by Tasha Phillips, M.S.
So, you’ve come for some advice on how to give your senior pet the most fulfilling last years or months of their lives while taking their quality of life into consideration.
Good job, Mom and/or Dad!
As many of us know, a pet is often a 12-to-18-year commitment, and as pets age, their minds and bodies change, along with their specific needs. Advancements in veterinary medicine are allowing our pets to live longer (yay!). That said, understanding the body and mind of a senior pet is crucial to providing the most appropriate care.
When I was first learning to care for senior pets, I was surprised to hear that there is no concrete classification on who is deemed “senior”. The aging of each individual pet is different based on factors such as species, breed, and environment.
For instance, cats can be considered seniors around the age of 7 to 10 years old, and indoor cats can live upwards of 18 years. Small dogs are considered seniors between the ages of 12-15 and can sometimes live into their early 20s. On the other hand, large or giant breeds, like the mastiff, may only live around ten years, so they can be considered seniors much earlier.
What We Can Do to Help Maximize Their Last Years
As our pets age, their emotional, physical, and medical needs change. They often require more specialized care and attention than younger pets. It's important for pet owners to understand these changes and adapt their care routines accordingly to ensure their pets lead happy, comfortable lives in their golden years.
Here are some areas to stay on top of when caring for senior pets:
Regular vet visits are important for pets of all ages, but they become even more critical as pets get older. Senior pets should see their veterinarian at least twice a year for physical exams, blood work, and to monitor any health issues they may have.
Many times, their veterinarian can detect potential complications and the early stages of disease. Senior pets often battle dental disease, renal disease, and heart conditions.
Early intervention is crucial to prolong your pet’s life and make them as comfortable as possible.
Senior pets may need special diets to help manage underlying health conditions such as arthritis, dental disease, or kidney disease. There are several prescription diets formulated specifically for senior needs including heart, kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal concerns.
Even if your senior pet is otherwise healthy, a senior diet is still recommended. If you buy over-the-counter senior food, look for high-quality food designed specifically for senior pets.
These diets often have lower calories, higher fiber, and more joint support ingredients. You can talk to your veterinarian for over-the-counter food guidance as well as supplements for your senior.
Senior pets may not be as active as when they were younger, but they still need regular exercise to maintain muscle tone, keep their joints flexible, prevent obesity, and keep their minds active.
Shorter, less strenuous walks with frequent breaks may be more appropriate for senior dogs, while senior cats may benefit from playtime with toys that can keep them active and engaged. While exercising your pet, be watchful for signs of fatigue or dehydration. You should adjust their routine according to health concerns and ability.
As pets age, they may suffer from mobility issues such as arthritis, making it difficult for them to get around. Consider providing them with mobility aids like ramps, stairs, or a lifting harness to make it easier for them to get up and down stairs or onto furniture.
Cushioning their beds with comfortable and supportive bedding can also help to alleviate pain and discomfort. Many times, veterinarians will prescribe gentle NSAIDs to alleviate chronic joint pain to improve comfort and quality of life for your pet.
Senior pets can struggle with deteriorating mental health and eyesight. It can be easier for them to get lost or confused around the home in later years.
Keeping their environment consistent and stable can reduce stress levels. Less frequent changes to furniture placement can also help pets with deteriorating eyesight. Adding more litter boxes around the house can also help older cats who may have trouble getting to their usual litter box.
Just like people, our pets’ teeth can deteriorate over time. Regular exams and dental cleanings are important to uncover dental disease and take care of the remaining teeth your pet has.
Dental disease can be extremely painful for your dog or cat, often leading to broken teeth, receding gum lines, infections and more. A few signs your pet needs a dental check-up are dropping food while eating, whining or pawing at the mouth, blood on toys/bones when chewing, or swelling around the mouth with foul odor.
The Most Important Part
Above all, senior pets need love and affection. Spend quality time with your pet, cuddling and giving them the luxury of a cushy life. You’ve loved your pet through personal struggles and your pet has loved you. That’s the most important gift we receive from companion pets.
Giving them patience, time, and understanding as they transition to senior living can be tough, but they are worth it. Making small changes to ease their pain and make daily life easier can be simple and inexpensive. Regular check-ups and proper care can make sure your senior is feeling good in their golden years!
Tasha Nelson Phillips is a veterinary assistant and researcher. She began her work in veterinary medicine in 2014 at a small practice in East Tennessee. She has a B.S. in Biology as well as a Master’s degree in Microbiology from East Tennessee State University. Her undergraduate and graduate research focused on Lavengel®, exploring its efficacy and mechanism of action against common bacterial species.
Tasha’s interests focus on natural antimicrobial options and exploring novel compounds to combat antibiotic resistance. She continues to work in small animal emergency and critical care medicine. She spends her free time with her husband and three furry babies in their East Tennessee home.