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7 Practical Ways to Help Aging and Senior Pets

How to Help Aging and Senior Pets The often subtle changes in aging pets can creep up so gradually that many of us don't consciously notice. Then, one day, we happen to look at our furry friend and see a graying, grizzled muzzle... or realize that our active pet is moving a little slower. Our pets undergo both physical and mental changes as they get older. Here are a few things we can do to help our pets age more gracefully and enjoy their senior years.

When Is My Pet Considered a "Senior"?

It used to be common to calculate a dog's age as 7 'people years' = 1 dog year. In other words, a 1 year-old dog would be considered the same as a 7 year-old person. Now that we know more about pets, it's much more complex since there are many factors that can affect a dog or cat's lifepsan.

In general:

  • Cats over the age of 10 are considered 'senior';
  • Cats 15 or older are considered 'geriatric';
  • Dogs can be considered 'senior' at the age of 7 or 8, but this varies widely since larger dogs tend to age faster.

Here's a chart that estimates a dog's age in human years. Remember that this is only a generalization; genetics and other factors can affect a pet's true age.

20 lbs or less 21-50 lbs 51-90 lbs Over 90 lbs
1 13 15 17 20
2 19 21 23 26
3 25 27 29 32
4 30 32 34 37
5 35 37 39 42
6 40 42 45 49
7 44 47 50 56
8 48 51 55 64
9 52 56 61 71
10 56 60 66 78
11 60 65 72 86
12 64 69 77 93
13 68 74 82 101
14 72 78 88 108
15 76 83 93 115
16 80 87 99
17 82 94 104
18 88 96 109
19 92 101
20 96 105

1. Pain Management

As pets age, their bodies can change and conditions like arthritis can develop. Pain management is important to a pet's quality of life. Pets don't want to live with pain anymore than people do. Managing pain can be difficult to figure out at first - and may need adjustments over time - but it's critical to your pet's feeling of well-being.

  • Figure out what's causing the pain. Sometimes there is an underlying condition that can be fixed... sometimes it's a chronic condition that will need to be managed.

  • Try to consider the things that might be contributing to the pet's pain and attempt to make it better. There are like illness or injury, of course, but regular day-to-day living can cause pain as well. Could it be too little exercise - or too much? Could soreness be caused by slipping on hard floors? Is their bed providing enough support?

  • Talk to your vet about supplements that may help. For example, in dogs with arthritis, sometimes glucosamine, chondroitin, and/or MSM supplements as well as omega-3 fatty acids can help (here are other ways you can help a pet with arthritis).

  • Consider complementary therapies such as acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic, and massage therapy. These can make a dramatic difference for pets with certain conditions. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.

  • Many pet owners understandably prefer a 'natural', non-medicated solution to pain, but this isn't always possible or appropriate. Sometimes pharmaceutical drugs are the only things that effectively alleviate a pet's pain.

2. Easy Access to Necessities

Pain, stiffness, and limited mobility can make it harder for senior pets to get around. Putting the basic necessities more easily within their reach can make a big difference to them.

  • Place several water bowls throughout the house where your pet can easily reach them. To make sure they don't run dry before you have a chance to refill them, use a pet waterer or even a drinking fountain. A drinking fountain adds interest for pets who aren't drinking enough, and encourages them to drink more.

  • Elevate the pet's food bowl if he's having a hard time bending down (note: this isn't a good idea if your dog is prone to a life-threatening condition called bloat - ask your vet).

  • For cats, place their litter box somewhere that's easy for them to get to. Many older cats are also arthritic and may have a difficult time getting to a litter box that's located down a flight of stairs, for example. Litter box problems can result.

  • Give your pet a choice of several comfortable beds in his favourite locations in the house. He probably likes to spend time wherever his human family is, so be sure to place beds in the areas of the home where you spend a lot of time.

3. Keep Them Active with Moderate Exercise

Exercise plays an important role in keeping pets at a healthy weight and mobile. Although it's important not to overdo it, regular, moderate exercise is good for senior pets and helps to keep their joints lubricated and their muscles strong. Many pets gain weight as they get older, which leads them to be less active, which leads them to gain weight ... it's a vicious circle.

  • If your pet is normally pretty sedentary or if he has medical issues, clear it with your veterinarian prior to starting an exercise program. Throwing a frisbee for a prolonged play-time probably isn't a good idea with all the jumping and stress on the joints... but walking is typically welcome exercise. Cats can be encouraged to exercise with the use of interactive cat toys.

  • You may need to adjust your pet's exercise routine every so often. If he's sore afterwards, you're probably doing too much. If he's reluctant to walk, he might be trying to tell you something - maybe it's too painful or he no longer has the stamina to go as far as he used to.

  • Splitting up a daily walk into two or three shorter walks can be easier on senior dogs. It gives them gentle, regular exercise, keeps them mobile, and adds interest to their day.

  • Swimming is an excellent alternative to walking. It's great exercise and much easier on the joints. Plus many dogs love water! Just be sure your pet doesn't overdo it. Life jackets can be used to make it easier for dogs to stay afloat. If you don't have ready access to water, see if there is a canine physical therapy clinic in your area that has an underwater treadmill.

  • Remember that dogs often want to please their people, so they may try to keep up with you even if they're tired. Be mindful of your pet's abilities and stop when they show signs of tiring.

  • Time your outdoor exercise sessions for comfortable temperatures and appropriate weather conditions. Don't exercise your dog for long when it's hot or humid outside, or too cold. Try to avoid walking senior dogs on icy or slippery surfaces where they may slip. If you must cross a slippery area, a support harness or sling can be helpful.

4. Smaller, Nutritious Meals, More Often

  • Many older pets do better eating 2 or 3 small meals throughout the day, rather than a single large meal.

  • Choose fresh, nutritious foods and supplement where necessary. Most commercial foods marketed for "senior pets" still require additional supplementation (for example, glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids).

  • Pets who are overweight will suffer extra stress on their joints, so keeping them at a healthy weight - even on the lean side of healthy - will help.

  • Pets who have medical issues may require a special diet. Do not change your pet's diet without consultation from a veterinarian if your pet has medical issues.

5. Help Them Maintain a Healthy Weight

Monitor your pet's weight regularly. Pets often gain weight more easily as they get older, often due to getting less exercise.

  • You may need to decrease the amount you feed in order to help your pet maintain a healthy weight. If he's overweight, feed fewer calories - keeping him lean will make it easier for him to get around since there will be less stress on his joints. Try lower-calorie dog treats if you like to treat your dog.

  • Fresh veggies can be used to 'bulk up' meals if your dog is still feeling hungry or doesn't seem satisfied with the decreased meal portion.

  • On the flip side, some older pets start to lose weight and can get very thin. It is just as important to ensure that your pet doesn't get too thin, as it is to ensure he doesn't get too fat.

  • Any changes in your pet's appetite or weight should be discussed with the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

6. Keep Them Well-Groomed

Grooming does more than just make a pet look pretty. It also:

  • Helps maintain the bond between the owner and the pet (good one-on-one time);
  • Makes the pet feel good - many love to be brushed!
  • Helps keep pets physically healthy - brushing out loose fur, for example, is a great way to help keep skin & coat healthy;
  • Gives owners the opportunity to discover any health issues that need to be addressed. For instance, owners might discover a lump that needs to be examined by the vet... or brushing a pet's teeth might reveal loose teeth or an abscess.

Grooming includes brushing of the coat (and bathing, if necessary), as well as cleaning eyes and ears, caring for your pet's dental health, clipping nails, and checking paws for any soreness or foreign objects.

  • Pets can become more sensitive as they age and may not like to be groomed in the same way they used to be.
  • If your pet objects to brushing, changing to a softer brush or a different type of brush may help.
  • Some dogs prefer the use of a dremel over a nail-clipper.
  • Senior pets sometimes need to have their ears flushed more often, or their faces or eyes cleaned more frequently.
  • If you notice changes in your pet's behaviour with regards to grooming, it could be indicative of another issue. A pet that previously enjoyed being brushed but no longer does could point to tender or sore skin, painful mats in the fur, or soreness in the body that's aggravated by brushing. Pets who kick up a fuss when getting their nails clipped might be experiencing pain in their paws. If they didn't mind having their ears cleaned before but now seem distressed by it, another issue like an ear infection might be present.

    Dementia is another possible reason why behavioural changes can occur.

    Situations like this call for a visit to the vet to try to resolve whatever is bothering your pet.

7. Compensate for Physical and Mental Changes

Pets may start to lose their vision, hearing, and mobility as they age. Some may develop dementia as well. To help keep them safe you may need to make some changes around the home, such as:

  • Ramps to help dogs with decreasing mobility navigate steps in or out of the home, or to get in or out of the car.
  • Indoor steps or ramps to help pets onto couches or beds.
  • Mobility harnesses to assist dogs to get up or walk (if your dog is unable to walk, here are some tips on how to care for a paralyzed dog).
  • Rugs or carpeted stair treads for traction. Older pets often find it more difficult to manage slippery / hard floors.
  • Baby gates to prevent pets from stumbling or falling down stairs.
  • Keep furniture in the same location to minimize accidental collisions for dogs who are losing their vision;
  • Remove dangerous items from your pet's path.
  • Dogs who have become blind may benefit from the use of an angel halo to prevent them from hurting themselves if they run into something.
  • Orthopedic beds can work wonders in helping to alleviate sore joints.
  • Line favourite sleeping areas with easily-washable towels or home protection pads if your pet is losing control of his or her bladder. Strip, wash, and replace whenever needed.
  • Consider teaching your dog hand signals. They can be useful for communicating with dogs who are losing their hearing.
  • More frequent bathroom breaks may be necessary. Some people teach their dogs to use incontinence pads for times they can't be at home to let them out, or when dogs need to go overnight.
  • Understand that cognitive changes are difficult for your pet, as well as for you, its humans. Dementia may cause pets to vocalize excessively or develop anxiety, for instance. Sometimes small changes can help - put on a radio or TV for company, leave a light on, place beds where your pet can always see you, or try a calming scent like the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) or Feliway for cats. A Thundershirt is a tremendous help in calming some dogs.

Caring for an aging or senior pet may require more work and more time, but it's also a great privilege.


"Raising a dog is like a rainbow. Puppies are the joy at one end. Old dogs are the treasure at the other."

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