health tips for older pets
Our pets don’t get old – at least they don’t know it. Their muzzles may be getting grey, but geriatric pets often have just as much pep in their step as their much younger counterparts. After all, age is just a number, and our pets only count when it comes to treats!
Once your dog or cat reaches age 7 (when they are generally considered “geriatric”), here are some things you can do to keep pets on their paws. By following a few simple rules, you can help your pet live to his or her fullest – and longest – potential.
7 rules for the over 7 set
Rule 1: Start testing
Changes in kidney, liver and pancreatic function, arthritis, cataracts, heart disease and high blood pressure are more common in older pets. As a pet enters the golden years of senior citizenry, these physiological changes can offer clues about a pet’s overall health, and flag warning signs of trouble.
The most important key in treating disease is early recognition. In medicine, we have a rule called “The 10/90 Rule.” This means that if we diagnose most diseases, especially cancers, during the first 10% of development, we have about a 90% chance of successfully treating or even curing it. However, if we don’t diagnose it until it’s obvious, or 90% established, the odds of success plummet to about 10%. To diagnose a disease in the early stages requires consistent examinations and lab tests.
As soon as your pet turns 7, you should ask for basic blood and urine tests, even if your pet appears to be perfectly healthy. The value of routine testing is that it establishes baselines for future reference.
Case in point: I recently saw a 10-year-old cat for a routine exam. The owner reported her cat was in splendid condition. Our test results showed a big jump in two kidney enzymes from previous years. While the values were still within normal limits, the increase caught my attention and we performed additional tests that confirmed early kidney disease. If we did not have the previous test results, we never would have diagnosed kidney disease at this early stage.
The bottom line: the money you spend on routine diagnostic tests may save you big bucks in the future – and add years to the life of your pet.
Rule 2: Consider food and supplements
As dogs and cats age, both their nutritional requirements and their ability to digest certain foods can change.
If your pet is older than 7, talk to your veterinarian about switching to a diet that is specially-formulated for older pets. For cats, I prefer low- or no-grain higher protein diets. For senior dogs, highly digestible, low-fat diets will do the trick.
Because nutritional gaps and cellular damage can accelerate with age due to genetics, pollutants and illness, I highly recommend adding nutritional supplements to your dog or cat’s diet. Supplementing a healthy diet with essential vitamins and minerals can combat age changes and help our pets maintain optimal immune response. Here are a few favorites I suggest you start adding to the shopping list.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oils)
These healthy fats have been shown to do everything from keeping coats shiny to combating cancer. Most pet food and treats are heavy on omega-6s, which can contribute to inflammation when ingested at higher levels. I recommend adding omega-3 firepower for dogs and cats to help balance their diets. Ask your vet which form of omega-3s would be best for your pet, and for help calculating dosage.
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are naturally found in connective tissues in the human body, and adding a glucosamine supplement such as Cosequin® to your pet’s diet can help relieve symptoms of arthritis in the hips, knees and joints. While these supplements won’t actually stop the progression of the disease, or reverse its effects, they can help the body's production of joint lubricants and provide some of the shock absorption necessary to keep your pet more comfortable
A Good Multi-Vitamin
Look for B vitamins and vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as biotin and beta-carotene.
We know that the bacteria contained in yogurt are important not only in digestion, but also in promoting the immune system, fighting infections and even preventing cancer. Whether you spoon some plain yogurt over your pet’s dinner, or dose him with a paste or powder, these “friendly bacteria” can do wonders for a pet’s health.
Ask your vet which supplements might benefit your silver senior, and how you can add some into their diet using whole foods like fruits and veggies, as well as which your doc recommends in pill form. Food is fuel for our pets, and the old saying, “You are what you eat,” becomes more and more true as we age!
Rule 3: Less food equals longer life
Turns out you are how much – not just what – you eat. And for pets in the senior stage, less is more when it comes to a long, healthy life. In a benchmark study, researchers found that Labrador retrievers fed 25% less food than the normal guidelines lived about two years longer than those fed the “normal” amount.
More surprisingly, they found that 77% of the “normal” Labs developed radiographic evidence of arthritis at age eight compared to only 10% of the calorie-restricted dogs. And 38% of the calorie-restricted dogs were still living after all the regular-diet dogs had passed. The study concluded that dogs fed fewer calories lived longer and had fewer health problems.
Now, the best person to consult with concerning your pet’s diet and caloric needs is still your veterinarian, and this is not to say you should be putting your dog or cat on some kind of crash diet. The reason this is a rule for the over seven set is that many of us overfeed our pets, and as our furry friends experience the effects of aging, packing on pounds is the LAST thing we want them to do.
When your pet approaches middle age, ditch high-calorie treats with unhealthy sugars and processed ingredients in favor of fruits and veggies that will pack a low-calorie punch of vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health. If you’re sharing table food with your four-legged friends, stop. Keeping obesity at bay is one of the best ways to make sure your senior pet stays on all four paws for years to come.
Rule 4: Exercise more
Nothing stalls the progression of time better than exercise. Regardless of your pet’s current physical status, daily walks or play can rewind years’ worth of damage and boost your pet’s mental and physical health.
For dogs, a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk once or twice a day is just what this doctor orders. For cats, interactive toys such as feather dancers, laser lights or remote-controlled toys can get even the laziest cat on its feet.
Whatever activities you choose, just do it. You know that saying, “Use it or lose it?” Well, that goes for our pets, too. Keeping consistent with cardio can help improve sleep, digestion and mobility – not to mention keep your pet happy!
They may move a little slower than when they were younger, but there’s no question that regular exercise benefits older pets. Get out there and get moving.
Rule 5: Subtle can be significant
If you share your home with an older pet, never ignore that tiny voice telling you, “something’s not right.”
Age can bring with it changes to sleep, behavior, bathroom, grooming and eating habits; it is just part of the natural process. If you have a pet approaching middle age, you have probably started to notice some of these signs, and that is normal. However, when your pet seems “off,” when a change just doesn’t sit right and you suspect something – anything – might be wrong with a pet over age seven, have it checked out as soon as possible.
Recently, I saw a 12-year old dog that “hadn’t been feeling well for the past couple of weeks.” Sadly, by the time the owner finally listened to that inner voice saying something was wrong, it was too late. Their dog was now bleeding internally from a ruptured splenic cancer, and unfortunately, emergency blood transfusions and surgery failed to save this dog’s life.
While I don’t fault the owner – there was nothing obviously wrong with their pet and they loved him dearly – I can’t help but be nagged by, “what if?”
What if I’d been able to diagnose the tumor before it ruptured? What if I’d performed surgery before the dog had lost more than half of his blood volume? I’ll never know, but I can be more diligent in telling my clients (and readers!) not to ignore even the most seemingly insignificant signs when they sense something isn’t right.
What are some subtle signs you should never ignore? If you observe any of the following symptoms or behaviors in your pet, make an appointment to get him checked.
- Loss or thinning of coat
- Lumps or bumps on or under the skin
- Falling on the last step in a flight of stairs
- Frequent head shaking
- Refusal to eat or drink, or difficulty eating or swallowing
- Uncharacteristic barking, whining, aggression or anxiety
- Unusual hunger or excessive drinking
- Bleeding gums, or changes in the color of the gums or tongue
- Weight gain or loss without a change in diet
- Diarrhea or vomiting for more than 24-hours
- Aimless wandering, getting stuck in corners or confusion/disorientation
Diagnosing and treating a disease or illness early gives our pets the best chance of survival and recovery. Sure, there may be times when you rush to the vet over what turns out to be insignificant, but the best news you can ever hear is, “It’s nothing to worry about.”
Rule 6: Play mind games
Older pets’ mental abilities may dull and their behavior may change. As pets age, plaques form in the brain, leading to the death of certain brain cells. This can result in increased forgetfulness and impaired ability to perform high-level mental tasks.
To keep mental reflexes sharp, constantly provide your older pet with new experiences; a stimulating home and varied lifestyle can help avoid cognitive decline (not to mention prevent excess weight gain!). The goal is to provide activities and toys that are not just fun, but also can help your pet’s mind stay fresh and strong. Teach a new trick, take a trip to a different dog park or enroll in therapy pet classes. If you want to regularly challenge your pet with new activities, consider the following tips to help him live life to the fullest:
Make feeding time fun
Feeding your pet in a traditional food bowl is lazy — for your pet, that is. Dogs and cats are scavengers and hunters by nature, and they get satisfaction out of working for their food. Dump it into a bowl, and some of the thrill is lost. That’s why I feed all my pets with a food puzzle. It engages their brains, makes feeding a little more stimulating, prevents food gulping, and taps into their primal instincts. Cats love them as much as dogs. Plus, it’s fun to watch them flip, pull, push, paw and generally enjoy their meals.
Provide tricks with treats
Food-dispensing toys have been the rage for the past few years. For older pets, gnawing on a toy-that-treats can keep them mentally engaged, strengthen jaw muscles and provide them with hours of satisfaction. I love any toy that allows you to stuff something yummy inside. I remember early in my career advising pet parents to fill rubber chew toys with peanut butter whenever they left their pooch home alone. Crude and messy, but highly effective! Cats and dogs alike seem to really enjoy the challenge of food-dispensing toys.
Change it up
Too often we humans fall into habits that cease to stimulate our brains, and wind up living sedentary, lonely lives that can accelerate cognitive dysfunction syndrome (the formal name we give to the effects of age on the mind). To combat this, as often as possible, ask yourself, “How can I make this more fun or interesting?” Even a simple change like reversing your normal walking route can provide freshness to an otherwise stale routine. Old dogs and cats can learn new tricks, so start with something really simple that your older pet can feel proud accomplishing. Expose your pet to new stimuli whenever possible to help fire up stagnant synapses.
As a veterinarian, I’m concerned with the majority of pets (and people) who experience cognitive decline as a result of a lifetime of unhealthy habits. If you can commit to making even one change in your pet’s lifestyle each year, there’s hope that he or she will live well into old age with a sharp mind.
Rule 7: Buddy Up
In almost 20 years of practicing veterinary medicine, I’ve witnessed one thing innumerable times – a new pet breathes new life into older pets.
Not long ago I diagnosed a long-time patient, Prince, with a serious form of heart disease. After outlining a treatment plan, I told the owner that my next best advice was a bit unorthodox: get a new pet. I shared with her the fact that many times the older pet regains lost vigor and lives much longer than I’d ever dreamed possible whenever a new pet is introduced.
Sure enough, two months later she appeared in my office with a brand new puppy and a brand new “old” dog. It had been years since I’d seen Prince prance like that!
Prince lived another year and a half – at least six to 12 months longer than I originally estimated. The beautiful part of the story was that not only did Prince live a longer and better life than I’d expected, but when it was time to let him go, the owner had a new friend to console her.
What I didn’t tell Prince’s pet parent when I suggested getting a new pet was that adding a furry friend before losing another one can help soften some of the loss. While no one can take the place of a beloved pet, having another there to comfort you can help tremendously. And continuing to care for the new pet after losing your older one can help you move forward and not get “stuck” in grief.
I’ll keep recommending a new best buddy for every old friend I see. You don’t have to run out and get a puppy or kitten either; there are thousands of healthy, loving adult dogs and cats in animal shelters all over the country. Whether you adopt a one-year-old or another senior, you’ll be saving a life while helping your elderly pet live better.
Our pets don’t read calendars or celebrate birthday milestones. Pets celebrate every morning when we wake up to greet them, when we return home from a long day’s work and when we take time to play and snuggle. Our pets don’t know how old they are, and I plan on keeping it that way. After all, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “We do not quit playing because we grow old. We grow old because we quit playing.”