Albany Blog

Caring for senior pets

By December 2, 2022No Comments

Advances in medicine, focus on preventative healthcare and the availability of nutritionally complete diets are all contributing factors to a better quality of life in senior years for our cats and dogs and an increase in their life expectancies.

When are our pets considered ‘senior’?

This may be earlier than you think. For cats, by the time they reach 2 years of age, they’re the human equivalent of 24 years old. They then age roughly 4 human years to every 1 of their own. Dogs age differently according to their breed and size – the larger the breed, the faster they age.

Signs of ageing to look out for include:

weight loss/ loss of body condition

less activity

resting and sleeping more

skin and coat changes

weakened senses, eg hearing and vision changes

mobility issues – you may notice your pet has difficulty grooming or negotiating the stairs, or is stiff when rising from rest

behavioural changes, eg pacing or night time crying

toileting changes/incontinence

lumps or bumps

changes in appetite or thirst


How can we support our senior pets?

Regular checks at home – check for signs of dental disease, lumps and bumps, signs of reduced grooming and changes in body condition.

Regular health examinations by a vet – the frequency of these should be tailored according to each pet’s individual health needs. Early detection of health changes enables appropriate monitoring and treatments to slow down the progress of some diseases.

Adaptations around the home – provide non-slip flooring on all hard flooring areas for dogs with mobility issues. Cats often like to be high up, for example on windowsills; if they’re having difficulty jumping up themselves, provide access to their preferred raised resting places in the form of ramps or steps. Ensure that food and water bowls are easily accessible.

Feed a diet tailored to this stage of life – older, less mobile dogs will need less calories. Excess weight gain will put a strain on joint health and increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Older cats, however, are more at risk of being underweight. They can also be prone to conditions that affect their kidneys, teeth and joints. These issues can often be managed successfully through the right diet.

Provide appropriate exercise – regular, gentle exercise helps to prevent stiffness and maintain mobility. Strenuous exercise should be avoided as this can worsen joint problems. Hydrotherapy is a form of safe, controlled swimming that provides a low-impact form of exercise, helping to build muscle mass useful for supporting joints. Talk to your vet if you feel your dog would benefit from this.

Consider nutritional supplements – these are available to support brain and joint function. Your vet will be able to recommend appropriate treatments.

When hearing deteriorates – use exaggerated hand and arm signals with your verbal instructions such as ‘come’ and ‘down’ to help to communicate your commands.

If house soiling becomes an issue, revisit the rules we apply to puppy training; give your dog regular opportunities to toilet outdoors and provide praise and reward every time this is successful. Never scold for accidents within the house. For cats, ensure litter trays are kept clean and easily accessible in familiar locations – don’t move them around.

Dental homecare is important in preventing periodontal disease, the infection and inflammation of the gums and bone that surround and support the teeth. If you have an established dental homecare routine, continue with this into your pet’s senior years. If not – it’s never too late to start! Teeth brushing is most beneficial, but if your pet isn’t used to a toothbrush, you can use diets, chews or specially formulated gels available from your vet to help with plaque control.


Senior pets at the vets

Age is not a reason to accept poor health. Although it can be hard to spot subtle changes in our pets, paying attention to them as they age will help us to identify possible health issues. This can be easier said than done when we see them day in and day out – particularly concerning our feline friends, as they are less likely to display signs of pain or illness.

Even apparently healthy senior pets should be regularly reviewed by their vet to ensure they are not at risk from undiagnosed conditions. If you do notice signs that something isn’t right, reporting these problems early can make treatment more effective in many cases.

A consultation with your vet could include:

thorough history taking – your vet will be interested in any behaviour, feeding or drinking pattern changes and any physical signs or changes that you have noticed

full clinical examination, including listening to your pet’s heart, examining their eyes and looking at their range of movement through their joints checking for any signs of pain.

urine testing – checking for sugar (an indication of possible diabetes), blood (sign of possible infection) and the general function of the kidneys.

blood pressure monitoring – high blood pressure can cause heart disease and retinal disease. It can also cause, and be caused by, kidney disease.

blood tests – to check the health of the liver and kidneys, to look for sugar in the blood, to check the blood cell count (looking for anaemia) and to check the body’s response to any possible infection or other disease processes.


Conditions more likely to be seen in senior animals include:

Degenerative joint disease – a common form of arthritis

Dental disease

Hyperthyroidism in cats

Chronic kidney disease

Liver disease

Heart disease

Many owners worry about their pets’ old age, but their senior years can be just as enjoyable as the years that have passed, provided we adjust to their needs in terms of diet, exercise and medical management. Lifestyle changes and regular monitoring will help to support a good quality of life during later years.


When the time comes to say goodbye

We understand the special bond between an owner and their pet; we are pet owners too. Knowing when the time has come to make what is undoubtedly one of the most difficult decisions a pet owner faces, can be tough. Illness is not the only form of suffering, if your pet’s quality of life is not acceptable, it’s kinder to let them go. With this decision, often comes feelings of guilt, uncertainty and distress. It’s important to ask any questions you may feel are unanswered and to prepare yourself so that fully informed decisions can be made.

Talk to your vet for advice and support. If you are struggling, you might find comfort via Blue Cross’  Pet Bereavement Support Service.