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Caring for Your Senior Pet

When your favorite pup or kitty reaches their senior years, it’s easy to worry about them. And it probably feels like the years went by way too fast.

Maybe they’re slowing down, or maybe they don’t enjoy all the activities they did in their youth. Or, maybe you’ve been reading up on senior pets and discovered that just like human beings, their risk of certain diseases increases with age.

If you have an older pet, it’s important to know that senior dogs and cats can have a wonderful quality of life in their “golden years.” A little help from their human family can go a long way toward making that happen.

Here are some tips that may help your senior furkid stay happy and comfortable…

Use steps or ramps

Arthritis is one of the most common conditions we see in senior pets, both canine and feline. Unfortunately, there’s no “cure” for arthritis. However, there are supplements, medications, and lifestyle modifications that can keep your pet feeling good and moving better.

The supplements and medications are best addressed by your veterinarian. However, lifestyle changes and home modifications can be implemented at any time.

Steps and ramps are very helpful here, since arthritis makes it difficult for your pet to jump as well as they did when they were younger. A ramp or small set of stairs, placed right next to the bed or sofa, will give them much easier access to their favorite spots to rest.

If you have a senior pup who is too large for you to pick up but still enjoys car rides, portable ramps or stairs can help them get into the car, too.

Steps and ramps are often available from specialty pet retailers, either locally or online.

Minimize slippery surfaces

For senior pets, sometimes tile or wood floors can present a challenge, causing their legs to slip out underneath them, like Bambi. And the problem only gets worse as arthritis progresses.

Laying down some non-slip mats can help your pet get around with more confidence and ease, and may help to prevent injuries from falls or pulled muscles.

Consider an orthopedic pet bed

Another disadvantage of arthritis is that aching joints may make it more difficult for an affected pet to lie down and sleep comfortably.

Senior pets can also have decreased muscle mass compared to younger pets, which means there's less cushion over joints and bony areas of their limbs. These bony protrusions in elbows and hips could be painful when pressed right against a hard floor. Over time, it can even result in pressure sores or swellings of fluid accumulation.

A good quality, padded dog bed can go a long way toward preventing these problems, and also allow your buddy to sleep more comfortably. Fortunately, nowadays there are even specialty orthopedic beds, designed to provide extra cushioning and support.

Keep in mind that some pets, especially large breed dogs, might continue to sleep on a hard floor no matter how nice of a bed you offer them. We’re not sure why, but it may have something to do with the cooler temperature of the floor. So don’t be discouraged if this happens. It’s still beneficial to offer your buddy a bed and see if it’s a good fit for them.

Elevated food bowls

Raised food bowls aren’t necessary for all pets, but may be helpful for some seniors—particularly those who have problems with their neck, back, or hips or anything else that may make it painful to extend their neck downward.

However, it’s best to check with your vet first. Changes in feeding elevation may be bad for some pets, especially deep-chested dogs who are genetically at risk of a dangerous condition where their stomach can twist (which requires an emergency vet visit and surgery).

If your vet says an elevated food bowl is a good fit for your dog or cat, pick one so the food is at their chest level so they don’t need to extend their neck up or down to eat.

Veterinary visits

Keeping up with routine checkups — which are usually more frequent for seniors than for younger adults — can be a great way to help your buddy stay as healthy as possible.

Here are a few reasons why…

  • Routine physical exams can help catch health problems early. Often, this allows for more effective (and less expensive) treatment.
  • This early detection benefit is really multiplied when “senior wellness” diagnostic testing is offered — this is a screening option that typically includes bloodwork and x-rays, much like how humans do additional bloodwork and other tests at certain ages in your life.
  • Your vet can recommend food, supplements or medications that may be a fit for your senior dog or cat to help with age-related weight loss, digestive issues, arthritis and more.
  • You can talk to your vet about alternative health therapies. Many pets can benefit from treatments such as acupuncture, cold laser therapy, massage, physical therapy, and more, for arthritis and a variety of other conditions.

Need a vet? Book a visit.

Watch for unusual symptoms at home

Changes in weight, eating and drinking patterns, or bathroom habits can all be early symptoms of a medical problem. Dementia — known as “cognitive dysfunction” in pets — is also common in seniors and could lead to episodes of confusion or wandering around the house at night.

Plus, any new symptoms you notice on any part of the body — a bad odor, a lump, limping, or any other concerns — could also be an indication of a more serious medical problem. But don’t worry just yet — many of these things could turn out to be normal, or something that’s easily treated or managed.

However, it’s hard to tell for sure without a veterinary visit. When in doubt, it’s better to seek treatment sooner rather than later. Early detection often results in more treatment options and a better outcome. And of course, if everything’s normal, then you’ll get peace of mind earlier rather than worrying.

Find the right balance of physical activity

Senior pets can certainly benefit from staying active, but it’s important to find the right balance of exercising without overdoing it.

This ideal level of exercise may vary widely from pet to pet, depending on breed, fitness level, environmental conditions, and many other factors. So, start slow and monitor your pal for any signs of slowing down or overexertion.

Start with short, sensible walks in your neighborhood — just a few minutes at a time is a fine start, especially if it’s been a while. Then, as your buddy develops more stamina, you can help them work their way up to longer walks. But always be mindful of how they’re doing, and don’t push them to do more than they’re comfortable with.

Use additional caution in hot or very cold weather, as senior pets may be more sensitive to overheating or hypothermia.

For dogs, swimming may also be a good option, since it’s low impact on their joints. Just be sure to monitor them in the pool. And we recommend a doga class — a yoga class you complete together with your canine pal—may be a good option for low impact, gentle stretching. (Check out events calendar to see if we have doga classes coming up.)

For senior cats, who might not be a good fit for any of the above options, there are plenty of ways to help them exercise indoors. Try dragging a string toy around the house, letting your kitty chase after it. Or, roll toys across the floor to see if they’ll chase them. Try a laser pointer, too. (Be sure to supervise playtime so toys and strings aren’t swallowed.)

Setting aside a little time each day — even just 10 minutes — can encourage good exercise habits and help your cat stay healthier and more comfortable in their senior years.

Shift to a senior diet

We mentioned that senior pets can suffer from muscle loss with age. But adding calories isn’t necessarily a good solution for this, since seniors are also prone to being overweight, which can put additional pressure on arthritic joints. Using a high-protein diet isn’t always a good idea either, because excess protein can mean more work for the kidneys.

A good solution to the delicate nutrient balance needed for seniors may mean a transition to a senior diet. Senior diets are formulated to be lower calorie without cutting out important nutrients. Plus, many have supplements such as glucosamine, which can be beneficial for arthritis and other joint issues.

Check with your vet before making a diet change, especially if your pup or kitty is on a prescription diet or has a medical issue. In some cases, it may be best to remain on their current diet.

If you do switch, remember to transition slowly over 1-2 weeks, or longer for especially picky eaters, so you can avoid the upset stomach and diarrhea that could come with a sudden food change.

Try mixing the old and new foods together and gradually changing their proportions. For example, starting with ¼ new food and ¾ old food, then ½ and ½, and eventually shifting to the new food entirely.

Or, offer the old food and new food side by side, allowing your pet to eat a little of each and warm up to the new food at their own pace.

Give them a quiet space when needed

Sometimes, senior pets like to have a peaceful, quiet routine as part of their daily life. Too much stimulation, especially children visiting your home or new puppies, might result in your senior pet acting a bit “grumpy.”

It’s not their fault. If arthritis is causing them to experience discomfort or move more slowly, noisy children and nipping puppies can not only be annoying to them, but may also cause them to experience discomfort if they move too suddenly during the commotion.

So, if your senior pet ever seems uncomfortable around anyone — whether human or animal, child or adult — it’s best to let them have a quiet room they can go to for rest and privacy.

Monitor for improvements

With regular health care and a few modifications at home, you may notice a big improvement in your pal’s attitude and activity levels. And, by keeping them healthy and comfortable, you’ll get to enjoy more quality time together and keep your bond going strong.

It’s never easy to watch a pet transition from “fur baby” to “fur senior," but with your help, your furry best friend can stay young at heart and live their best life possible. 

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