Helping Your Pet Age Gracefully: Lifestyle Adjustments

old dogThere’s nothing better than seeing a cherished loved one live a long, healthy life and getting to spend as much time together as possible. That goes for our four-legged family as well, those furry angels who instantly forgive our bad mood, love us with licks, snuggles and purring, and always, always make us smile.

We know that you want to make your cat or dog as happy as they make you. That’s why we’re writing a four-part series on the special needs of senior pets. Because, while they rarely complain, pets are likely to experience some discomforts as they age – just like us. The series will explain challenges older pets face as well as common ailments related to aging like arthritis, vision loss and dental issues. It will also provide you with information on how you can make your pets comfortable in their golden years.

At what point dogs are considered seniors depends on their size. Most dogs show signs of aging sometime between seven and 10 years of age, with large dogs entering their later years earlier than smaller dogs (since smaller dogs generally have a longer lifespan). Indoor cats are considered senior around 10 years old while outdoor cats, who are prone to more illnesses and injuries, may become seniors as early as seven years old.

Let’s begin our discussion about the special needs of senior pets by talking about lifestyle adjustments that may be needed as your pet grows older.

Dietary Needs

As pets age, their nutrition requirements can change. Because older cats and dogs may have multiple issues that are being medically managed, selecting the right food for your pet goes beyond buying one that’s just labeled for senior use. “When we talk about aging and senior diets, it gets complicated. Senior diets on the market vary,” states Dr. Susan Wynn of our veterinary integrative medicine and nutrition services, who sees patients at our hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

For example, if your pet’s metabolism has slowed down and he’s putting on too much weight, your family veterinarian might recommend a lower calorie diet. But, if your furry friend has developed kidney disease – more likely in older age – then the primary focus might be choosing a diet with a smaller amount of protein. Likewise, if your cat or dog is suffering from arthritic pain, a food with key supplements that target joint pain may be the best solution. Advises Dr. Wynn, “Have your pet evaluated at least yearly for their body condition and given a diet personalized to their needs.”

Bottom Line: Have your family veterinarian assess your senior pet at least once or twice a year, and ask which food is right for your pet.

Modified Exercise

Dogs and cats begin losing muscle mass once they reach middle age, which can affect their metabolism. Thus, pets should be kept as active as possible throughout their lives, even during their later years. Not only will exercise keep them from packing on the pounds – but it could also help with medical issues they are dealing with already. For example, pets with arthritis do better if they can maintain their muscle mass, which helps stabilize their weakened joints, explains Dr. Wynn. A prescription pain reliever, from your veterinarian, is often recommended so that pets who feel painful when they move get relief, return to regular activity and keep their muscles strong.

Determining how much exercise is appropriate for your senior pet is a trial-and-error process. Activity should only be limited if your pet has problems after exercising. For example, if your dog usually goes running for an hour with you, but now seems to be sore afterward, an evaluation by your family veterinarian is in order. Your veterinarian may recommend trying a shorter period of exercise or lower impact exercises, providing pain relievers, or other recommendations based on the examination. Lower impact exercises include swimming and walking on grass.

If your pet hasn’t gotten much exercise before, your veterinarian can also discuss with you how to begin an exercise program with your pet to build stamina and avoid injury. If even low-impact activity is too much (let your pet decide how much exercise is enough), Dr. Wynn recommends using physical therapy to help your cat or dog maintain muscle mass.

Bottom Line: Watch your senior pet closely for signs of discomfort like difficulty rising, less stamina, limping, stiffness, decreased mobility, and reluctance to climb stairs, jump or play. If you see these signs or are otherwise concerned about your pet’s ability to move around, ask your family veterinarian for an evaluation.

Temperature Sensitivity

As dogs and cats age, they may seem to prefer warmer or cooler temperatures. Some like heated beds while others may prefer a cooler space. “If your pet has a temperature preference, you can try a heated or a cooled bed. But be sure to look into what is causing that preference and see if you can address that as well,” says Dr. Wynn.

If your pet has a sensitivity to temperature, it could be a sign of an underlying condition. For example, pets who seem to run cold all the time might be struggling to stay warm because they don’t have enough body fat. While pets that prefer cold spots may overheat easily because of too much weight or a have an inflammatory condition that heat exacerbates. Sharing your observation about your pet’s preferences with your family veterinarian could potentially be helpful.

Bottom Line: At your pet’s next checkup, discuss your pet’s sensitivity to heat or cold if there is one. Your family veterinarian can help determine if further investigation is warranted.

If you liked this information, stay tuned for more in our series on senior pet care which will include information on how to deal with arthritis, vision loss and dental issues.