behavioral changes. While we can’t stop our pets’ aging process, we can improve their quality of life and keep chronic conditions under control.
Although many conditions can occur with age, some are more common than others:
Dental disease – Symptoms may include bad breath, plaque, red/swollen gums and excessive drooling. Pets may drop food out of their mouths, or avoid eating on one side due to pain. Bleeding in the mouth while eating, decreased appetite, and loose or missing teeth may also occur. Daily brushing started at a young age will greatly reduce the buildup of plaque and tartar.
Hypothyroidism/Hyperthyroidism – Symptoms of hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels) in dogs include weight gain, dry or dull hair coat, hair loss and cold intolerance. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism (high thyroid levels) in cats can include weight loss despite increased appetite, increased vocalization, vomiting, increased thirst and urination, frequent bowel movements, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, poor coat health, and irritability.
Tumors – Tumors are usually categorized as unusual growths or abnormal lumps and bumps that form on (or in) the body. Lumps that appear quickly and grow rapidly should be brought to the attention of a veterinarian as soon as possible—these growths may be cancerous and require veterinary attention to determine the course of treatment.
Arthritis/Orthopedic problems – Symptoms include stiffness, lameness, difficulty rising from a resting position, reluctance to run and jump, lagging behind on walks, difficulty climbing stairs, etc. The use of a glucosamine chondroitin supplement can be very helpful to aging pets.
Obesity – As pets age, they tend to become more sedentary. Maintaining good portion control as pets age can be vital in keeping them at a healthy weight. Light activity, even with our senior pets, can really attribute to a healthy weight.
Cognitive dysfunction – As our pets age, their cognitive function can start to decrease. It is important to be mindful of any changes you notice in your pets’ daily routine. Some things to watch for include reduced activity, confusion and disorientation, staring into space, less frequent interaction with the family, inability to recognize familiar people, abnormal sleep patterns, and loss of the ability to maintain housetraining function. Many factors can contribute to a change in your pet’s housetraining activities— it is always best to consult your veterinarian if you notice any changes.
Diabetes – Symptoms include increased water intake, increased urination, increase appetite with weight loss, walking low on the hocks, dull hair coat, and vomiting. It is important to contact your veterinarian if any of these changes occur.
Renal or kidney disease – As pets age there is an increased risk of liver and kidney disease. Some of these symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, bad breath, physical weakness, depression, increased thirst, excessive drinking, increased urination, and loss of weight, muscle and appetite. A blood test can help to rule out any changes in organ function.
Congestive heart failure – Symptoms can include increased respiratory effort, labored breathing, distended abdomen, vomiting, weight loss or collapse. This is a medical emergency—contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Physical impairments – As our pets age, their senses may begin to dull. Just like humans, our pets may also have a decrease in vision and hearing. Pets with decreased vision can still continue to thrive in their usual environments. Pets can become accustomed to their surroundings and navigate quite well as long as the layout of the home is not drastically changed.
How to manage your pet’s aging process:
It’s difficult to watch your pet get older. Many illnesses have similar symptoms, and it can be confusing to try to figure out what’s ailing your pet. Some illnesses could be fatal if left untreated, while others are simply part of the aging process. It’s important to be proactive in obtaining early detection, diagnosis and treatment in order to prolong your pet’s life while maintaining their dignity. The following steps are recommended:
- Wellness exams at least once a year (although a wellness exam every six months may aid in early detection of disease). As your pet ages, health problems can progress rapidly. Bi-annual veterinary visits increase the chance of early detection of illnesses. Identifying and treating a problem quickly can slow down the progression of the illness.
- Test blood and urine annually. This can help identify diseases in their earliest and most treatable stages.
- Obtain chest x-rays and an ECG every two years. These diagnostic tools help detect heart disease, lung disease, abnormal heartbeats, enlarged organs and cancer. All of these conditions will respond more positively to treatment in the early stages.
- Provide a proper diet and appropriate amounts of exercise. The metabolism of pets will slow as they age, resulting in major shifts in their weight. Obesity increases the possibility of your pet developing diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and more. Moderate exercise helps to control weight and keeps muscles toned. Your pet may require lower calorie food or “senior” food. These options deliver the vitamins and dietary supplements that are important for the aging and/or overweight pet.