Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
There’s something special about living with an older dog or cat. After years in the family, senior pets know the household routine and seem able to read our thoughts. And because of advances in nutrition and veterinary medicine, pets tend to live longer than they once did.
Pets’ needs change as they age, and older pets need extra care. Regular veterinary visits and some household adjustments can help keep dogs and cats healthy and comfortable into their senior years.
How old is old?
The common belief that 1 dog year equals 7 human years isn’t really true. Dogs don’t all age at the same rates; small breeds tend to live longer than large breeds. Cats and small dogs are traditionally thought of as senior at about 7 years old (although since they can live well into their teens, 7 years may actually be middle age). Large dogs enter the geriatric stage a bit sooner. Check out these resources for more information:
What to watch for
Keep an eye out for gradual changes over time. Stiff joints, reduced vision, and picky eating are not necessarily normal effects of aging. They are often symptoms of medical conditions that can be treated.
As dogs and cats get older, their risk for arthritis, cancer, kidney disease, thyroid disease, heart disease, and many other problems increases. Watch for symptoms like these:
Dogs and cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year. Older pets may need to be seen more frequently. Many veterinarians recommend wellness checks every 6 months for senior animals. Think of it this way: if 1 dog year really were the same as 7 human years, then an annual examination for a dog would be the same as an examination every 7 years for you and me.
Some diseases progress for a long time before an animal shows any symptoms. Routine diagnostic testing can turn up evidence of chronic disease early in its course, when treatment is most effective. Your veterinarian may recommend these tests for your senior pet:
Preventive health care includes vaccination. Rabies vaccination is required by law in North Carolina for all dogs, cats, and ferrets over 4 months old (for good reason). Dogs’ and cats’ vaccination needs may change as they age, so talk with your veterinarian about immunizations that make sense for your pet.
Things you can do
Photo by Eric Han