Our pets mean so much to us. I can't begin to count the number of people I have met who look at their dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, etc as integral parts of the family. We take great care of our pets and are often rewarded with a good long life. All too soon, we are faced with caring for an elderly pet, which brings us new challenges in many ways. We can help our pets tremendously by sticking by them through their golden years and helping them cope with the ups and downs that come along the way.
Age is not a disease...but it sure can come with a lot of them. Many pets experience dulling or loss of sensations as they age. This can include a loss of hearing and vision, but it can also include things like taste and smell. Older pets often lose their ability to cope with extreme hot and cold temperatures. They can have decreased balance and muscle strength and can also experience various degrees of mental deterioration. These changes are variable from pet to pet. It can all be a lot to cope with for pets and for owners, but recognizing these changes and adapting to them can make a big difference. Simple things like adding a coat for the winter or making sure to speak loudly as we approach a pet so as not to startle them can make a big difference in their overall comfort.
Older pets also have a higher risk for a wide variety of disease conditions. Arthritis, cognitive dysfunction (dementia), heart disease, kidney failure, dental disease and various forms of cancer and hormonal and immune system diseases all effect older pets at much higher rates than younger pets. It is not uncommon for an older patient to have to cope with several disease conditions simultaneously. A large amount of the work I do as a veterinarian is on older pets. Some of these conditions can be cured and many can be managed successfully for a long time.
Arthritis is one of the most wide-spread conditions we see in elderly pets. This condition commonly effects dogs, cats and rabbits. Arthritis can come from issues with a pets' joints that they were born with (elbow or hip dysplasia), from injuries, or just from normal wear and tear on their joints over time. The vast majority of cats over the age of 10 years old have significant arthritis in multiple joints. Arthritis is painful and debilitating in all species and there is a lot we can do about it. We have excellent joint supplements and diets that can help slow down joint decay and reduce inflammation and we have excellent pain medications. We also have a wide variety of alternative therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic care, rehabilitation medicine, therapy laser). Things you can do at home to help prevent and treat arthritis are to keep up consistent moderate exercise, provide soft bedding and keep your pet at a lean body weight.
Dental health plays a significant role in making an animal seem "old." Over time, our pets accumulate tartar which leads to inflamed gums and bone loss. In severe cases, several teeth can become loose. These loose and damaged teeth are a source of infection and inflammation and also a huge source of chronic pain. After a major cleaning with multiple extractions on an old pet, we frequently have people tell us that their pet seems "younger" almost immediately. This extreme level of dental disease can be prevented with home brushing, special chews and diets and regular dental cleanings to remove tartar before it becomes severe.
As a pet gets older, proper vet care is extremely important. We recommend that all older pets get a thorough examination by a vet at least every 6-12 months. We recommend annual heartworm testing and bloodwork to screen for many of the geriatric diseases they are at risk for. Early detection and treatment is a key part of successful long-term management. We recommend yearly fecal testing and year-round flea and heartworm prevention. We will often modify vaccination schedules for older pets, but it is rare that we will discontinue them altogether. We look at every pet's risk factors every year to help owners determine which vaccines are most appropriate for them.
Another important consideration for all older pets is what to feed them. There is really no such thing as a "geriatric diet." We do know that most older pets need a higher percentage of good quality protein, but pets with kidney disease may actually require restricted protein. Many older pets will experience some degree of weight loss, so a moderate calorie food may be appropriate. On the other hand, older pets who are overweight and arthritic need a very low calorie diet. If your pet is struggling with weight (too low or too high), or has any major disease conditions, consulting your vet about nutrition is highly recommended. Dietary requirements for older pets will vary substantially based on their individual needs.
An area that is often overlooked in older pet care is grooming. I can't stress enough how important grooming can be for an old pet's quality of life. Matted fur is uncomfortable for your pet but also vastly changes how we interact with them. Old dogs and cats that have smooth, shiny fur and clean bright faces and a nice smell get snuggled and petted WAY more often then pets with matted, crusty or smelly fur. In our pets' wolds, positive interactions with the people they live with are a huge part of what makes them happy. Establishing a good regular grooming routine at home or with a professional groomer can make a big difference for your pet.
No matter how hard we try, we eventually come to the end with all of our pets. Sometimes the end comes quickly, and sometimes we can see signs a long way off. It is often hard to cope with the uncertainty of our pets' last days. We try to start the end-of-life conversation when the end is still very far away if possible. It is important for your vet and all of your pet's caretakers to come to an agreement on what your goals are for your pet's final days. How much nursing care can be provided? How does everyone in the family feel about euthanasia? What determines quality of life? These are important questions without generic answers. Owning a pet is a joy, but it is also a huge responsibility. Taking care of them through their final days is one of the most important things we will do for them.
My final advice to people with elderly pets is to enjoy this time. There can be a lot of downsides to getting old, but there is a lot of happiness too. This is often the time when your bond to each other is deepest. Sometimes an old cat who used to hide all the time will come out and want some couch time with you. An old dog might sit still with you on the back porch while you read instead of insisting on patrolling the yard. It is important that we adjust our expectations of our pets as they grow older, but we must also be willing to open ourselves to the new ways in which they choose to enjoy life. Being old is worth celebrating... it can be a good part of good long life.
Check out our care guides for older dogs and older cats