Top 5 Things to Know About Aging Pets

Updated on October 10, 2022
By Dr. Kathleen Cooney
By Dr. Kathleen Cooney

Understand your senior pets and the ways to keep them happy and healthy

The unique bond between humans and their pets has been extensively studied. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2011, six-out-of-ten pet owners, or 63.2 percent, considered their pets to be family members.  The impact of pets on human lives, especially for seniors, can have profound psychological, physiological and emotional benefits on both the human and the pet, according to the Center for the Human Animal Bond.

The aging process affects pets as much as it affects humans.  However, many senior pet owners do not know the difference between the normal aging process and potential pain and disease in their pets, or how to help them remain happy and as healthy as possible as they age. Education is a critical component to help senior pet owners be proactive in caring for their aging pets. For example, senior pets require more frequent veterinary visits (6 months is recommended) to determine if they are aging appropriately.  Here are five key focus areas for senior pet owners:

  • Caring for aging animals requires knowledge of what is normal and abnormal. Body changes with age can be stressful to see and manage for senior caregivers.  It is hard to know whether or not these changes are normal or a result of concurrent disease. Normal aging signs for dogs include arthritis, eye problems, hearing loss, long toenails, lumps and bumps, bad teeth, poor hair coat, increased sleep, muscle loss/weight loss and potential weight gain.  For cats, normal aging will consist of arthritis, hearing loss, long toenails, bad teeth, poor hair coat, increased sleep, muscle loss/weight loss.  While many of these changes are natural, they still need to be managed to maintain proper health and quality of life for the pet.
  • Senior caregivers need to be aware of the common signs of disease as pets age and common diseases. If a pet starts showing changes in appetite, increased or decreased thirst, increased panting, weight gain or loss, pacing, change in behavior such as being reclusive or aggressive and change in coat condition, then they should be taken to a veterinarian to be examined. Both dogs and cats are commonly diagnosed with thyroid disease, dental disease, cancer, heart disease, dementia, and arthritis. Cats are also commonly diagnosed with kidney disease and dogs with vestibular disease. Every type of pet is prone to illness at some point, which makes recognizing signs so important.
  • In addition to signs of disease, it is important to recognize common signs of pain.  Lameness, painting, licking sore spots, a tucked tail, poor hair coat, abnormal body posture, reclusive behavior, aggressive behavior, muscle atrophy/loss, refusal to climb stairs or jump, pacing, dilated pupils, inability to stand, and vocalizing or crying out can all be signs of pain in both dogs and cats. Pain can be readily relieved with medicine, household modifications, and more.  No one deserves to hurt, including our pets.
  • Although senior caregivers do what they can, there are some situations that require immediate assistance. Signs of a crisis in an aging pet include difficulty breathing, seizures that are longer than usual or last more than four to five minutes, distended abdomen, internal or external bleeding, and a pet’s inability to stand.  Although most animals will not cry or whine in pain, this can sometimes be a sign of crisis.  If a pet displays any of these signs, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
  • All pets will thrive better in a safe environment and simple steps can be taken to make sure they are safe and secure in any home. Consider placing carpet runners on hard floors and adding ramps and dog doors. Keep medication organized, consider the food dish placement and make any adjustments if necessary. Create serenity and peace by setting aside a quiet place for older pets to relax. Consider the type of pet bed, as beds that are too soft or too hard are detrimental to pets. Finally, maintaining routines such as regular nail trims, brushings, and medication checks are helpful.

Taking the time to understand senior pets can make all the difference in their comfort, happiness, and overall health. It also empowers senior caregivers to take the appropriate action for the wellbeing of their beloved pets.

Dr. Kathleen Cooney is a nationally recognized pet end-of-life care expert, award-winning veterinarian and founder/president of Home to Heaven, a full service in-home hospice and euthanasia company in Loveland, Colo.  Cooney is passionate about end-of-life care for animals, and it is her personal mission to educate pet owners on this often-avoided part of life. 

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