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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 (and is 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” can be thought of as 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 that they can “regenerate” when old age gets the better of them like a feline Dr Who! Accepting that your pet will get older and thinking about the changes that you may need to put into place is a sensible plan for owners that want to be proactive in planning for their pets “retirement”.  This may mean thinking about how and when you exercise your dog, whether your cat would benefit from an additional 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 if additional help with grooming is needed, and indeed what nutritional changes you may need to make to their diets.

Age is never a reason to accept 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, hearing, and smell, 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. Similarly, the digestive tract may become less efficient at nutrient absorption, and breaking food down in the mouth may become harder depending on dental health. Admittedly, this all sounds a little depressing(!) but the good news is that with knowledge comes power, and there are several ways that you can 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 of lifespan and seniorship. Larger breeds such as Great Danes, Bull Mastiffs and St. Bernard’s commonly have a lifespan of 8 – 10 years, reaching their “senior” years much earlier than smaller breeds with longer lifespans, which include Jack Russell Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers and Chihuahuas, which generally live between 13 – 18 years, health depending. However, that doesn’t mean that 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 between 7 - 10 years old. Unlike dogs, cats more often tend to hide signs of ill-health or discomfort so knowing what’s normal for your pet is vital to notice signs of change. Keeping regular weight records for your moggy is a good place to start, as weight gain or loss at this age 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.

Feeding your Senior Pet

As pets age, their dietary requirements can change, which is why many pet food brands have complete pet foods for senior dogs and cats. For dogs, a senior diet may be lower calorie to accompany their tendency to gain weight in old age. It may also include a joint supplement or higher levels of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids to support cognitive function. For cats, recent studies have shown their ability to absorb nutrients from their food can deteriorate as they get older and so good senior diets may include higher levels of protein and ingredients with increased digestibility to help prevent weight loss and muscle wastage. Switching to a senior pet food as your furry friend ages can help keep their nutritional needs optimal.

Common Issues with Health Associated with Old Age

Mobility and Osteoarthritis 

As pets’ age, their joints can become stiff and their function slightly impaired with damage, pain and inflammation all being signs of osteoarthritis. For dogs, thinking about and adapting their exercise routine is important. Dogs benefit from the mental stimulation and health benefits (see Weight Control) that a walk can provide. Ideally shorter walks that are taken more often are better for your pet than an extra-long walk once a day. Use your judgement, and watch your animal’s behaviour following a long walk to see whether they become lame, seem stiff or appear to have difficulty getting up from their bed afterwards, then change your routine accordingly. Similarly, sometimes it may be better to 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 consciously trying to maintain their companion’s weight but would prefer an activity kinder on their joints. Many people now choose to provide their older dogs with ramps or steps for getting into cars and/or onto sofas and this too can relieve them from making painful jumps or risking trips if they cannot quite stretch as far as they used to. For some dogs, water and feed bowl placement on the floor may mean having to stretch sore necks or putting strain on tired elbows so elevating feed bowls may be another consideration. 

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 (if they’ve always gone outside) or perhaps two (one upstairs and down) if they have reduced mobility or find it more difficult or painful to move up and downstairs as easily as they once did. Easily accessible “safe places” away from other pets or young children that are comfy and warm without them needing to jump or climb may also be welcomed and think about where you place food and water bowls, the floor being preferable to a countertop if mobility and pain are an issue. For those cats with arthritic joints bending to reach bowls may also be an issue so elevating them can relieve this.  

In terms of nutrition keeping your pet at the correct weight and monitoring their weight regularly can play a huge role in maintaining their health and not putting their joints or organs under any additional strain. Supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin and fish oil may allow additional support of joint cartilage health but will not relieve pain. Speak to your vet if your pet appears stiff or has lost some mobility, and/or you are looking into supplementing their diet to ensure no risk of adverse effects if taken alongside other prescribed medications. A diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids has 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 health in later life.

Sight and Hearing Loss 

Sight, smell and hearing degeneration occurs as animals get older. Try not to approach pets from behind as it could startle them, and keep an eye on children near older animals too as by nature kids are often more spontaneous with their actions, which could be a source of stress to older animals that may not want to be petted, picked up or bothered as often. If a pet’s joints are sore or they’re not as agile as they used to be/have reduced mobility, it’s important to allow them the option to “opt-out” of handling and respect their space, so they can avoid any unnecessary pain or stress.

Pets may take longer to recognise you from afar or come to recall if their hearing or sight is reduced. It’s important to be aware of this as dogs get older, especially when off lead in areas that it might be easier to get lost in e.g., woods, or when out walking at night. Keeping them a bit closer can help avoid that sudden panic of losing each other! 

Particularly for cats, but for some dogs too, a loss of smell as they get older may mean their food isn’t as appealing as it once was and they may refuse to eat or become a bit fussier about eating. Warming food up slightly can enhance the food’s aroma, likewise, a more aromatic brand of pet food may be a good option to kickstart their appetites again. 


Regularly weighing your pet and keeping track of any 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 and muscle 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 resulting in loss of weight, however, sometimes water retention might mean that weight does not appear to fluctuate. Using photos to keep track of your pet’s body condition can be really useful, where possible take regular (at least once a month) photos from above, the side, the front and back as they are standing.

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 for 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 that 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 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 accept ill-health. It is recommended to visit the vet if your pet displays any of these signs: