1. Fit for all
"Older pets need consistent, moderate exercise," says Dr. Michael Hamilton, owner of Courtice Pet Clinic in Courtice, Ont. Walk your dog at least once a day rather than take him for a 10-kilometre hike once a week. Senior pets, particularly dogs, are at risk of losing muscle mass (this mass helps maintain the joints and reduce arthritic pain). The only way to prevent this loss is through exercise. "If a dog is stiff, it bothers him a lot less if he has a lot of muscle mass," says Hamilton.
Since cats are smaller, their joints don't carry as much weight, so they don't get arthritis as often as dogs. However, cats are at risk of being obese, which makes them more prone to diabetes. If you can't feel your cat's ribs, there is reason to be concerned about her weight. "If you can get cats to move around, they'll lose weight," says Dr. Janique Arseneau, owner of Clinique Vétérinaire Arseneau in St-Lambert, Que., so it's important to encourage older cats to play. "Once they start losing weight, they become more mobile and start playing again."
2. Visit your vet
Regular checkups at home and an annual checkup at the vet's are critical for senior pets. Vets do a physical exam and geriatric blood work to try to find any problems before the pet gets really sick, says Hamilton. Increase visits to two to three times a year if there is any cause for concern, such as if your pet is drinking more water or losing interest in a favourite activity.
Any change in your pet's behaviour can be the first indication of a health issue, says Arseneau, who warns that you have to watch cats more closely. "Cats are better at hiding disease than dogs because they're more independent and their survival instinct is to not show pain," she says.
Telltale signs that indicate a health concern for cats and dogs include a sudden change in behaviour as well as a change in weight or eating habits, or excessive sleeping or drinking. Common degenerative diseases that affect both senior dogs and cats include: arthritis; organ failure, particularly the kidney for cats; and hypothyroid in dogs or hyperthyroid in cats. Age-related conditions include: hearing and sight difficulties; cognitive issues, such as relentless meowing or loss of house-training; benign or malignant tumours; valvular heart disease, which most often affects dogs; and dental problems, which you can prevent by brushing your cat's or dog's teeth once a day.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn about food and nutrition choices for odler pets on page 2
3. Care and feeding
A recent study supported by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, found that, along with exercise and play, senior dogs were more likely to learn new tasks when their diet was rich in fruits, vegetables and vitamins. Enrich your dog's diet by giving him pieces of carrot or apple instead of dog biscuits, or adding cut-up broccoli, bell peppers, green beans, cherry tomatoes and even strawberries to his regular food.
"Dogs will try anything that's different," says Arseneau. "It's a matter of taste for the animal." She says fruits and veggies should make up no more than one-fifth of your dog's diet (if you feed your dog five cups of food per day, it could be changed to four cups of food plus one cup of fruits and vegetables). But good eating habits aren't only important to dogs. "Cats are probably more sensitive to food than dogs," says Arseneau, who adds that because cats' taste buds diminish with age, they become more finicky. A high-grade senior food helps both dogs and cats age better.
Choosing from the rows of food on the shelves can be a daunting task. To add to the confusion, more companies are offering diets designed for older pets. "There are as many different geriatric diets as there are pet-food companies," says Hamilton. "Every company is a little bit different, but basically what they have done is made the food more digestible and lower in fat, and the food has special proteins that create less work for the kidneys."
Senior diets are designed with a healthy pet in mind, but not all senior pets have the same activity level, so make sure the calorie count of the food is appropriate for your pet. While it's possible to compare a brand's protein content and other nutritional levels, the bag doesn't say what quality of food it is. Hamilton suggests talking to your vet when deciding which senior food is right for your pet.
What's age got to do with it?
Being aware of just what senior means can help you prepare for the added responsibility you'll have as your pet ages.
A dog's status as senior depends on his size: small dogs mature faster but live longer than large breeds; a medium-size dog -- one between 9.5 and 23 kilograms -- is considered senior by his seventh birthday (47 years old in human years). A cat's age isn't determined by size since felines have only one size category; all you have to know is that cats begin entering their senior years by age eight (48 years old in human years).
Click here for more pet versus human age comparison information.
Page 2 of 3 -- Find more advice on caring for older pets on page 3
Seniors need a little extra care
If your older pet is still chasing balls and enjoying life, there is no reason to change her habits. But if she's stiff first thing in the morning or hesitates before walking down stairs, the following tips may help her be more comfortable around the house.
• Create thick, warm bedding because this will minimize the pain from arthritis and alleviate bedsores, which is the thickening of elbows and heels.
• Put up baby gates to keep an unstable dog off staircases.
• Improve lighting to help a dog who is struggling with poor eyesight navigate through darker areas of the house.
• Put nonslip rugs down where there are hard floors if the dog is showing any signs of arthritis, such as wobbly legs or stiff movements.
• Raise food bowls off the floor so older dogs don't have to test their balance by bending forward.
• Start using gestures or whistles if your dog isn't responding as quickly as he used to when you call him.
• Explain to children that an older dog needs quiet time. "Some dogs can become more aggressive with age if they are in pain," says Dr. Janique Arseneau.
• Switch an older cat to a high-grade wet food to help increase her moisture intake, but check with your vet first.
• Groom your cat once a week, or more often for long-haired cats, as self-grooming becomes difficult for them in old age.
• If your cat has problems jumping, lower her bed or build a ramp up to it, but remember that a cat tends to find the best bedding on her own. "Even if you buy a nice bed, she may choose your pillow," says Arseneau.
• If your cat is unstable, restrict her to a secure area since it is hard to cat-proof a house and she may hurt herself by jumping off furniture or trying to leap over a barrier.
• Explain to children that they need to respect an older cat's space. If a cat is stressed from being chased or crowded, she may scratch or even bite in defence.
Page 3 of 3