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Why does an older pet have different needs?

Advances in healthcare and pet education means our pets are living longer than ever before. With this happy news comes an inevitable increase in age-related health problems and a need to understand our pets’ changing needs. It’s important to recognise these signs in our pets. Screening to aid prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of age-related problems is vital in human medicine and its importance is also recognised in the veterinary world. 

When is old?

It’s important to know when we classify pets as ‘elderly’ to alert us when to look for signs of old age and consider implementing changes. 

It may help to understand age in term of human years.

Cats are considered elderly from 11 years of age. Cats aged 11-14 are known as senior and 15 years upwards geriatric. Their first two years of life equate to 24 human years with every year after equivalent to 4 years. A 16 year old cat would be equivalent to an 80 year old person. 

Dogs are more complex. They are classed as senior after 7 years old but this depends on breed. Smaller breeds mature slower and live longer than large breeds. The UK kennel club say the first 2 years of a small dogs life are roughly the same as 12.5 human years, while in medium breeds it’s 10.5 and large breeds it’s 9 years. Each year thereafter is multiplied by 4.3-13.4 depending on the breed to find their human equivalent in years. While this doesn’t work in every respect, it does let us work out a rough estimate of an older pet’s equivalent age.

Why should we treat them differently?

Just as in humans, age brings changes in physiology: reduced ability to smell and taste, reduced ability to digest certain foods, reduced hearing and immune function. In addition, there are changes in skin elasticity and stress tolerance, and wear and tear of organs leading to damage, disease, pain and behaviour changes. Pets often can’t tell you if something hurts or they feel strange, instead we must watch for signs. This can be tricky in pets like cats and rabbits that retain an evolutionary tendency to fake wellness, as they would in the wild, for survival. Rabbits are extremely good at this, putting up with extreme pain whilst often appearing normal. This trait means owners and vets have to be eagle-eyed to pick up subtle signs of illness or aging in these species.

What signs can I look for?

●     Changes in appetite. Reduced appetite may be a sign of dental disease, mouth pain or many medical conditions. Increased appetite many be a sign of conditions such as hyperthyroid disease in cats, or diabetes in dog and cats.

●     Changes in thirst. Increased thirst can have many causes such as urinary tract infections, diabetes or kidney disease. Reduced thirst will lead to dehydration, but can be a sign of stress in some animals, or of some diseases of the mouth. 

●     Stiffness,especially after rest, may be a sign of degenerative joint disease (DJD, also known as arthritis). Cats often hide these signs. They may only show behaviour changes such as a reduced grooming, increased sleeping and reluctance to jump. There are medications, supplements and tips that our vets can discuss with you that may ease the signs.

●     Vision changescan have many causes such as cataracts, hypertension, retinal disease or brain issues. A veterinary examination will determine possible causes and options. Impaired hearing is common in dogs and cats.

●     Lumps or bumpsare more likely in older pets, and it is important to get them checked out by one of our vets. While most are benign, some may be more serious, and the earlier they are diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis.

●     Dental diseaseis common in aging pets. Regular teeth cleaning is important, but even when done well, dental disease can occur. Watch for bad breath, discomfort while eating, drooling, or pawing at the mouth. Check your pet's teeth regularly and speak to one of our vets about concerns. 

●     Groomingis required, especially when dogs and cats struggle to do it themselves, otherwise painful mats may occur. Cats often need their claws trimming as with age they struggle to retract them.

●     Behaviourchanges such as confusion, aggression, hiding and increased vocalisation can be due to senility. Behaviour changes can also be due to pain. It is normal to a certain extent for our older pets to want to stay in more, sleep less, be more clingy and more fussy with food, but if taken to extremes, this may need veterinary attention.  

What can I do?

Attending regular pet health checks ensures the time and opportunity to discuss your pet's individual nutrition, exercise and general needs as they age. We can discuss any signs you have noticed, perform an examination and suggest screening tests looking for common age-related conditions, which if caught early can lead to a better quality or even quantity of life. 

Your individual pet’s needs can be discussed in a senior pet health check but consider these general areas of aged pet care.

●     Exercise. Older cats are less active and sleep more. Some dogs will continue long walks well into old age, but remember over-doing it can leave them sore afterwards. Short, frequent walks at their own pace are better for our aged dogs, especially if you notice stiffness. 

●     Nutrition. Reduced activity often makes weight gain an issue. Senior pet foods offer lower fat or protein diets, containing reportedly “anti-aging” nutrients that are easier to digest. Cats are prone to dehydration so ensure they have several different water sources. Most prefer ceramic or metal bowls and some like running water, so consider a water fountain. Wet food increases water intake. Speak to our team who can give advice based on your pet's individual needs. 

●     Environment. To help with DJD, provide a padded bed. Using stairs may end in a fall or worsening of signs, so ideally restrict access. Laminate and tile flooring is slippy for elderly pets so runners/rugs help. Ramps can be used for avoiding step access to the house. Older cats may prefer to not go out in the cold so provide access to a litter tray with low edges. Ensure outside access doesn't require much agility to use, as this may put them off. 

Is your pet getting older? Make an appointment for a Senior Pet Check and let’s work together to keep them happy and healthy in their twilight years.