Senior Pets

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Due to improved care from a myriad of sources pets are living longer today than they ever have before. These sources of enhanced care might stem from better living quarters inside a family home with a controlled environment that removes the dangers of climatic variances, greater attention to the health and well-being of the pets by the family members, vastly improved veterinary care, lessened threat of predators, carefully researched and manufactured pet foods and pharmaceuticals, and greater awareness and compliance with preventive and wellness programs that curtails the incidence of disease and/or traumatic injury. However, due to the extended length of life in our pet family members, their owners and veterinarians are faced with a new set of conditions that must be attended to in order to maintain a healthy state of life, both physically and mentally. Regular veterinary examinations can detect problems in older pets before they become advanced or life-threatening, and improve the chances of a longer and healthier life for your pet. It has now been proven by research, that the health of an aging dog or cat may also enhance the well-being of their senior human family members as well.

With the current proliferation of “no-kill animal shelters” and other related pet care and recovery facilities, there is an explosion of older dogs and cats finding their way into our homes. Millions of dogs and cats, many of them that qualify as “senior pets”, are re-homed each year. There are multiple ways for a family to suddenly find an older dog or cat in their family. We can acquire a puppy and care for it until it reaches old age since dogs and cats age at a much faster rate that humans. With the baby-boomer population itself reaching old age, it is frequent that children of these “boomers” are left with a pet that was living in the home when their parents died, and the senior pets are transferred to their new home through inheritance. And, it is becoming common practice for families to adopt pets, some of them senior pets, from animal shelters, animal control facilities or breed rescue organizations. I fully recommend adopting an older dog or cat from adoption facilities. Many times these pets are accustomed to living in the home with a family, have already been trained and housebroken, and you can choose one that fits the size and demeanor that suits your family and life style. These adopted older pets are especially adaptable to older people who may not have the capability to train and give a puppy the training efforts it needs to acclimate to living in new surroundings.

It is sometimes stated by pet owners, dog trainers, kennel operators and other caretakers of our pets that dogs and cats age at a rate of seven (7) years for every human year, or that dogs and cats age seven years over the span of one human year of aging. This assumption is not necessarily true. Dogs and cats do age more rapidly than their human counterparts; however, the span of time compared to human years of aging is not consistent over the life of the pet. Conventional knowledge tells us that both dogs and cats appear to be approaching “old age” at age seven (7) years. A seven year old cat is thought to be approximately 54 years old in human years. A seven year old dog is thought to be 44 to 56 years of age in human years. Please note that in dogs, the comparative age in human years is given as a range depending upon the size, weight and breed of the dog. Small dogs tend to have a longer life span than larger dogs. Large breeds of dogs are considered to be “senior in age” when they are 5 or 6 years of age. Dogs are usually categorized according to breed and size, and their expected life span shortens as they increase in size. Small dogs are those who are 20 pounds and under; medium dogs weigh 21-50 pounds; large dogs weigh 51-90 pounds and very large dogs are categorized as those that weigh more than 90 pounds. Obviously, the genetic make-up contributes to the size of the dog, so dogs can have a normal weight of anywhere between 5 pounds and 150 pounds in some cases.

There has been a quotation coming out of the veterinary colleges for as long as I can remember that states, “old age is not a disease”. However, an aging pet can develop certain physical and mental changes that may lead to disease processes within the pet’s body. It is frequently easy to spot the signs of aging in dogs such as grey hair around the face and muzzle and a slower, more calculated gait or pace. They may have a tendency to put on more weight or to redistribute their body weight that shows drooping skin under the chin or abdomen. We must remember that a pet’s internal organ systems are also undergoing the aging process and are subject to changes. An older pet is more likely to develop heart, kidney, and liver disease, as well as diabetes, arthritis or cancer. Cancer accounts for about one-half of the deaths in pets over ten years of age. Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, whereas cats have a definite lower rate of cancer incidence than their human counterparts.

Behavior changes are frequently the first signs of aging in pets. Arthritis is a common finding in older dogs and cats. A dog with arthritis may begin to show irritation when you touch or pet them, especially if you touch the arthritic joint. Dogs may sometimes become grouchy and even bite at the person touching them in these instances. Just like dogs and people, cats commonly develop osteoarthritis as they age. The signs of arthritis in cats can be reluctance to jump, decreased grooming, urinating outside the litter box, hiding and avoiding human contact. It is best to discover these signs of arthritis in cats early so you can alleviate this pain before more damage is done. If you notice these behaviors in your pets, it is best to take them to your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Veterinarians have a number of pharmaceuticals and feed supplements available to treat the symptoms of arthritis and alleviate pain. Behavior changes in your pet may also include cognitive dysfunction or senility. They may seem confused or disoriented, not respond to voice commands, show anxiety or nervousness with constant wandering and increased barking or meowing.

Many dogs that are considered to have reached old age will begin to lose some of their hearing or sight capabilities. Older pets can develop cataracts which impair their sight or hearing complications that predispose them to failures to carry out your voice commands or instructions. Both dogs and cats are blessed with exceptional olfactory or smell senses that allows them to continue to be attracted to people and things even though they may not be able to see or hear them as well as in previous years. This can be especially evident at feeding time, whether it be feeding time for the pets or dinner time for the human family members. It is not unusual for a totally blind dog to be attracted to the kitchen or dining room when food is placed on the table. This extra sensory smell sensation can also allow those pets that have sight disabilities to recognize family members and known acquaintances with whom they come in contact. It is quite common for these sight impaired dogs to recognize a friend on an outing to the dog park or the bike trail.

Weight can have a tremendous effect on an older pet’s health. Obesity in older pets increases the risk of arthritis, difficulty breathing, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, skin problems, cancer and other conditions. An overweight pet may not show any early warning signs of health problems, so regular visits to your veterinarians are recommended. Once your veterinarian evaluates your pet’s condition, they can recommend a proper diet and suggest other steps to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. Sudden weight loss in an older pets is also a source for concern, especially in cats. Hyperthyroidism, diabetes and kidney disease are common causes of weight loss in older cats.

You can teach an old dog new tricks! That is a proven fact that has been repeated over and over again through the adoption of senior dogs and cats from shelters and rescue facilities. Try it, both you and the pets will benefit by it. However, since our government has not included our pet family members to register for Social Security and Medicare Insurance, I suggest you purchase pet health insurance for senior pets. Like human health insurance provides for the increasingly expensive and more frequently occurring health issues in the human population, pet health insurance will help to offset the increasing medical costs of senior pets. I also believe the best money spent on your new senior citizen in the house is an identification microchip inserted under the skin by your veterinarian for identification and recovery purposes. Senior pets, although intelligent from all their life experiences, can still become disoriented and lost. It is best to have a safety factor in place by utilizing a microchip for identification.

The National Pet Wellness Month web site at www.npwm.com has a calculator that can help you determine your pet’s life in human years. You can also go to the American Veterinary Medical Association web site at avma.org for more valuable information on aging of senior dogs and cats.



Bruce W. Little, DVM