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Senior Pet Health Awareness
September is senior pet health awareness month, and as such I’d like to present this article on senior pets to enable their owners to recognize and address their unique needs.
What makes a senior? This is not as straightforward an answer as you would think. It is partly age and partly size and partly individual characteristics that contribute to calling a pet senior. Cats and small dogs are generally considered senior at 10 years old. Medium sized dogs are considered senior at eight years old, large breed dogs at 6 years old and giant breed dogs at 4 years old. Having said that, there are some pets that technically fit into the categories above that I wouldn’t consider senior at all based on their genetics and environment and their individual history.
What is aging? As our pets age, their cells gradually lose water, or become dehydrated. Dehydrated cells don’t work as well as young plump cells full of water. This happens to all pets. The effect this has within the body varies according to what the cells are responsible for. For example, we can see decreased kidney or liver function as the kidney and liver cells age. Both of these organs help to detoxify the body and metabolize proteins. As the cells in the digestive system dehydrate we see difficulty with digestion and absorption of nutrients. As stressed joints and hearts experience more extensive wear and tear as a function of genetic weaknesses or lifetime insults, we see arthritis and heart disease. As the cells in the various glands weaken, we see deficiencies in the production of numerous hormones normally active throughout the body including the brain, beginning to reveal the symptoms of dysfunction such as we see with senility in our older pets.
So what can we do? Firstly, all pets that qualify as potential seniors based on their size and age should begin to get exams twice yearly along with blood work and a urine analysis. During your pet’s exam, there should be an extensive history taking to be sure any early signs of disease have an opportunity to be detected. Early signs of disease in seniors could include a change in water intake, urination amount, appetite, elimination behaviors, cough, energy level, and involvement in family activities, vomiting, difficult with stairs or jumping into the car, an increase in the amount of barking, a change in the sound of a dog’s bark, or a change in weight.
At home you can affect your pet’s longevity and happiness by feeding a healthful, preservative-free food not necessarily designed for seniors. (The pet food companies don’t have it right when it comes to senior pet’s needs. They have lower fat and lower protein. Our senior pets need more protein now than ever as they need to support muscle tissue, including heart muscle, and immune system function. Did you know recommendations for senior humans are for a 25% increase in protein? Why aren’t we there yet with our pets? This is a pet peeve of mine so pardon me as I digress a bit.) You should design an exercise regimen which allows your senior-acting pet to get shorter but more frequent activity and all seniors according to age and breed should have at least 50% of these activities include something that would involve the brain, like training sessions (yes, even for cats), using a puzzle or buster cube for dogs, or ball puzzle or laser light games for cats. Beware of medications your older pets take and ask about possible side effects. I like to minimize the use of medications, particularly for older pets as older animals are more sensitive to adverse effects from drugs. Give your pet some healthy support. Supplements that likely benefit all aging systems are fish oil, digestive enzymes and probiotics (good bacteria), a good multi-vitamin and anti-oxidant, and water. You are unlikely to be able to increase the amount of water your pet drinks from a water bowl, but giving canned foods and fresh foods suitable for your pet will greatly increase their water intake. Please speak with your veterinarian before feeding fresh foods as not all fresh foods are healthy for all pets.
And if you see any signs of “aging” please have a discussion with your veterinarian. Many signs that owners attribute to the aging process end up being correctable issues related to disease or deficiencies. Together we can help our older pets live longer, healthier, and happier lives!