As animals get older it is very easy for us to attribute changes in their body and behavior to ‘old age’ and never do anything about them. In this, though, we are doing our pets a disservice. Old age is not a disease and quality of life matters even for an aging pet. With good health care and responsible ownership, you can help your beloved furry friend live a healthy and happy life, no matter their age.
When is my pet considered ‘elderly’?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when our pets reach ‘old age’, in the same way it is for humans. Some pets become older and slower before they’re 8 years old and some may still be racing around aged 12! However, as a rough guide:
Dogs are considered mature/ senior from around 7 years of age, with the average life expectancy being 13 years old. Smaller breed dogs are more likely to live longer than larger breed dogs.
Cats are considered mature at 8 years old, senior at 11 years old and geriatric at 15 years old. The average life expectancy for a cat varies widely but is thought to be around 15 years.
It’s important to remember that these are just guidelines, and your pet’s health should be monitored regularly to check for signs of ill health and ageing.
What signs should I look out for?
Old age means an increased susceptibility to disease and illness. Your pet can’t tell you outright when they are unwell, so take the time to notice your pet’s habits, behaviours and appearance. Doing this can help to spot a problem early and get it treated before it becomes a bigger issue. Things to look out for include;
Reduced appetite/ becoming ‘fussy’ – your pet’s taste buds may change or diminish, along with their sense of smell, meaning that they may ‘go off’ their normal food. It could also indicate oral disease, or early stages of endocrine disorders
Weight loss – especially for cats, due to the diminished sense of smell and taste, or possibly due to disorders such as an overactive thyroid or kidney failure.
Weight gain – especially for dogs, who may have been fit and active and start to slow down, or could also be linked to disorders such as Diabetes
Toileting in the house/ not in the usual place – older pets can lose control of the bladder and bowel function, or it can also be an indication that they are unwell or not coping with their environment
Exercising less or reluctance to exercise – your pet is getting older and may have less energy, but it could also indicate an underlying condition or chronic pain
Abnormal coughing or panting – can be a sign of an underlying heart condition or other disorders
Sleeping for much longer – your older pet will sleep more as they conserve their energy but it can still be a clinical sign of illness and is worth mentioning to your vet if it is abnormal for them
Abnormal drinking habits – it may be that they increase or decrease the amount of water they drink – older animals are more vulnerable to dehydration but also may be drinking more due to a medical disorder
Stiffness or lameness – arthritis is a common degenerative problem for many older pets and can cause difficulties in getting up and moving around
Lumps and bumps- monitor your pet regularly for any new lumps and bumps on their body. Although they can often be benign, it’s important to get them checked by your vet for signs of tumours or other disease
Disorientation/ distress – older animals can have a reduced tolerance to changes in their routine or environment – they may also become more dependent on you as their senses diminish (they may be more prone to cataracts, blindness, deafness)
Changes in behaviour – your previously friendly dog may suddenly become grumpy, or your semi-feral cat may be desperate to sit on your lap. Although these are extremes, it’s not uncommon for older pets to develop changes in how they act
This is not an exhaustive list and many other factors can indicate illness or ageing. The person who knows your pet best is YOU, and it’s the responsibility of a pet owner to monitor their pet regularly for signs of change.
What should I do if I notice a change in my elderly pet?
Get in touch with your vet. They will be able to offer you the best advice based on your pet’s previous medical history; it may be that your pet should be seen for a health check as soon as possible, or that you are okay to monitor them for a while to see if there is a progression.
How can I help my pet as they get older?
The most important thing you can do is: Get them checked by the vet regularly. Generally, if there are no signs of ill health, seeing a vet for a check-up twice a year should be sufficient. Blood and urine tests can be performed to check for satisfactory organ functions, and to help pick up on signs of disease as early as possible so they can be treated.
Grooming may also become an issue for older pets. For cats in particular, grooming is very important, so they may need to be brushed or clipped regularly to help keep their coat looking its best. For both dogs and cats, nails may become thicker or be more likely to get caught in carpets and furniture, so it’s important to keep their nails short.
Another way you can help your pet is ensuring that you’re feeding them a suitable diet. There are many senior pet diets available on the market. Some diets can also be combined to tailor for conditions such as obesity and kidney failure. It’s best to ask your vet or veterinary nurse to recommend one suitable for your pet, but if you’re researching for yourself you need to ensure that the diet is ‘complete’ (i.e. suitable for your pet’s life stage and neutering status) and of good quality.
How can I make my home more suitable for my older pet?
Just like we may make changes for an elderly family member in our home, it may sometimes be necessary to make changes that help to make life a bit easier for our older pets;
Giving them a place to ‘escape’ to which is quiet and comfortable, so they can have their own space to rest and recover
Ensuring their needs are met on one floor – having somewhere to eat, sleep and go to the toilet without having to use the stairs
Fresh drinking water should always be available
Provision of an indoor litter tray for an outdoor cat, in case they can’t always make it outside
Making sure they have a warm, comfortable bed as some elderly pets can struggle to maintain their body heat in colder temperatures
Providing puzzle feeders and suitable toys to keep them mentally active, and physically active where possible
Avoiding slippery flooring such as laminate, as this can be a challenge for older legs, especially if your pet is arthritic. You can use mats or old carpet to help make a route for your older pet.
We all love our pets very much. With appropriate health care and home care, there is no reason why they shouldn’t reach a grand old age so we can continue making memories with them. There are many fantastic resources online for further information (some can be found at the bottom of this article) or you can contact your vet for further support.
Resources and References used:
Naomi Wilcox RVN
Naomi is a Registered Veterinary Nurse (RVN) based in Aberdeen, Scotland. She currently works in a busy first opinion practice, but has also worked in a referral hospital. She enjoys caring for all furry, feathered and scaly creatures and has a passion for animal welfare. She is hoping that her blogs will help owners provide the best care for their pets.