Common Aging Changes – What is Normal and How to Care for Senior Pets

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Certain changes are natural and expected as pets age.  Not every pet experiences the same changes or the same severity of changes—it often depends on the species, breed and any previous injuries or medical conditions.  For example, small breed dogs are more prone to degenerative heart conditions; whereas cats often experience kidney changes with advancing age.  It is best for owners to monitor their pets closely and report any new symptoms to their veterinarian.  Diagnosing problems early, use of appropriate medications or supplements, and changing a pet’s environment often contribute to a healthier and happier lifestyle for our geriatric friends. 

  • Skin and coat changes—it is common for pets to develop gray hair on the muzzle and around the eyes as they age.  Although hair may become more dull and coarse with age, it can also indicate nutritional deficiency.  Deficiencies may occur in older pets if they have medical conditions that cause them to have a decreased appetite or a diminished ability to absorb certain nutrients.  Supplementing fatty acids can correct deficiencies and improve hair and skin suppleness.  Daily grooming is helpful to remove old hair (and possibly eliminate hair balls in cats) and spread your pet’s natural oils through their coat.  Your pet will also love the extra attention!  Aging pets (especially dogs) commonly get skin warts and masses.  Alert your veterinarian to any new masses so a simple sample can be taken.  The majority of these are benign and generally do not require removal unless problematic (bleeding, etc).  Older large breed dogs often develop calluses on their elbows which can crack and bleed.  Application of a healing salve can help keep the callused skin soft and more supple.  Providing your dog with a softly cushioned or orthopedic bed may help prevent worsening of calluses.
  • Nail changes—many pets develop brittle, cracked nails as they age.  Nails often need to be trimmed more often and care must be taken to avoid splitting the nails.  Have your veterinarian give you instructions in proper nail trimming to avoid painful nail breaks. 
  • Weight changes—weight gain and obesity is a common problem of aging pets.  Obesity is most prevalent in pets over 7 years of age.  Metabolism and activity level often decline with age which creates a decreased need for calories.  Older pets usually require 30-40% less calories than younger pets of the same breed and size.  If food portions (including treats!) are not reduced, these pets will become overweight or obese.  There are many health risks to obesity including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer and a shortened length of life.  It is critical to work with your veterinarian to determine how much to feed your senior pet to avoid problems with weight gain.          
  • Arthritis—arthritis can occur in older pets, especially if they sustained any form of joint  injury earlier in life.  Arthritis can range in severity, causing only slight stiffness or it can be extremely debilitating.  Keeping excess weight off pets and providing gentle forms of exercise (e.g. swimming) can help keep the pain of arthritis under control.  Acupuncture has proven useful in many pets with arthritis and there are also many supplements (e.g. glucosamine, green-lipped mussel, etc) and prescription medications (e.g. NSAIDs) that your veterinarian may recommend based on your pets symptoms.   Don’t assume that "old age" is causing your pet to "slow down"—it may be pain related to arthritis and something that can be managed.  Don’t give your pet medications intended for people with arthritis as some can be very toxic to dogs and cats. 
  • Digestive problems—constipation is a common ailment of the aging pet.  Pets with anal gland problems, arthritis, hip dysplasia or other conditions that may cause pain during defecation frequently experience constipation.  Constipated dogs often benefit from a lower fat and higher fiber diet.  Increasing water intake has been shown to help avoid constipation in both dogs and cats.  Your vet may recommend a natural or prescription laxative to help ease the process of elimination if your pet is very uncomfortable. 
  • Dental disease—this is a common ailment in pets of all ages, however, it can become severe in elderly pets and lead to pain, severe infections, loss of teeth and organ damage.  Many owners of older pets avoid routine veterinary dental cleanings as anesthesia is required, however, there are many things you can do to insure a safe procedure in your pet.
  • Immune function—Dogs and cats have a decreased ability to fight off disease as they age.  Older pets are more likely to experience serious infections (upper respiratory, bladder or UTIs, etc) due to diminished immune function.  Providing your pet a high quality supplement containing antioxidants and vitamins may help them avoid these conditions.  It is important to keep older pets away from any animal exhibiting outward signs of illness or infection.  Talk to your veterinarian about the necessity and safety of vaccinations for your pet.
  • Decreased organ functions—all organs of the body experience degenerative changes with age.  The heart and kidneys are particularly sensitive to these changes.  The heart is a muscle that loses strength and efficiency at pumping over time.  Heart valves often undergo changes that render them poorly elastic and less effective.  Small breeds of dogs are most prone to these changes.  Alert your veterinarian to any changes in energy, activity, weakness or fainting spells your pet experiences.  Xrays and other tests may be performed to evaluate your pet for heart disease.  There are many commonly used medications to improve heart function in pets.  Kidney disease is also very common in older pets (especially cats).  Common symptoms include increased water drinking and urination.  Kidney disease can be very mild to severe and your vet will perform blood and urine tests to determine the extent of your pets kidney disease.  There are many supportive therapies available for this condition.      
  • Urine leakage—it is common for older female dogs to leak a small amount of urine while laying down or sleeping.  This occurs due to loosening of the urinary (urethral) sphincter and dogs have no control over it.  It is not a loss of housetraining or bad behavior, but a completely involuntary accident.  Your veterinarian should examine your dog to check for bladder infection, kidney disease or other possible causes of urine leakage.  If sphincter incontinence is responsible, there are medications which can effectively treat the problem (e.g. PPA).  There are also some minor surgical procedures (e.g. collagen injections) which can help in more severe cases. 
  • Behavior and activity changes—older pets often have decreased activity levels and often do not tolerate stress well.  This may be due to normal aging or conditions such as arthritis or senility.  As pet’s age, brain and nerve cells die and are not replaced.  This can create a syndrome of senility, commonly called "cognitive dysfunction".  It is estimated that 60% of dogs 10 years and older will experience some symptoms of cognitive dysfunction.  Pets may experience new problems with separation anxiety, aggression, noise sensitivity, whining or other types of increased vocalization when in stressful situations. They may become disoriented (seeming lost, forgetting how to get back inside the house, stuck in a corner, etc), restless, or experience pacing, aimless wandering, and poor recognition of family members.  These signs can indicate more serious brain problems, so alert your vet promptly if you detect any of these smptoms in your dog or cat.  There are many therapeutic options for cognitive dysfunction including antioxidants, other supplements and prescription medications (e.g. anipryl).  Many veterinarians are embracing the use of acupuncture and other alternative techniques to support brain function in aging pets. 
  • Hearing and vision loss—sometimes deficiencies in sight or hearing can be confused with bad behavior.  If unable to see or hear a person or another pet approaching, a dog or cat may startle and react protectively or aggressively when touched unexpectedly.  They often fail to respond to verbal commands or directions.  If your pet begins experiencing these symptoms, try training them to hand or vibrational signals that can help with declining senses.  Cloudiness or redness in the eyes or sudden vision loss should be evaluated promptly by your veterinarian as these signs can indicate more serious problems. 

In the course of natural aging, there are many things (other than old age) that may cause a pet to slow down.  Have your pet evaluated by your veterinarian at least twice each year to help you identify conditions which may be treatable to provide your pet the best quality of life. 

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