The good news is that in general pets are living longer lives these days and this can be attributed to owners taking better care of their pets. Most cats live about 14-16 years and dogs between 12 and 14 years depending on the breed. Although we are now seeing cats live to be in their twenties and dogs living to their late teens. For dogs the bigger the breed the shorter the lifespan. Toy breeds like Chihuahuas live 50 percent longer than giant breeds like Great Danes and St. Bernard’s.
Everyone has heard that adage that a dog’s age equals one year for every seven human years. This is not quite true. At six months a puppy is roughly equivalent to a teenager and at one year they are between 15 and 25 years old depending on the breed. After that they age around 5 human years for every year. The following is a general rule of thumb, but these numbers will vary according to the breed and even the Veterinarian you talk to.
1 year 15 to 27
2 years 24 to 32
4 years 32 to 42
7 years 45 to 57
10 years 56 to 72
15 years 76 to 97
The bottom line is that our pets age much faster than us so it’s important to recognize signs of aging and practice preventative medicine to help them live longer happier lives.
Most Veterinarians agree that dogs and cats over the age of seven are considered senior pets. One of the most important things you can do for your senior pet is take them in for a yearly physical exam and if your veterinarian recommends it also have a urine and blood test performed. A lot of illnesses that come with older age are hard to detect on just a physical exam so the diagnostics are very important to detecting illness early.
Some of the illnesses and signs that owners should watch for as pet’s age include:
1 Kidney failure – early signs are excessive drinking and urination. Late signs are vomiting, weight loss and decreased appetite.
2 Heart failure – Heart attacks are rare in cats and dogs, however heart failure is a common disease that is caused by the heart muscles inability to adequately pump blood throughout the body. Signs of heart disease are exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing and coughing.
3 Vision loss – older dogs will have changes in their vision that may lead to blindness. Cataracts are common ion older dogs.
4 Hearing Loss – Most dogs over the age of 10 will experience some loss of hearing.
5 Cancer – There are over 200 types of cancer in dogs and cat so early detection and treatment may help to manage the disease. Look for lumps or bumps under the skin and any unusual weight loss or sudden bleeding
6 Dental disease – this is so common in cats and dogs and can even lead to heart disease so it is important to brush you pets teeth, have regular dental cleanings and have your vet check the gums at least once a year.
7 Arthritis is common and often starts with stiffness in the morning and difficulty getting up.
The idea is to help prevent problems or illness and/ or diagnose them early so treatment can begin and hopefully lengthen your pet’s life. Remember quality of life is important and since pets can’t verbally articulate in words their health problems it is important for you as an owner to recognize symptoms and take your pet to the Veterinarian who can help make the senior years rewarding for both you and your pet.
Vet exams every six months for your senior pet
Since pets age about six to ten times faster than we do, the potential for age-related diseases also occurs six to ten times faster. One of the most important things you can do for your senior pet is to take it in for a twice-yearly physical exam, and I recommend having a urine and blood test performed. A lot of illnesses that come with advanced age are hard to detect with only a physical exam, so these diagnostic tests are very important in detecting illness early, plus they establish a baseline for comparison as your pets age. Even though our pets may seem healthy based on physical appearance and activity, many clinical signs of disease don’t develop until late in the disease process. Having these tests done twice a year helps detect any age-related disease your pet may develop before the disease has progressed too far.
Bear in mind that a pet receiving biannual exams from the veterinarian is still only the equivalent of a senior person going in for an annual physical every three to four years. As your pet ages, the chances of it developing a life-threatening disease increases. Prevention and early detection of these diseases are imperative to extending the life span of your beloved companion. This could ultimately increase the amount of time you get to spend together, which most people would agree is just too short to begin with.
Plenty of exercise
Routine daily exercise for cats and dogs is essential to staying healthy. The old saying “Use it or lose it” applies to pets as well as to people. Arthritis and obesity are two common problems that plague older cats and dogs, and regular exercise is vital for burning calories and reducing the pain of arthritis. Older pets that are inactive will lose muscle mass and tone, making it more difficult for them to remain active, which causes them to gain weight, which in turn increases the workload on the heart and other vital organs. A vicious cycle develops. Exercise improves circulation, keeps joints moving, and aids in digestion. Even moderate exercise helps maintain a healthy heart and lungs and muscle tone.
Exercise is profoundly important in keeping your pet in the best shape, both physically and mentally. Physically, it helps prevent joints from locking. Following Duke’s last surgery, after only three days of missing our consistent daily walks, I noticed his joints had already begun to stiffen. Two short walks are better than one long walk for the aging dog, as it puts less stress on the joints. Older pets also need more rest periods during exercise and more opportunities to go potty during the day, often every three to four hours if possible. Furthermore, keeping your pet mentally active through play helps postpone the natural decline in brainpower that comes with age.
Make changes to the environment that will help your pet continue to function as close to normal as possible, prevent accidents, and enhance its quality of life. Look around your house to see if your flooring may be difficult to navigate, especially for dogs and cats with arthritis. Many pets with arthritis have difficulty rising or getting their feet under them as they try to get up. This is especially true for pets on tile, linoleum, and hardwood floors. Place a carpet or rug in the areas where they often lie down, and make sure the carpet or rug has an anti-slip backing to give the most stability and support to your pets. You can buy anti-slip pad, available in a variety of sizes, to place under any rug so it doesn’t move or bunch up. Hardwood and linoleum floors can make it tough for pets to get good traction, and consequently, they may slip and fall or have trouble getting up. You can solve this problem by adding throw rugs, mats, carpeting, or carpet runners.
Stairs, furniture, and cars may become obstacles for your aging cats and dogs. Buy ramps or pre-made steps to allow them access to their favorite sleeping spots. Many people build ramps to help pets get to different areas of the house. Be creative and use your ingenuity to design ways to decrease jumping but increase movement. Indoor and outdoor pet ramps are available to help pets get up and down stairs or on and off high objects such as beds, couches, or inside of cars. Also, stairs may pose a problem, so putting up a baby gate to limit access may help reduce accidents.
A cushioned place for senior pets to sleep
Soft bedding can help support bones and joints and keep your senior pets more comfortable. Large breeds of dogs, especially if they lie in one spot for long periods of time, can develop calluses or sores over the bony prominences of the body such as the elbows and hocks, which can become ulcerated and infected. There is a huge assortment of orthopedic beds available for cats and dogs that range from soft lambswool to waterbeds, hammock beds, heated beds, and large, soft cotton styles. Ideally, the cover should be washable, and make sure it’s in a place where your pet has secure footing getting into and out of the bed. The stuffing should be soft but durable to maintain its shape after repeated use. Be sure to place beds away from any areas that could be drafty, as older pets have more trouble regulating their body temperature.
Regular grooming and nail trimming
Grooming is as vital to your cat or dog as it is for you to brush your hair. It’s important to your pet both physically and emotionally. Keeping their coat clean and free from tangles and mats helps prevent fleas, ticks, and skin infections. The coat and skin are your pet’s first line of defense against fleas, dampness, and cold, and when their skin and coat are in poor condition, it makes them vulnerable to disease and illness. Because muscle tone and circulation aren’t as good as when they were younger, your senior pet can’t groom itself as well. Brushing improves the circulation to the skin and keeps the coat shiny and free from tangles. Daily grooming is also a good way to examine your pet’s body for any abnormalities such as lumps, bumps, or sores that may be covered up by all that beautiful fur. As your pets age, grooming becomes even more important because the skin loses its elasticity and may become thinner, making it more susceptible to injury. Their coat may also change, becoming drier and flakier, or oily and greasy to the touch.
Cats normally spend up to 30% of their day engaged in some grooming activity. Older cats often groom less due to arthritis or mental changes associated with age. Many older cats may have difficulty reaching their entire body for grooming, so gently brushing them every day helps remove loose hair, preventing hairballs and making them feel better in general. This requires that you take a more active role in their daily grooming.
Look for brushes and combs that have plastic tipped teeth, as these are more comfortable to the skin. If your pet has long hair, keep the area around the rear end clipped short to prevent feces and mats in the hair that can cause skin irritations. Also, because dogs and cats have thinner, more sensitive skin, be sure to use shampoos especially formulated for pets. Human shampoo has a completely different pH level and is too harsh for your pet’s skin and fur.
Older dogs and cats often have trouble with their nails because they are less active or not using the scratching post as often, so their nails don’t naturally wear down. Nails may become thick and brittle with age as well. Serious problems can develop from overgrown nails, such as accidents from loss of balance and infections from nails that are allowed to grow into footpads, so it’s important to trim them on a regular basis yourself or have your groomer or vet trim them for you. Your pet’s nails should not touch the ground when they are just standing still.
Stick to normal routines
Avoid making too many changes in your pet’s home life and try to stick to its normal routine. Being consistent with your older pet’s daily routines is vital to its physical, mental, and emotional health. Mealtime, naptime, playtime, and twice-daily walks should be done at the same times every day. Interrupting this schedule can lead to added stress. Try to keep the home environment the same as well. This means keeping food and water bowls in the same place and avoid moving furniture around too much.
Nutritional needs for older pets
For the typical dog or cat, at least a third of its life is spent in its senior years. Similar to people, as dogs and cats age their metabolism slows and their caloric needs decrease. Their maintenance energy requirement decreases by about 20%, and because their activity level usually decreases as well, their energy needs are decreased by another 10% to 20%. Consequently, if you continue to feed older cats and dogs the same amount you fed them when they were young, they will gain weight. Their decreasing metabolism makes it easier for dogs and cats to gain unwanted fat, which contributes to obesity, commonly seen in older pets.
Older dogs and cats need about 20% fewer calories but more vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. Most senior diets are lower in calories, higher in fiber, and lower in fat, and many of them have added antioxidants. They are also formulated to be highly digestible to aid the senior pet’s less efficient digestive systems and contain highly digestible protein to help pets maintain lean body mass. Diets for senior pets should have limited or controlled amounts of sodium, phosphorus, protein, and fat, all of which can harm an older pet’s health if fed in excess.
When shopping for your senior pet’s food, it’s important to choose a diet that suits its life stage and lifestyle—more sedentary versus still very active. With cats, physical change often happens before you see obvious signs of aging, and switching to a senior diet can help reduce the onset of some common aging diseases like heart and kidney disease.
Additional tips for older pets
• To encourage pets to drink more water, buy an automated, filtering drinking fountain. Pets like running water and will usually drink more water.
• Add extra litter boxes to accommodate your cat and/or switch to litter pans with lower sides.
• Mop up any spills around food and water bowls so pets won’t slip and fall.
• Keep older pets indoors most of the time, especially in inclement weather.
• Give your pet as much human companionship as possible.
• Patience is needed to cope with aging pets because they will be slower and more forgetful and won’t respond to your voice as quickly as they did when they were younger.