Health Care For The Older Pet

Caring for an old friend

An old pet is an old friend.  When your loyal friend begins to slow down, make their life comfortable and as full of love as ever.

When is my pet old?

The average lifespan of the dog is 12 years and 14 years for a cat. Usually, the larger the animal, the shorter the lifespan. We consider a dog or cat an older or ‘geriatric’ pet at the age of seven years. The rate of ageing can differ slightly between different breeds and sizes of pets.

Effects of ageing

As your pet ages, two kinds of changes occur. The first is age-related change such as hearing loss, changes in vision or reduced activity. These are normal and cannot be prevented. The second kind is pathological change or diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease or dental disease. These are, to some extent, preventable or can be successfully managed.

Healthcare for your pet

The healthcare your pet receives throughout their lifetime can help minimise and prevent disease as it develops. Proper healthcare includes periodic examinations by your veterinarian, routine vaccinations, parasite control, regular exercise, dental care, and a diet that meets your pet’s changing nutritional needs.

The older cat’s health care needs

  1. Vaccinations – yearly vaccination to prevent Feline Respiratory Disease (cat flu) and enteritis
  2. Parasite control – regular worming for gastrointestinal worms (every three months in adult cats). Heartworm preventative medication. Flea control all year round
  3. Proper nutrition – older cats are more sensitive to nutrient imbalances. Administer a balanced diet with levels of nutrients that avoid the harmful effects of excessive sodium, phosphorous, calcium, and magnesium. If obesity or a tendency to put on weight is a problem, use a lower-energy, high fibre diet
  4. Exercise– to maintain muscle tone, enhance circulation, and help prevent obesity (adjust to ability). Playtime is an excellent form of exercise
  5. Dental care – yearly cleaning and dental care greatly assists in maintaining oral health, preventing tooth loss, tartar, periodontal disease, and mouth odours common in older cats
  6. Regular veterinary care – twice yearly examinations for early detection of disease is advised
  7. Preventative testing – wellness screenings such as blood tests, urinalysis, faecal analysis, heartworm and FIV testing are all important for detecting underlying health issues

In addition to these health care recommended, the most important thing you can do for your old friend is pay them attention. Your observation can catch many potential difficulties before they become life threatening. When you take your pet to the veterinarian, you can give the doctor details that may indicate a problem. The vet doesn’t see your old friend eating, playing or resting every day.

If appropriate, bring in a fresh sample of faeces and/or urine with you to te vet. It is important that you notice any changes in eating habits, activity, sleep or elimination, and communicate them to your veterinarian.

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Diet recommendations

Dogs and cats experience significant changes in their ability to digest and absorb nutrients as they age. Proper diet can have a significant impact on your older pet’s overall health. Appropriate food for your senior pet should be chosen with the help of your veterinarian.  A wide range of special diets is available, like Hills Science and Royal Canin diets. Unless advised otherwise by your veterinarian, gradually introduce any new diet over a 5-10 day period.  Mix the new diet with your pet’s former food, gradually increasing its proportion until the changeover has been completed.

Signs of heart failure

Coughing is often one of the first sign of heart problems. Reduced exercise tolerance and a swollen abdomen may also be seen with heart disease. A lot of dogs have ongoing heart problems and murmurs throughout their lives which should be closely monitored, particularly in older age. Improving an animal’s heart function can dramatically alter the quality of your pet’s life. Heartworm prevention throughout life is necessary for both cats and dogs.


All animals will develop a degree of arthritic change as the years go by, particularly in large breeds and overweight animals. The basic needs for an older pet’s musculo-skeletal system are:

  • provide the warmest, softest bedding, particularly in winter (mattress, trampoline beds, blankets)
  • keep your pet’s weight stable or start weight reduction if overweight
  • keep up your pet’s exercise regime without being excessive – lying around all day does not do any good for mobility

If these measures are being taken and discomfort persists, then discuss with your vet the best course of action to make your older pet more comfortable.

Bad breath

Bad odour from your pet’s mouth will usually indicate poor dental health. You can help to prevent this with regular tooth brushing, but regular dental checks are the best way to detect problems early and maintain mouth health.

Cloudy eyes

The most common old age eye problems are cataracts. These decrease your pet’s sight and particularly night vision.  These changes are generally irreversible and progressive and appear as a milky change in the pupils.  Where vision is seriously compromised, surgery will be beneficial and will require referral to a specialist. Cloudy eyes can, however, indicate other ocular problems and should always be checked by your veterinarian.

Weight loss

Loss of general body condition is worrying at any time. In older animals, a change in diet may be the solution. Pet’s nutritional demands change as they age, so adjusting their diet to suit their needs will ensure their best health.

Lumps and bumps

As the years go by, your pet may develop lumps which should be checked by your veterinarian. Many are harmless and to be expected with advancing age. Causes for concern include the lump growing or changing in shape rapidly, your pet chewing or scratching at a lump, or if the lump is in a compromising position like the eye, anus, or armpits. In most cases, only microscopic examination can reveal the type and nature of your pet’s lumps.

Drinking excessively

Excessive drinking is usually associated with increased urination and can be an indicator of many disease conditions. Kidney failure, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism are common conditions in elderly cats and often cause weight loss. These problems need early detection and treatment. A urine sample and or blood test is essential.

Long toenails

As an animal’s exercise vigour decreases, less wear to toenails can become a problem. This can cause lameness, disfigurement or ingrown toenails.  Nails should be regularly trimmed (a small amount at a time to avoid injury). In many cases, you may need to bring your pet to the vet for a nail trim.

Your pet will have many happy, healthy years ahead of them if you adjust their lifestyle as they age. Contact your local Greencross Vets if you are concerned about the signs of your pet’s ageing.

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