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Posted: 2004-02-01
Senior Care Wellness Programs


Caring For Your Senior Dog

Like people, pets are living longer. That is good news! We all value the companionship we share with our pets. Nothing helps that friendship more than working with your veterinarian to maintain your pet's health and quality of life. As your pet ages, changes in its behavior and physical condition will occur. This is the time to start on a senior health maintenance program to provide optimal care for your older pet.

The aging process varies between species and between individuals. Middle age in humans is defined as 45-59 years, "elderly" 60-75 years, and "aged" is the term applied to individuals greater than 75 years. In animals, we usually start to talk about senior care during the last 25-40% of the expected life span. In reality, old age is not just a chronological measurement of years lived, rather it is a measure of the function of our body systems subsequent to the effects of aging. Aging can be affected by a number of variables including genetics, nutrition, and environment.

For practical purposes we start to consider dogs and cats that are over the age of 7 as being "senior". In general cats and small dogs (less than 20 pounds) tend to have longer life expectancies than medium to large breeds of dogs and comparative charts have been developed to help you relate your age to that of your pets (Table 1).

Comparative Ages of Dogs and Humans

Dog Human
1 year 15 years
2 years 24 years
4 years 32 years
7 years 45 years
10 years 56 years
15 years 76 years
20 years 98 years

Table 1

What signs should we look for in our senior pet ?

As your pet ages a number of degenerative changes occur in almost all body systems. It is important that you note any of the following symptoms and bring them to the attention of your veterinarian. These include changes in appetite or water consumption, changes in body weight (weight gain or weight loss), or decreases in apparent vision or hearing. It is also important to look for changes in your pet's behavior. Typical abnormal behavioral signs seen in elderly dogs include confusion or disorientation, decreased activity, changes in the sleep/wake cycle, loss ofhousetraining and decreased interest in you or their environment. We can frequently help dogs that are demonstrating these types of abnormalities, so pet owners are encouraged to keep us informed of any problems. Your pet's haircoat and skin should also be examined to look for any new lumps or growths that develop. Bring these to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible. Dental disease is also a problem in the senior pet so routine good oral examinations, if possible, are a great way to help prevent tooth loss and fight bad breath and oral infections.

What can my veterinarian do to help our family care for a senior pet ?

The most important thing your veterinarian will want to do is obtain a very thorough history and perform a physical examination on your pet on a regular basis. Unlike the situation during your pet's early years, your veterinarian will want to see your senior pet at least every 6 months. This makes sense based on the rate at which our pets age relative to how we age. Your veterinarian may also want to take blood tests and a urinalysis at least once a year, and perhaps perform radiographs (x-rays) to help establish some baseline information and then as time passes to look for or monitor any problems that may arise. Your veterinarian will also be looking for any signs of gum or dental disease and recommend routine dental care both at home and at the hospital. Any suspicious growths or lumps will also be noted and biopsied and/or removed. Your veterinarian will also be keeping a detailed medical record of all your pet's health problems and a record of all the medications your pet is taking to make sure that your pet receives excellent quality care.

Your veterinarian may also provide you with a senior care checklist for your pet. This list can be used to help you monitor your pet's health through his or her senior years. Some physical and behavioral changes can be subtle and it is always a good idea to keep records of any changes for both you and the veterinarian. Your careful observation will assist us greatly in helping you provide the best possible care for your pet!

As the aging process continues you may also need to consult with your veterinarian about such things as pain management. Conditions like arthritis are very common disorders in older pets. Newer medications are now available which are both safe and effective in the management of a number of chronic senior health problems and your veterinarian will keep you updated on these developments.

The goal of senior care is simple. We want to help you maintain the highest possible quality of life for your pet and thereby enhance the bond we all share. Together, you and your veterinarian can help make the senior years the most rewarding years for you and your pet to share with each other. 

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Caring For Your Senior Cat 

Statistics show that cats, like people, are living longer. This is great news! We all treasure the companionship we share with our pets. We also hope to provide them the longest, happiest and healthiest lives possible.

It may seem like only yesterday when you brought home that bright, bouncy kitten. However, by 7 years, your cat has entered middle age. At 12 years old, we consider cats to be "elderly," and at 15 or above, the term "age" could even apply. In reality, old age is never just a number but rather a measure of the effects of aging on the body. Many variables affect aging, including genetics, nutrition and environment. Although good genes remain a matter of luck, there are a growing number of ways we can "slow the clock" and promote a healthful, long life for our pets.

Comparative Ages of Cats and Humans

Cat Human
1 year 15 years
2 years 24 years
5 years 36 years
7 years 45 years
12 years 64 years
18 years 88 years
21 years 100 years

Table 1

As your cat ages, changes in behavior and physical condition inevitably occur. Body systems begin to slow down. The coat and skin change, joints stiffen, the senses are less keen. Just as in people, several diseases increase in likelihood as cats age. Kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid problems, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer are a few common ones. The good news is that many of these conditions can be controlled or even prevented with early detection and treatment. This is where pet owners, working closely with their veterinarian, can make such a significant difference for their pets!

What signs should we look for in our senior feline ?

Cats, as you know, are secretive creatures. It takes a watchful companion to notice the first signs of illness. Any unusual symptoms should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible. These may include:

  • Change in water consumption (watch carefully for an increase in volume)
  • Change in appetite
  • Lethargy or depression (listless behavior)
  • Change in urine production (watch carefully for increased amounts of urine in the litterbox)
  • Constipation
  • Change in litterbox habits
  • Change in attitude (irritability)
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Bad breath
  • Lumps and bumps on the skin
  • Lapse in grooming habits
  • Stiffness, trouble jumping

What can my veterinarian do to help care for our senior feline?

The most important way your veterinarian can help is by performing a thorough review of the history and by doing a physical examination on your cat on a regular basis. While an annual exam suffices for younger pets, your veterinarian will want to see your older cat at least every six months (realize six months for a cat equals 2 to 3 years in the life of a human). Special attention will be paid to your cat's teeth and gums, skin and coat, heart, lungs, kidneys, digestive system, eyes and joints.

Your veterinarian will also perform several non-invasive tests and procedures on a regular basis. This may include blood tests, urinalysis, x-rays, EKG and blood pressure measurement (just as is done on routine health examinations in people). These tests help your veterinarian in two ways. First, your veterinarian can identify early-stage disease when control or even prevention is possible (and most cost-effective). Second, the tests will provide a yardstick with which your doctor can measure changes should your cat become ill in the future.

A proper diet and environment are critical for your cat's health and comfort. Your veterinarian and hospital staff are experts on the special needs of your feline senior citizen and will always be happy to help advise you. Some senior- friendly modifications our hospital team might help you with are:

  1. Recommendations on a palatable, highly digestible diet with the proper balance of calories and nutrients (based on your cat's specific needs).
  2. Easier-access litterpans
  3. A comfortable, heated bed
  4. Extra assistance with routine grooming

Finally, your veterinarian may provide you with a Senior Care Checklist for your cat. Your careful observations will assist our hospital greatly in giving your older cat the care he or she needs. As always, if you are concerned about any symptom your cat is showing, please do not hesitate to call our office. 

The goal of senior care is simple. We want to help you maintain the highest quality of life for your pet and thereby enhance the bond we all share. Together, you and your veterinarian can help make the senior years the most rewarding years for you and your pet to share with each other.