Caring for older pets

Our pets are living much longer than ever before, thanks to modern advances in veterinary care, medicine and nutrition which is great news. Old age comes to different animals and breeds at different times, for example, a cat may be considered as a senior at around 9-11 years old and a rabbit at around 4-5 years old,  dogs, may be considered senior at varying ages depending on their species and size, for example, a Great Dane is a senior at 5 years old, where as a chihuahua would be a senior at 10-11 years old.

Your pet’s general health and fitness levels will also have an impact on how old they may feel and act, so you may find that a pet who has a problem such as arthritis or being overweight may seem old before their time, where as a pet who is receiving treatment (medication, physio, or food supplements etc) for condition and who are generally fitter, will seem to stay younger for longer.

What You Can Do To Help Make Things Easier

Some pets may require a little extra help once they reach their senior years, so here are a few things to think about if you have an older pet at home.

Grooming – Older pets are often not as flexible as their younger counterparts so they may need help to keep their coats in good condition. Daily brushing will help remove dead fur and mats as well as promoting good circulation in the skin. Because older pets tend to exercise a little less, their nails/claws may grow long and cause problems, so you may need to have their claws/nails clipped on a regular basis; this is something you can do at home and a veterinary nurse will be happy to show you how.

Ramps and Steps – These can help your pet with access to their favourite places such as the sofa, windowsill or perch or even onto your bed, if that is where they normally sleep. There are many specially designed ramps and steps available to buy, but many can be made at home fairly easily.

Warmth – Senior pets tend to feel the cold a bit more. Dog coats are a great idea for thin coated breeds and extra bedding should be provided if necessary. Older rabbits and guinea pigs may be more comfortable if their hutch is brought inside during cold weather snaps.

Toileting – Older pets may need more frequent opportunities to go to the toilet, especially if they have any health issues or are on medications that may lead to them drinking more. Cats will benefit from an indoor litter tray, especially if they are not keen on going outside very often. A wide, shallow tray rather than a narrow, deep tray is often appreciated. (large seed trays are often a cheaper alternative to expensive pet shop trays)

Routine – Pets are creatures of habit throughout their lives and it is important to try and stick to their routine as much as possible as far as walking, play and feeding times go. Make sure your cat is still able to use their scratch post easily as this is important for muscle stretching as well as claw maintenance and marking.

Daily Checks You can get a good idea of your pet’s health just by observing and stroking your pet. See below for symptoms to look out for.  

Veterinary Health checks – It is a good idea to have your older pet checked by a vet every 6 months rather than every 12 months, so that they vet can examine them and identify any health problems as early as possible.

older cat care

Older cats like to be able to get to their favourite places, so you may need to help with this. Grooming, stretching and claw maintenance are also important.

Dietary Advice For Older Pets

Some people may think that senior pet diets are a marketing ploy, but rest assured that they are not. Older pets need a diet that is formulated to their needs and is easily digestible. If you are unsure about what to feed your pet, you can always speak to one of our veterinary nurses who will be able to advise you on the most suitable diet for your pet.

  1. Calories – The metabolism of dogs slows down as they age and they are often doing less exercise so they need a lower calorie diet to prevent weight gain. Cats actually slightly need more calories as they get older, so their diets are little more calorific, however, if your cat is overweight a lower calorie option should be chosen. The majority of rabbits need fewer calories as they get older due to being less active, however, some rabbits tend to experience weight loss as they age so these will need a higher calorie diet.
  2. Antioxidants and Essential Fatty Acids – Senior pet foods are often higher in antioxidants and EFAs, which help maintain and support the body’s organs and immune system.
  3. Higher quality protein –  Protein helps your pet to maintain their lean muscle mass. It also helps improve the taste of the food for picky senior eaters.
  4. Some veterinary diets are specially developed for pets that may have one or more of the common age related diseases such as heart disease or kidney failure.

When changing to a senior diet remember to change the food gradually over 7-10 days by mixing the two foods together and reducing the old food while increasing the new food. This will help your pet get used to the new food and avoid any tummy upsets.

Some older pets with stiff joints may also appreciate slightly raised feeding and water bowls so they don’t have to bend so far.

Older Dogs

Older dogs may need help getting into or onto their favourite places. Raised beds are great for older pets and many will also appreciate slightly raised feeding and water bowls

Exercise

It is very important for older pets to maintain mobility and joint function. Remember that just because they are getting old, does not mean that they should not be as fit as possible. For pets that cannot be exercised as often as they used to be mental stimulation with toys and gentle games will help keep them from getting bored. Hydrotherapy can also be a great way of helping to improve mobility without adding stress to joints, although it won’t be suitable for every pet.

Finn is still climbing hills and mountains at 12 years old.

Finn is still climbing hills and mountains at 12 years old.

Old Age & Weight Gain

Age is absolutely no excuse for obesity! Even being just a little overweight can have a serious impact on mobility and disease in older pets so it is important to keep them at their ideal bodyweight.

Use these Bodyweight charts to see if your pet is where they should be. Dog   Cat  Rabbit 

If your pet is overweight, please come and speak to one of our nurses about the Castle Vets Healthy Weight Clinic, it is free and we can offer you advice and support to help your pet reach his or her ideal weight.

Health Problems Associated With Age

Older pets, just like older people,  are more likely to suffer from health problems and diseases associated with age, these can include heart disease, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism (cats), dental disease, diabetes and joint problems to name a few. Symptoms to look out for include

  • Changes in behaviour (more lethargic, irritable, aggressive, vocal etc)
  • Changes in appetite or thirst
  • Changes in weight (gain or loss)
  • Changes in their coat condition
  • Less Mobility
  • Changed toileting habits (more or less frequent, indoor toileting, spraying, diarrhoea, constipation, pain)
  • Slowing down a bit
  • Stiff on rising or after resting
  • Lame after going for a walk
  • Reluctant to exercise
  • Coughing
  • Panting after very little exertion
  • More reluctant to jump onto furniture or down from your lap
  • Sleeping more often or waking in the night
  • Lumps and bumps in the skin
  • Licking at a particular area of the body
  • Changes in their sight (bumping in to things, squinting, cloudy eyes)
  • Dental problems (plaque/tartar, sore gums, blood in water bowl, bad breath, pain on eating)

Please don’t just brush these symptoms off as inevitable signs of old age and ignore them. Once the veterinary surgeon knows what is causing your pet’s symptoms of ageing we are in a much better position to help him or her feel much better. Appropriate changes of diet, exercise regimes, medication and even surgical treatment can all help give your pet increased comfort and longevity.

Arthritis – Stiff Joints and/or Painful Joints

Older animals also tend to be less active in general, but in some cases this may be due to arthritis which can be a very painful condition and one that is often ignored by owners, who put it down to a natural process of aging. Arthritis causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints and can be caused by deterioration of the joint with age or as a result of a previous injury. If you notice that your pet is reluctant to move about or jump up to favourite places, is lame after exercise or stiff on rising then he or she is likely to be in pain, so please don’t ignore these signs. Please speak to your vet, who can provide medication for arthritis and many owners are amazed how active their pets become again. Other therapies that can help with joint problems and arthritis include Physiotherapy, Hydrotherapy, Veterinary Acupuncture and nutraceuticals (dietary supplements to help with joint function or general health). Please read our article about joint pain and stiffness to learn how you can help your pet.

Older Rabbits

It is important to ensure that your rabbit’s fur does not become matted or dirty and this should be checked on a daily basis. A warmer bedding option will also be appreciated

Senior Pet Clinics

At Castle Vets we offer free nurse advice clinics (by appointment) so that you can discuss any concerns you may have about your pet as he or she ages. Our nurses can give you advice on general care, the correct diet and alternative therapies and refer you to the vet if necessary.

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