Geriatric Care - Senior Pet Care

Senior Pet Care

Due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits and senior pet care, pets are living longer now than they ever have before. One consequence of this is that pets, along with their owners and veterinarians, are faced with a whole new set of age-related conditions. In recent years there has been extensive research on the problems facing older pets and how their owners and veterinarians can best handle their special needs.

Q: When does a pet become "old"?

A: It varies, but cats and small dogs are generally considered geriatric at the age of 7. Larger breed dogs tend to have shorter life spans and are considered geriatric when they are approximately 6 years of age. Owners tend to want to think of their pet's age in human terms. While it is not as simple as "1 human year = X cat/dog years", there are calculations that can help put a pet's age in human terms:

Senior pet care

Age: Human Equivalents for Older Pets

Cat years Human years
7 45
10 58
15 75
20 98
Dog years Human years (*dog size lbs)
7 Small – Medium: 44-47
Large – Very large: 50-56
10 Small – Medium: 56-60
Large – Very large: 66-78
15 Small – Medium: 76-83
Large – Very large: 93-115
20 Small – Medium: 96-105
Large: 120
*Small: 0-20 lbs; Medium: 21-50 lbs; Large: 51-90 lbs; Very large: >90 lbs
The oldest recorded age of a cat is 38 years. The oldest recorded age of a dog is 29 years.

Q: What kinds of health problems can affect older pets?

A: Geriatric pets can develop many of the same problems seen in older people, such as

  1. Cancer
  2. Heart disease
  3. Kidney/urinary tract disease
  4. Liver disease
  5. Diabetes
  6. Joint or bone disease
  7. Senility
  8. Weakness

Q: I know my pet is getting older. How do I help them stay happy and healthy for as long as possible?

A: Talk to your veterinarian about how to care for your older pet and be prepared for possible age-related health issues. Senior pet care requires increased attention, including more frequent visits to the veterinarian, possible changes in diet, and in some cases alterations to their home environment. Here are some basic considerations when caring for older pets:

Older/Senior Pet Care Considerations

Area of concern Description
Increased veterinary care Geriatric pets should have semi-annual veterinary visits instead of annual visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected early and treated. Senior pet exams are similar to those for younger pets, but are more in depth, and may include dental care, possible blood work, and specific checks for physical signs of diseases that are more likely in older pets.
Diet and nutrition Geriatric pets often need foods that are more readily digested, and have different calorie levels and ingredients, and anti-aging nutrients
Weight control Weight gain in geriatric dogs increases the risk of health problems, whereas weight loss is a bigger concern for geriatric cats.
Parasite control Older pets' immune systems are not as healthy as those of younger animals; as a result, they can't fight off diseases or heal as fast as younger pets
Maintaining mobility As with older people, keeping older pets mobile through appropriate exercise helps keep them healthier and more mobile.
Vaccination Your pet's vaccination needs may change with age. Talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination program for your geriatric pet.
Mental health Pets can show signs of senility. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active. If any changes in your pet's behavior are noticed, please consult your veterinarian.
Environmental considerations Older pets may need changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs, more time indoors, etc. Disabled pets have special needs which can be discussed with your veterinarian
Reproductive diseases Non-neutered/non-spayed geriatric pets are at higher risk of mammary, testicular, and prostate cancers.

Q: My older pet is exhibiting changes in behavior. What's going on?

A: Before any medical signs become apparent, behavioral changes can serve as important indicators that something is changing in an older pet, which may be due to medical or other reasons. As your pet's owner, you serve a critical role in detecting early signs of disease because you interact and care for your pet on a daily basis and are familiar with your pet's behavior and routines. If your pet is showing any change in behavior or other warning signs of disease, contact your veterinarian and provide them with a list of the changes you have observed in your pet. Sometimes, the changes may seem contradictory - such as an older pet that has symptoms of hearing loss but also seems more sensitive to strange sounds.

Possible Behavior Changes in Older Pets:

  • Increased reaction to sounds
  • Increased vocalization
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Decreased interaction w/humans
  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased response to commands
  • Increased aggressive/protective behavior
  • Increased anxiety
  • House soiling
  • Decreased self-hygiene/grooming
  • Repetitive activity
  • Increased wandering
  • Change in sleep cycles

Q: Is my pet becoming senile?

A: Possibly. Once any underlying or other disease causes have been ruled out, there is a chance your pet may be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. Studies conducted in the early 1990s were the first to identify brain changes in older dogs that were similar to brain changes seen in humans with Alzheimer's disease. Laboratory tests were also developed in the 1990s to detect learning and memory deficits in older dogs. Recently these studies have started on younger dogs in order to fully understand the effect of aging on the canine brain. Similar studies in young and older cats are also ongoing.

While researchers are still not able to identify any genetic cause of why certain animals develop cognitive dysfunction, there are drugs and specific diets available that can help manage cognitive dysfunction in dogs. If you think your pet is becoming senile, discuss it with your veterinarian.

Q: What are the common signs of disease in an older pet?

A: The signs you might see will vary with the disease or problem affecting your pet, and some signs can be seen with more than one problem. As the pet's owner, you can provide your veterinarian with valuable information that can help them determine what is going on with your pet.

Common Warning Signs of Disease in Older Pets

Kidney disease Urinary tract disease Heart disease
Decreased appetite Increased urination/spotting or "accidents" in the house Coughing
Increased thirst Straining to urinate Difficulty  breathing
Increased urination Blood in urine Decreased tolerance of exercise
Decreased or no urination Weakness  Decreased appetite
Poor hair coat Vomiting
Vomiting
Sore mouth

Q: When should we euthanize a pet? How will we know it's the right time?

A: This can be an incredibly difficult question for both the owner and the veterinarian, and is often a very tough decision to make. Sometimes, euthanasia is obviously the best thing to do for your pet. At other times, however, it can be less clear. An open discussion with your veterinarian, including an honest evaluation of your pet's quality of life, should help you make the decision.

One way to determine if your aging pet is still enjoying life and can remain with us a little longer is by using a "Quality of Life" scale to determine if the animal's basic needs are being met. This scale can be very helpful for the veterinarian and pet owner when deciding what is best for your pet. In this scale, pets are scored on a scale of 1 through 10 in each category, with 10 being the highest score for quality of life. Again, only an honest evaluation of each category will help with the decision.

Quality of Life (HHHHHMM Scale)

Score Criterion
0-10 HURT  Adequate pain control (including breathing ability)
0-10 HUNGER  Is the pet eating enough? Does the pet require hand-feeding or a feeding tube?
0-10 HYDRATION  Is the pet dehydrated? Does it need subcutaneous fluids?
0-10 HYGIENE  Pet needs to be brushed and clean, especially after elimination
0-10 HAPPINESS  Does the pet express joy/interest? Does it respond to its environment? Does the pet show signs of boredom/loneliness/anxiety/fear?
0-10 MOBILITY  Can the pet get up without assistance does the pet want to go for a walk? Is the pet experiencing seizures/stumbling?
0-10 MORE GOOD THAN BAD  When bad days start to outnumber good days, the quality of life becomes compromised and euthanasia needs to be considered
Total A total of 35 points is considered acceptable for a quality of life score.

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