By Dr. Becker
In 2013, Japan enacted legislation that requires citizens to provide care for their pets for their entire lives – a respectable move since owning a pet is a lifetime commitment.
By contrast, in the US, 86 percent of surrendered pets brought to animal welfare organizations are turned over for owner-specific reasons (i.e. not because of poor behaviors in the dog or cat). Among them is an inability to care for the pet any longer, which, sadly, often occurs with elderly owners.1
Well, Japan isn't only ahead of the game in terms of pet-protective legislation… it's also home to a brand new retirement home for pets, which opened in June 2014, making it the first in the nation.
Japan's First Retirement Home for Pets
Caring for an aging pet can be a challenge. In Japan, if an owner can no longer take on this responsibility, he can bring his pet to live in the dog-only retirement home outside of Tokyo. For about $1,000 a month, each dog has access to a playground, swimming pool, on-call veterinarian, and grooming room, and owners can visit their pets any time.
This is certainly preferable to dropping a senior pet at an animal shelter, with an uncertain future… but ultimately, aged pets are used to being members of your family and household, and will be happiest staying in their own home. As an aside, if you are looking to add a pet to your family, please don't overlook the more "seasoned" pets at the shelter.
Older animals that are surrendered to shelters often spend the last years of their life in kennels waiting for their families to come back… yet there are many great reasons to adopt an older pet.
When Is Your Pet 'Old'?
You may be wondering when your pet will officially become a senior. Generally speaking, it's at age 7, but this is just an approximation. Larger dog breeds tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller dogs, for instance. Below are age charts from the American Veterinary Medical Association that show pet ages in relation to human equivalents, to help you understand how old your dog or cat actually is.2
Age: Human Equivalents for Older Pets
|Cat years||Human years|
|Dog years||Human years (*dog size lbs)|
|7||Small – Medium: 44-47 |
Large – Very large: 50-56
|10||Small – Medium: 56-60 |
Large – Very large: 66-78
|15||Small – Medium: 76-83 |
Large – Very large: 93-115
|20||Small – Medium: 96-105 |
|*Small: 0-20 lbs; |
*Medium: 21-50 lbs;
*Large: 51-90 lbs;
*Very large: >90 lbs
The oldest recorded age of a cat is 34 years. The oldest recorded age of a dog is 29 years.
Common signs of aging you might notice in your dog include:
- Tiring more quickly
- Development of vision or hearing problems
- Graying hair
- Behavioral changes like mental confusion, separation anxiety, excessive vocalization, or elimination accidents in the house
The five most common symptoms of a dog's aging brain, known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), are:
- Increased total amount of sleep during a 24-hour period
- Decreased attention to surroundings, disinterest, apathy
- Decreased purposeful activity
- Loss of formerly acquired knowledge, which includes housebreaking
- Intermittent anxiety expressed through apprehension, panting, moaning, shivering
6 Special Considerations for Older Pets
Caring for a senior pet can require more attention and changes to your regular routine. Fortunately, these changes don't happen overnight; you can adjust to them gradually, as can your pet.3
1. Increased Veterinary Visits
Older pets should see their veterinarian twice a year, and may require dental care or additional blood work. Age-related health issues to be on the watch for are very similar to those that occur in humans:
|Kidney or urinary tract disease||Liver disease|
|Diabetes||Joint or bone disease|
2. Differing Dietary Needs
You may need to tweak your pet's diet as he gets older. However, your dog's body condition and any underlying disease are more important considerations than his age. In many cases, however, dogs actually need more protein as they age in order to maintain healthy lean muscle mass and good organ and immune function.
The type of protein most dogs thrive on, regardless of age, is whole, unprocessed, and preferably raw. Foods that have not been dehydrated or processed are the most assimilable for your pet's body. These foods are biologically appropriate at all stages of life.
Please be careful in choosing a commercial "senior" dog food formula, as many are not good choices for aging pets (or any pets, for that matter).
3. Weight Control
If your senior dog is overweight or obese, portion control and regular aerobic exercise are the keys to helping your furry friend lose those extra pounds and maintain a lean, fit body condition.
Your pet's aging body will lose muscle tone, balance, and fluid movement without regular exercise. Older pets can benefit tremendously from anti-aging activities, including:
- Exercises specifically designed to maintain strength, flexibility, and balance
- Short, frequent walks to maintain heart health
- Massage to relieve sore muscles and joints, and other aches and pains
5. Mental Stimulation
Pets can show signs of senility just like humans. Mental stimulation can help to keep your pet's brain in proper working order. There are many ways to mentally stimulate your dog, such as going for a walk (especially on a new route), taking a ride in the car, or playtime in the backyard. Or, according to Robert T. Goldston, DVM, author of the veterinary textbook, Geriatrics and Gerontology of Dogs and Cats:4
"By far the best activity for mentally stimulating senior and geriatric dogs is the near constant [attention] they get from a young puppy."
6. Environmental Changes
If your dog develops trouble with hearing, vision, housetraining, or mobility, you'll need to make some adjustments to his environment. This might include:
- Walks instead of jogs; tug games instead of chase games.
- Ramps so your pup can still get into the car or up on the bed or favorite chair.
- More frequent potty trips outside; reintroduction to his crate if he was crate trained initially.
- Adequate social interaction with other pets and people, but take care not to over stimulate your dog – short periods of exercise and playtime in controlled situations are best for older dogs.
- If your dog has problems hearing or seeing, use odor cues like scented candles or other aromatherapy products to help him find his way around.
- If your dog isn't sleeping well, increasing his daytime activity level can help. Let your pup sleep in your bedroom. Sleeping near his human pack leader should help ease any anxiety that is contributing to his nighttime restlessness.
- Guide your dog with clear cues and easy-to-follow instructions, especially if he's showing signs of mental decline.
- When you talk to your dog, keep your voice quiet, calm, and kind – and please don't ever shout at him. Older dogs can become easily stressed and quite depressed.
- Using hand signals and eye contact will help you communicate with your hard-of-hearing pet. Your dog can be easily trained, if he isn't already, to recognize hand signals for Come and Wait (but be very cautious when letting a dog that's hard of hearing or losing his eyesight outdoors)
- Avoid moving furniture around, keep household "travel lanes" clear, and minimize clutter if your dog is losing his vision
- Dogs with age-related incontinence can be fitted with dog bloomers or panties with absorbent pads -- you can even use human disposable diapers and cut a hole for the tail. Keep in mind urine is caustic and should not remain on your pet's skin for long periods, so if you use diapers, be sure to change them frequently or remove them during times when your pet isn't apt to be incontinent.
- If your pet is incontinent primarily during sleep, there are pet incontinence beds that work by pulling moisture away from the animal and down into a tray.
- There are many natural treatments and supplements that can help older pets feel comfortable and stay mobile. Some of these include chiropractic adjustments, stretching, water exercises, acupuncture, and massage.
Reasons Why Senior Pets Are Awesome
I've focused a lot on the extra care that senior pets often require, but let's not overlook their many benefits. Older pets are usually already housetrained and obedience trained. They're far less likely to be destructive around your home (your shoes won't be chewed up, for instance), and because they don't require as much activity as a puppy, they're wonderful for cuddling up on the couch.
Older pets also tend to be much calmer than younger dogs, and if you're thinking of adopting an older dog or cat, his personality and size will already be apparent. Somehow, older pets seem to know you gave them a home when no one else would. Many new owners form a close bond very quickly with their senior dog or cat, because the pet shows them a level of attention and devotion that is unique to older adopted animals. If you don't believe me, just try it for yourself.