By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
There's both art and science involved in insuring older pets remain healthy and comfortable as they age. Fortunately, these days devoted pet parents of aging dogs and cats are very interested in understanding what's happening to their animal companion's body, and how to give him the best care in his golden years. Veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly, writing for VetStreet, lists seven common questions owners ask about their aging pets.1
7 Questions Pet Parents Ask About an Older Dog or Cat
1. Is she too thin?
The aging process brings with it loss of muscle tone and balance, which can lead to inactivity. Inactivity and loss of muscle mass/balance promotes faster aging, as well as significantly increased risk of injury from slips, trips, falls, strains and sprains. But like human senior citizens, 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
Some of these activities require the expertise or guidance of an animal physical therapist, but you can still take your furry companion out for several short walks each day to promote cardiovascular fitness. You can also learn how to massage your pet from your vet, most animal physical therapists or a professional small animal massage practitioner.
2. Should I change his diet or supplements?
Ideally, you're bringing your senior or geriatric pet in for wellness visits with your veterinarian at least twice a year. During these visits, your vet should review your pet's diet and supplement protocol and made adjustments based on your dog's or cat's changing needs.
When it comes to your aging pet's diet, it's important to know that some foods are metabolically stressful, while others create low metabolic stress on the body. The nutrition that generates the least amount of metabolic stress for most dogs and cats is whole, unprocessed, raw or gently cooked, organic, non-GMO and in its natural form.
This of course includes animal protein, which should be the foundation of your pet's diet throughout her life. Foods that have not been highly processed are the most assimilable for your pet's body. In addition, all the moisture in the food remains in the food. If you can't feed fresh food (raw or gently cooked), the second best diet is a dehydrated or freeze-dried balanced diet that has been reconstituted with an abundance of water.
I recommend serving food in its natural state to provide needed moisture, and to insure the highest level of biologic assimilation and digestion. That means feeding a balanced, antioxidant-rich, species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil.
Your integrative vet will recommend supplements and proper dosing based on your pet's individual needs. At a minimum, aging dogs and cats typically benefit from supplements to maintain joint mobility and cognitive function. There's now even a raw food diet designed specifically for dog joint health.
3. Is he too old for anesthesia?
Fortunately, in the right hands, anesthesia is just as safe for older pets as it is for younger animals. And that's a good thing, because just as with humans, cats and dogs tend to develop more health problems as they age.
If you're nervous about anesthesia for your older cat or dog, you should know that it's actually quite safe when performed according to current standards of practice. The reason senior pets are handled more cautiously for anesthesia is because they are more likely to have a systemic illness.
That's why additional tests are run on older pets prior to scheduling procedures requiring anesthesia. These tests usually include a complete blood panel, urinalysis, chest x-rays and a BNP test which checks for certain forms of heart disease.
If your pet's test results show no problems with her general health, there is no increased risk for anesthesia. And even if there are some borderline numbers in an animal's test results, we must weigh the benefits of the medical procedure against the potential risks associated with anesthesia.
A well-trained, skilled and experienced veterinary staff, following the most current standards of practice, can safely anesthetize senior and geriatric pets, as well as pets with significant systemic disease. By using the latest anesthetic monitoring equipment, pets can benefit from the same diagnostics as people undergoing anesthesia. Make sure to check with your vet about how anesthetic monitoring is performed during your pet's procedure and recovery period.
4. Is she sick or is she just getting old?
It can be challenging to know whether the changes you see in your older furry companion are part of the normal aging process, or due to illness or disease. For example, if your pet is slowing down, it could be nothing more than aging bones and muscles — or it could be painful arthritis.
Older pets may also forget they are house- or litterbox-trained. It's important to first rule out any underlying disorders that might cause your pet to forget her potty manners. If there's nothing physically wrong, there are things you can do to help prevent house soiling.
For these and many other reasons, I can't stress enough the importance of twice-yearly senior wellness checkups. The senior pet wellness screen is an excellent tool for early detection of changes in your dog's or cat's health so that treatment, including appropriate lifestyle modifications, can begin immediately.
Regular wellness screens allow your veterinarian to compare current test results with past results to check for changes that may need further investigation. A huge benefit of early detection of disease is that treatments are often more effective and less costly, and the quality of your pet's life can be maintained.
5. Is it a good idea to get him a new puppy or kitten?
Many parents of a dog or cat who is getting up in years wonder if they should add a younger pet to the family. Often, they are hoping the newcomer may invigorate the older animal, while also softening the blow when the current beloved pet passes.
Introducing a new pet to a home with a senior animal can be hugely successful, or it can be a decision everyone in the family ends up regretting. When an existing pet and a newbie don't get along, it can create lots of behavior problems and stress all around. Tips for helping your senior dog or cat accept a new family pet:
Keep your focus on the needs of your senior pet rather than the appeal of a new pet
Choose a second pet that has the best chance of getting along well with your older dog or cat
If your current pet is an older cat, consider getting a dog
To successfully introduce a new dog to a senior cat, proceed with caution
Make sure both pets have their own gear
Feed them in separate areas
Give your senior pet lots of extra time and attention
6. Apart from medicines, procedures and supplements, what can I do to help her joints?
There are ayurvedic and Chinese herbs as well as homeopathic remedies and nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial for pets with OA, depending on their individual symptoms. It's important to monitor your dog's or cat's symptoms on an ongoing basis, because arthritis progresses over time.
Your pet's body is constantly changing, and her treatment protocol will need to evolve as well. At your twice-yearly wellness checkups, your veterinarian should check the range of motion in her joints, the muscle mass she is either gaining or losing and make adjustments to her protocol as necessary to ensure her quality of life is optimal.
I have always found that a multimodal approach to managing arthritis is critical for slowing its progression and keeping pets comfortable and mobile. Incorporating maintenance chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, daily stretching and mild exercise along with an oral protocol to manage pain and inflammation will yield the best results possible for an arthritic pet.
7. What else can I do to improve his quality of life?
Consider increasing the number of potty walks for your dog, especially if he's having some urine dribbling. 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 leaky primarily during sleep, there are pet incontinence beds that work by pulling moisture away from the animal and down into a tray. Older cats should have easily accessible litterboxes that are kept immaculately clean.
Gently brush or comb your older pet several times a week to help remove dead fur, dander and debris from his coat. If your pet has problems hearing or seeing, use odor cues like essential oils (but not scented candles, incense or air freshener sprays/plug-ins) to help him find his way around. Using hand signals and eye contact will help you communicate with a hard-of-hearing pet.
Consider purchasing or building ramps for a pet who is having trouble getting into the car or up on the bed or a favorite chair. Avoid moving furniture around, keep household travel lanes clear and minimize clutter if your pet is losing his vision. Cover uncarpeted surfaces with yoga mats or nonskid rugs to prevent slipping, and use baby gaits to prevent accidental falls down stairs. Dr. Buzby's ToeGrips can also be a live saver for animals who have a hard time keeping their feet under them.
For sleep problems in an older pet, try increasing his daytime activity level. Let your pet sleep in your bedroom. Sleeping near you should help ease any anxiety that is contributing to his nighttime restlessness. Guide your pet with clear cues and easy-to-follow instructions, especially if he's showing signs of mental decline. And when you talk to him, keep your voice quiet, calm and kind.
Provide your older pet with adequate social interaction with other pets and people, but take care not to overstimulate him — short periods of exercise and playtime in controlled situations are best for older dogs and kitties.