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Meeting the Needs of Older Dogs and Cats

by Lauren Samet

As pet’s age their nutritional needs vary according to their lifestyle, activity levels, breed and health needs amongst other things. The terms geriatric or senior are commonly used to describe these older life stages. Senior is the more commonly accepted description for older animals that are still healthy (often seen on pet food labels). Whereas, geriatric is a term reserved more commonly for the life stage following this, where animals may begin to show signs of age-related health-loss (if “senior” refers to an animal’s autumn years, then “geriatric” is the winter).

The phrase “one human year equals 7 dog years” isn’t strictly true and nor does the myth about “cats having nine lives” mean they can “regenerate” when old age gets the better of them, like a feline Dr Who. Accepting your pet will get old and thinking about any changes you may need to put into place is how sensible owners can be proactive in planning their pets “retirement”.  This may mean thinking about how and when you exercise your dog, whether your cat would benefit from an indoor litter tray, whether your pet needs a quiet area where it can rest undisturbed away from young children or other pets, whether claws need trimming more often or additional grooming, and indeed what nutritional changes you may need to make to their diets.

Age is never a reason to except ill health.

The Aging Animal

Similar to their owners, there are some common signs of aging in our pets. These can include deterioration of their sight and hearing, disruption of their normal sleep patterns (sleep becoming more irregular and including waking at night), cognitive disorientation such as forgetfulness or reacting in different ways to familiar things, and a greying or loss of shine to coats. Generally, as most mammals’ age, we tend to lose bone density and muscle mass, and our immune systems can lose efficiency meaning we are more susceptible to infection. Organ function can also deteriorate, and issues with the kidneys, liver and heart are not uncommon in older animals. This all sounds a little depressing but with knowledge comes power, and there are several ways to help meet the needs of your aging pet.

The Senior Dog

The International Veterinary Senior Care Society defines a senior canine as between five to ten years old. However, for dogs breed type is very much an indicator or lifespan and senior-ship. Larger breeds such as Great Danes, Bull Mastiffs and St. Bernards commonly have a lifespan of 8 – 10 years (Great Danes 6-8 years), reaching their “senior” years much earlier than your smaller breeds with longer lifespans, including Jack Russells, Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, which generally live between 13 – 18 years, health depending. (However that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule: Bluey, an Australian cattle dog, lived for 29 years and 5 months according to the Guinness Book of World Records).     

The Senior Cat

The age a cat is thought to become senior is seven years old. Unlike dogs, cats tend to hide signs of ill-health or discomfort so knowing what’s normal for your pet is vital. Keeping regular weight records for your moggy is a good place to start, as weight gain or loss can be associated with several health conditions if their diet hasn’t changed. Cats tend to become less active and sleep more as they get older and some owners report a change in personality too.

Common Issues with Health Associated with Old Age

Mobility and Osteoarthritis 

As pets’ age joints can become stiffer and their function impaired with damage, pain and inflammation all being signs of osteoarthritis. For dogs, thinking about and adapting their exercise routine is vital. Dogs benefit from the mental stimulation and health benefits (see weight control) that a walk can provide. Ideally shorter walks, perhaps taken more often are better for your pet than an extra-long walk once a day. Use your judgement, watch the animal’s behaviour following a long walk and see whether it becomes lame, seems stiff or appears to have difficulty getting up from its bed afterwards and change your routine accordingly. Similarly perhaps opt out of a cold water dip if you cannot dry your pet off properly afterwards and keep them warm. An increasingly popular form of exercise for dogs prone to joint problems in hydrotherapy – swimming in a specially designed and heated pool with buoyancy assistance can be the answer to weight management and rehabilitation following joint issues for owners that are conscientious to maintain their companion’s weight but would prefer an activity kinder on the joints. Cats too can become less active as they get older and their range of mobility may decrease meaning they might benefit from an indoor litter tray (even if they’ve always gone outside) and an easily accessible “safe place” away from other pets or young children.

In terms of nutrition keeping your pet at a correct weight and monitoring their weight regularly plays a huge role in maintaining their health and not putting their joints or organs under any additional strain. Supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin may allow additional support of joint cartilage health, however, speak to your vet first to ensure this is the right choice for your animal and ensure there is no risk of adverse effects if taken alongside other prescribed medications. A diet rich in omega 3 has also been associated with joint health in mammals and additionally can benefit cognitive health, cardiac health and cholesterol too. It is important to recognise that establishing a suitable diet for your animal from as young an age as possible will lay the foundations for its future health in later life.

Sight and Hearing Loss 

Bear this in mind with your pets as they get older; avoid surprising them by creeping up behind them or startling them. Just as it would be for us, surprises like this may cause them to react aggressively or be much scarier than anticipated, keep an eye on children too near older animals as they are often more spontaneous in their actions and could equally give your pet a fright. Some clouding of the cornea is a sign of cataracts and poorer vision but rapid onset of sight loss could be a sign of diabetes so speak to your vet if you’re unsure.


See the previous article on managing your pet’s weight (link). Regularly weighing your pet and keeping track of gains or losses could help determine whether their diet needs updating for their activity levels or whether there is an underlying medical problem such as a thyroid issue. Knowing their “shape” also known as body condition scoring can also help you keep track of what’s normal and what’s not. As mammals age, we tend to lose muscle mass but additional water retention might mean their weight does not appear to fluctuate so using photos to keep track of your pet’s body condition can be really useful too.

Dental Issues

Tooth loss, plaque and tooth decay can cause pain and inflammation in your pet’s mouth. This may translate to them dropping bits of food when they eat or avoiding eating altogether. Bad breath can also be a sign of stomach problems so check your pet’s teeth regularly or ask your vet help and advice. Investing regularly in teeth cleaning and brushing from a young age can help prevent these issues.

Cognitive Function & Behaviour

Just like the human brain the animal brain can deteriorate in function too as it ages. Canine or feline “Dementia” or cognitive dysfunction syndrome is now recognised in both dogs and cats as a condition which causes them confusion, disorientation and changes in awareness, and can lead to anxiety, restlessness, irritability, reduced self-grooming or play behaviours and changes to sleep cycles (e.g. waking/restlessness at night). Generally, older pets may be less active, sleep more, enjoy more or less fuss than they used to and may have an appetite change too once they are older, being fussier about foods and preferring more palatable options.

Organ and Endocrine Function

Kidney and liver failure is a common problem in senior pets. Signs for might include drinking a lot more than usual, urinating more than usual and incontinence. There are prescription diets available to assist with renal problems in both dogs and cats. These diets will usually contain a low-quantity, high-quality protein source and a restricted phosphorus intake. Renal disease – related deficiencies of certain nutrients can be balanced via supplementation and keeping an animal hydrated and interested in food is also important. Speak to your vet for more information.

Lumps and Bumps 

As pets get older they may develop lumps and bumps, which you may notice when petting them. If you notice a new lump seek veterinary advice, most are benign and a common aspect of an aging animal,

Regular Check-Ups and Health Screenings

As our knowledge becomes more advanced there is more we can do to keep our senior pets happy and healthy. Choose high-quality feeds and supplements that are age appropriate for your animal. Responsible and respected feed manufacturers should be able to advise why and how their product meets your animal’s needs if this information is not already present on the label.

The veterinary profession is becoming used to seeing senior and geriatric pets visit practices and can advise on a “senior care” plan for your animal. Older animals still need regular vaccinations, flea and worming treatments, and old age should not be a reason to except ill health. It is recommended to visit the vet if your pet displays any of these signs:


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