As a veterinarian, I work with a number of rescue organizations, and am often shocked at the number of senior pets that are abandoned at shelters and rescue groups just because they are old! Age is not a disease! Age is a condition that we can prepare for and deal with as time passes.
My family and I had to say goodbye to 3 of our dogs over the past year and a half— all of them living past age 14. It is not fun to watch them get older, but there are a number of things that we can do to help our pets age gracefully, and to keep them healthier as they reach their golden years.
Remember, it’s not about “age,” which you can’t control–it’s all about always being in tune with your furry family member.
First, when is a dog considered a senior? For larger breeds of dogs, usually by 7 years of age, and for cats and smaller breeds of dogs at around 8 years of age. These ages are equivalent to us hitting our mid 50’s!
I recommend preventive medicine as a key to maintaining a pet’s longevity! Many diseases in their early stages are clinically undetectable to us. Some believe it may be an evolutionary “self preservation” phenomenon, as animals who displayed any outward signs of weakness or illness would be a target for a predator. And, unlike many of us, our pets don’t complain— life goes on! This is why it is essential to have your senior pets examined by your veterinarian annually for a physical examination, blood and urine testing. These tests can help identify problems early on, before they become clinically apparent, allowing us to begin preventive measures.
There are a number of diseases that can actually rob our pets of precious years, so prevention, early recognition, early treatment and lifestyle changes can possibly add years, and good quality, to their lives!
Some of the more preventable conditions are as follows:
Pets that are overweight or obese are at risk for many serious problems! They can suffer from joint and mobility issues, and increased risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. They can also have an increased incidence of skin diseases, diabetes, reproductive problems, and even a statistically proven increased incidence of cancer! This is all totally preventable by keeping you pets lean!! If your pet is overweight or obese, it is important to work with your veterinarian to help identify any underlying metabolic issues, assess their overall health, and start a diet and exercise program as soon as possible.
Dental disease can be lethal–that’s right, it sounds scary, and it should!! If dental and periodontal disease is left unchecked, oral bacteria can enter the blood stream and can colonize in the heart valves causing endocarditis; as well as in the glomerular apparatus of the kidneys causing glomerulonephritis. Both of these conditions can be life threatening. Make sure to have your pets’ teeth checked regularly by your veterinarian, and to start a program of regular home care—there are many options available to you to help prevent these serious diseases, from regular brushing (which is, of course, the best), appropriate chews and chew toys, gum treatment gels, water additives, and oral supplements like sea kelp.
Nutrition and gut health are huge factors in maintaining overall health. As our pets age, their nutritional needs change, as does their gut flora (the good bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts). To maintain good health, we need to make adjustments in their diets as well. Check with your veterinarian for recommendations—such as diets with less protein and lower in fat. Depending on a pet’s condition, I also recommend supplements like Probiotics (for GI support), Glucosamine/Chondroitin/MSM (for joint health), added fiber (for colon health), and even additional vitamin and mineral support.
Exercise vs. Rest
As our pets age, they become more sedentary. You will find they want to rest more than they did as younger animals. The more sedentary they are without dietary modifications, the larger they’ll become. The larger they are, the less they will be able to do—and this is a terrible, all too common, vicious cycle with our senior pets. Though they probably won’t be as eager, exercise is a MUST for our older pets. This will help keep their muscles toned, their joints strong, their minds sharp, and will improve their cardiovascular health as well. Make sure to maintain a regular exercise routine—a couple of walks a day, a visit to a park, or a short hike will do the trick. Make sure to bring water along, and during the warmer months, avoid exercising in the middle of the day!