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Taking Care of Your Senior Pet

All pet owners know cats and dogs age faster than we do, but this fact really hit home recently for one of our clients. At her cats’ annual physical exam, the vet asked her if she’d like to get a blood panel done for one of her cats, since at 13 years of age, he was already a “senior.”
Although she knew he had moved into senior territory, it was a reminder that she needed to view and take care of him in a different way. Also read “Health Screening for Older Pets and Overweight Pets.”

What Defines a Senior Pet?

I’m sure most people think of the standard “dog years” calculation when they think of their pet’s age. That old equation says 1 dog year equals 7 human years. This is now thought of as inaccurate. Now we talk about the “New Rule of 7.” Basically, any pet 7 years or older should be considered a senior pet. Of course, each pet is different, and each will age at its own pace, but in general a dog’s age is calculated based on years and its size.

The bigger the dog, the earlier they reach “senior” status. For example, a giant breed dog that may only live to 9 years old may be considered a senior pet at 4 or 5 years old. And any pet that is overweight may need the same type of care as a senior pet earlier in life due to complications from the extra weight they carry.

Some sources state that for cats, you should think of them as about 15 to 16 human years in their first year of life, then add 9 years for their second year of life. After that, add four human years for each cat year of life. So, my client’s cat, at 13 cat years, is about 68 or 69 human years!

Healthcare Needs

Just like us, our pets’ healthcare needs change as they age. Just as my client did, you might want to get a full blood panel done as a baseline when they reach senior status. In addition to a blood test, you can ask your vet about doing routine fecal and urine analysis done to make sure everything is in order.

Common medical problems that older pets develop include dental or gum disease, cataracts, diabetes, thyroid problems, kidney disease, hypertension, tumors, cardiac disease, and cancer. With regular visits to the vet and by paying closer attention to your pet, you may be able to spot any medical problems early so they can be treated.

In addition to the extra care your vet can give, you may want to give your pet more frequent checks yourself. For example, you can examine your pet’s fur, his teeth and gums, his eyes, and his ears. Keep an eye on how your pet is acting. Is he slowing down a bit? Does he get tired more easily after play? Stay observant of any changes in behavior, eating habits, and toilet habits. One dog-owner I know has a 10-year-old retriever/shepard mix and he is keeping a closer eye on her because the dog tires more quickly when playing fetch, and seems to take a bit longer to lie down and get up.

Dietary Needs

As your pet ages, his dietary needs will also change. Sometimes pets will gain or lose weight as they get older. They may also encounter problems with their digestion. There are now many different brands of pet foods that offer a senior mix, formulated for the specific needs of older pets. Consult with your vet to find the best food for your pet because every pet will be different in their nutritional requirements and restrictions. If your pet is having medical issues, it’s even more important that you talk to your vet about what to feed him.


Although your pet may start to slow down as he ages, don’t forget that daily exercise will help keep him as young as possible for as long as possible. Unless your pet has joint issues such as arthritis that prevents too much activity, make sure you give your pet plenty of low impact exercise and play. Walk and play fetch with your dog.

Engage your cat with toys to chase. Not only will the play keep your pet’s muscles, joints, and heart active and healthy, it will help keep his mind engaged and his weight down.

A Happy Environment

Just like in humans, stress can be the cause of premature aging in our pets. Try to keep a stress-free, happy environment for your cat or dog. Make sure they have a clean, safe, warm place to rest. Minimize environmental changes. For cats, make sure their litter boxes are cleaned regularly and easily accessible. And give them plenty of TLC!

Be Observant!

Remember that your pet relies on you for all its needs. Stay alert and observant when it comes to your senior pets. Do your own routine overall exam to spot anything out of the ordinary such as new lumps, any swelling, a change in fur texture, or unusual odors. Watch for changes in appearance or behavior and be sure to talk to your vet  if you do notice something amiss.

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