By Elva Ma, DVM

This is the first in a series of regular blog posts by the doctors of Wellesley Animal Hospital. I’ll start off with a topic near and dear to my heart. As the owner of a 17-year old feline, and as the health provider for hundreds of senior pets, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges, and also the great joys that come with owning a senior companion. With great advances in medicine and nutrition, pets are living longer lives now than ever before, and with that, we are seeing more age-related health issues as well.

We classify a senior pet as any cat or small dog over the age of 7, and large breed dogs over the age of 5-6. I like to refer to this chart which hangs in our exam room, and indicates the human age equivalent by size of the animal:

Senior pets can develop many of the same health problems as older humans, including arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, and even senility. Elderly pets tend to feel the effects of aging faster than their younger counterparts, which makes the regular checkup with a veterinarian so important. A senior checkup is similar to one for younger pets, with the addition of possible blood work or urine tests, and specific checks for certain senior pet diseases as listed earlier. We recommend that senior pets receive twice yearly examinations so signs of chronic illness can be detected and treated early.

Common warning signs of illness in an older pet are varied, and may include:

  • Weight loss (pets that lose weight quickly may present with a more prominent or bony spine)
  • Decreased appetite or energy
  • Changes in thirst or urination
  • Vomiting, changes in stool quality or quantity
  • An unkempt hair coat

These signs are valuable to watch for at home, and can help to pinpoint a diagnosis when discussing your pet’s health concerns with the vet.

For the otherwise healthy, but older pet, there are many small changes that we can make at home to help maintain their quality of life, such as:

  • Feeding a high quality senior diet that helps to maintain their muscle mass, and provides the right balance of nutrients to help support the kidneys and heart as they age.
  • Maintaining your pet’s weight to avoid obesity, which can lead to problems such as arthritis, heart problems, and diabetes.
  • Keeping them mentally fit by finding innovative ways to challenge their brains, such as puzzle toys like Kongs or feeding balls. We’ve had success with the DIY method for cats: cut some holes in a cleaned out milk carton, fill it with treats or kibble, then let your cat work to get them out!
  • Knowing that many cats deal with arthritis as they age, you can provide steps or ramps to their favourite perch spots. Same goes for the litter box if the lip is high. For dogs, orthopedic pet beds and raised feeding platforms can also help reduce the strain on their joints.
  • Just like humans, gradual sight and hearing loss may occur as pets age. Try teaching hand signals to them an earlier age, so that it may be easier to communicate with them if their hearing worsens with time. If their eyesight is failing, try not to rearrange furniture too much, to avoid obstacles.

Life with an older pet can be an extremely rewarding experience. With close observation at home and regular veterinary checkups, it is possible to provide our pets with an excellent quality of life well into their golden years!