According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest cat title belongs to Creme Puff, who lived to the ripe old age of 38. Her canine counterpart, Bluey, spent 20 years herding cattle and sheep in Australia before dying after his 29th birthday. Pets rarely live that long, but as veterinary medicine advances and we take better care of our four-legged family members, they are living longer, healthier lives.

Unfortunately, the average cat or dog does not live as long as the average human—we are considered senior citizens at 65 years of age, but our furry friends clock in as seniors much earlier. Cats and dogs older than 7 years are considered seniors. A giant-breed dog, such as a Great Dane or mastiff, is categorized as a senior closer to age 5.

Senior pets are special. Whether you’ve had your adorable old man since he was a pup or kitten, or you’ve just adopted a senior animal, you know that the benefits of caring for your older pet far outweigh the inconveniences. For starters, he’s calm. He’s generally quiet. He’s pretty much seen everything life can throw at him, so it’s hard to ruffle his feathers. In a nutshell, old pets are pretty easy keepers.

However, with your pet’s advancing age come a few changes. He isn’t as playful. He may not hear or see well. And, he may become easily confused. It is your task as his loving caretaker to guide him through these changes with grace and help him live his best life until his final days.

Senior pet health

As the grey hair starts accumulating on your dog’s muzzle or your cat’s forehead, changes like the following are also occurring inside his body:

  • Major organs are beginning to decline — Kidney, liver, and heart disease are common in older pets. You may see signs like increased water intake and urine production, changes in appetite, or respiratory changes, such as increased respiratory rate or coughing.
  • Arthritis — Joint pain is extremely common in older dogs and cats. Your pet may not be limping, but that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. Subtle joint pain signs include:
    • Rising slowly, especially after a nap
    • Sleeping on the floor instead of jumping onto the couch or bed
    • Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
    • No longer lifting a leg to urinate outside, for male dogs
    • Aggression when handled, especially over the back and spine
  • Cancer — About half of the deaths in pets more than 10 years old are from cancer.
  • Metabolic changes — Hormonal abnormalities are found more frequently in senior pets. Cats are prone to hyperthyroidism and diabetes, while dogs are prone to hypothyroidism and diabetes.
  • Vision — Changes occur in the lenses of senior pets’ eyes as part of normal aging. A slight cloudiness, called nuclear sclerosis, may make it more difficult for your pet to see in the dark, but only cataracts will cause complete blindness. Blindness in pets is common, but both dogs and cats generally adapt easily and the blindness usually is harder on the owner than the pet.
  • Hearing — Most senior pets will lose some hearing over time.
    Behavior — Senior pets may suffer from cognitive dysfunction, becoming easily confused or even getting “lost” in their own home. Changes in sleeping habits are common—from sleeping more, to restlessness, to pacing at night.
  • Accidents — Your old dog or cat isn’t necessarily losing his potty training skills—he can’t get to the door or litter box quickly enough in his old age, or he sleeps so soundly, he doesn’t realize he needs to go.
  • Obesity — Your old pet is less active, so he burns fewer calories. Adjust his rations so he doesn’t become overweight or obese, as extra pounds will make arthritis pain worse and will also put him at risk of developing other diseases.

As pets age and they become more prone to developing health issues, regular veterinary care plays a vital role in catching potential disease processes early. The earlier health problems are diagnosed, the earlier treatment can begin, and the better your pet’s chances of maintaining a high quality of life. We recommend that all pets over 7 years of age visit our team for wellness exams at least twice per year.

Making hard decisions about your senior pet

The downside of caring for a senior pet is the realization that your days with your beloved companion are numbered. There may come a day when you find yourself dealing with your pet’s chronic illness or changes in his quality of life. Not long ago, your options for your pet’s continued care in these cases were limited, but fortunately, veterinary medicine today is addressing these concerns.

Hospice and palliative care for your pet

Veterinary hospice focuses on palliative care, such as fluid therapy and pain control, for pets whose owners choose not to pursue further diagnostics or aggressive treatments after a terminal diagnosis. Palliative care is not “giving up” on your pet. Many owners simply cannot afford aggressive diagnostics or treatments, or choose not to pursue measures that would be stressful for their pets. Other pet owners choose hospice care to allow their pet to live his last days in the comfort of his own home.

Hospice should be viewed as compassionate care that maintains your pet’s comfort and dignity. Hospice gives owners whose pets have a terminal illness a choice between aggressive treatment and immediate euthanasia. More importantly, you and your family are able to say goodbye in your own time.

Caring for an older pet isn’t always easy, especially when you’re cleaning a mess on the carpet, or facing end-of-life options. If your pet is advancing in age and you’re becoming concerned about changes you’re seeing, give us a call, or bring up your worries at your pet’s next senior visit. We think senior pets are pretty amazing, and we want to do everything we can to ensure that you and your senior pet enjoy your final years together.