Is your older pet starting to gray around her muzzle and behave differently? Senior pets can exhibit many physical and behavioral changes, and learning to alter their daily routines and care can be challenging for owners. With proper care, however, this season of your beloved pet’s life can be rewarding and enjoyable for your pet and your family. 

Common health issues of senior pets

Senior pets are more likely to develop chronic medical conditions that require ongoing care, and proper treatment is critical to maintain a good quality of life. Common health issues in older pets include:

  • Arthritis — Many senior pets are affected by joint inflammation that limits their mobility. Owners often assume this is a normal aging change, and don’t realize that treatment can control pain, improve mobility, and greatly improve their pet’s quality of life.
  • Cognitive dysfunction — Cognitive dysfunction (i.e., senility) can cause behavioral changes, such as house soiling, vocalizing, and pacing, that are often attributed to normal aging. Cognitive dysfunction treatment can control many of these unwanted behaviors, and help preserve your bond with your pet during her final years.
  • Dental disease — If your pet has not received regular, routine dental care, years of tartar accumulation, infection, and tooth decay can culminate in severe dental disease. In addition to developing halitosis that may inhibit your interaction, your pet may suffer from chronic pain and struggle to eat.
  • Kidney failure — Up to 30% of geriatric cats are affected by chronic kidney disease, which causes waste products to accumulate in the body, leading to secondary illness. Kidney failure causes no obvious clinical signs until the disease has progressed to an untreatable stage; however, diligent screening in senior pets can lead to early detection and treatment. 
  • Heart disease — Conditions such as valve degeneration, hypertension, and congestive heart failure are common in older pets, but they are often treatable if detected before they become advanced.
  • Cancer — Pets can develop many different cancer types, and nonspecific disease signs in older pets are often caused by cancer. Many cancers are treatable with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Routine health screening for senior pets

Once your pet reaches 8 years of age, she should visit your family veterinarian every six months, since her body can change a lot over a year. Disease risk increases with age, and vigilant health screening is important to detect illness early, when treatments may slow disease progression and provide your pet more quality time. Your pet’s senior wellness visit will include the following procedures:

  • Physical exam — Your family veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam to evaluate your pet’s overall health, detect subtle disease signs, and look for signs of pain, which often develop gradually and go unnoticed, or are attributed to normal age-related behavior.
  • Weight check — Your pet’s current weight will be compared to previous visits to determine whether she has lost or gained weight. An unplanned loss may indicate disease development, and further testing may be required to identify the weight-loss cause. Weight gain can put more strain on sore joints and body organs, and if your pet has become overweight, your veterinarian can recommend weight-loss strategies to improve her health. 
  • Blood work — Blood testing, such as a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry, measures blood cell numbers and chemicals that provide information about organ function. Since organ failure is common in older pets, monitoring these parameters is critical to detect early deterioration and provide treatment. 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — An ECG measures the electrical activity of your pet’s heart, and can detect arrhythmias that indicate life-threatening heart disease. Many cardiac conditions can be chronically managed if diagnosed early.

Home care for senior pets

You can make many adaptations to your home to reduce stress on your senior pet. Older pets often don’t regulate their body temperature well and become cold easily, so instead of turning the heat down during the day while you are gone, keep your home warm and cozy. Provide a thick, padded bed so your pet has a comfortable resting place that will ease aching joints. If your older pet has limited mobility, she may avoid walking on smooth floors, so lay rugs down in a pathway to her favorite spots. You can also use toe grips to improve her traction on smooth surfaces. Move important resources, such as food bowls and litter boxes, to your home’s first floor so your pet does not have to climb stairs to access them. 

Don’t mistakenly think older pets need to sleep all day and be left alone, because interaction and stimulation can benefit your senior pet and improve her quality of life. If she can no longer walk through the park, push her in a stroller to let her  breathe fresh air and enjoy nature. Purchase food puzzles to make her think and work for her treats, or hide kibble around the house for her to sniff out. Most importantly, take time each day to lavish love and affection on your pet so she knows she is still special to you.

Considering euthanasia in senior pets

Despite the best care, the time may come when your senior pet’s quality of life has deteriorated and she has more bad days than good, and humanely ending her suffering is her best option. If you need help deciding whether the time is right to euthanize your beloved pet, speak with your family veterinarian. If your pet suddenly worsens when your primary veterinary hospital is closed, our animal emergency hospital is open nights, holidays, and weekends to help you through this emotional experience. 

Call your family veterinarian, or contact us if you have questions about caring for your senior pet.