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CHRONICLE HERALD: Tips on how to care for your senior pet

Posted on: Thursday, November 9th, 2017

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Due to advances in veterinary medicine and improved nutrition, our four-legged family members can live longer, better lives. That means pets can be ‘seniors’ for a significant part of their lives.

When do pets become seniors? Every animal is different and a pet’s genetics, diet and environment all play a role in healthy aging. That said, some general guidelines are used to determine when they become seniors. Dogs are considered senior at six to 10 years old; cats at 11 to 14. Many pets live well beyond their senior years. Maybe you’ve just adopted a deserving senior dog or cat who brings with them a lifetime of wisdom and affection.

Maybe you’ve had your senior furball since he was a tiny bundle of energy. Either way, as pets get older, their needs change just like people’s do. It’s up to us as pet parents to be sensitive to these changes and committed to our pets’ well-being. Follow these tips to help your special senior stay healthy and happy during his golden years.

Schedule regular vet visits. As your pet ages, regular checkups are crucial. Experts suggest twice yearly visits for senior pets, even if they seem healthy. As your pet gets older, two kinds of changes occur:

Age-related (reduced vision/hearing, increased sleeping, decreased activity). These are normal and can’t be prevented.

Disease-related (kidney or heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, dental problems, cognitive dysfunction). These are to some degree, preventable or effectively managed if diagnosed early. Pets are pros at hiding pain and illness. Signs are often subtle and easily missed. A vet is skilled at detecting subtle changes that may indicate a health problem. If you notice any changes in your pet’s behaviour, energy level, appetite, thirst, toilet habits or mobility between checkups, consult your vet. Choose the right diet.

A well-balanced diet is critical as pets age. Senior pets are less active than younger animals, have slower metabolisms and need fewer calories, so high-nutrient easily-digested foods are critical.

Your vet can advise you about quality pet food brands, ingredients or specific formulas your senior pet needs to thrive and/or help medical conditions.

Maintain a healthy weight. Senior pets need nutrition in amounts that will maintain an appropriate weight. Pet parents are often unaware of how much their pet is actually eating each day, particularly in homes with multiple pets. Overfeeding increases the risk of cancer and various diseases, puts stress on your senior pet’s joints and can shorten his life. Weight loss in seniors may be a sign that something’s amiss. Monitoring your pet’s weight is an important part of check-ups by your vet.

Provide exercise and enrichment. Mild daily physical activity (short walks or swimming for dogs; playtime for cats), helps your senior pets maintain a healthy weight, heart and slows joint degeneration. Watch for signs that your pet has had enough — if he appears tired, it’s time to stop. Daily mental exercise (interactive toys, food puzzles), helps keep your pet’s mind sharp and fends off senility.

Maintain good oral health. Attention to dental hygiene is essential as your pet ages. Professional cleanings by your vet and in-home brushing between cleanings are crucial to preventing gum disease, infection, bone loss and other diseases. Consider incorporating softer treats and canned food in your senior pet’s diet for easier chewing.

Ensure safety and comfort. Senior pets with vision or hearing loss need to be kept out of harm’s way. Remove dangerous objects from their path; use baby gates to create a safe place for your pet when you can’t supervise. Seniors with arthritis find climbing stairs difficult, so if possible, keep your pet’s water, food and sleeping area downstairs. Make their favourite snoozing spot accessible by using stepstools or pet ramps. Ensure that litter boxes are easily reached. As pets age, they often require extra padding and warmth, so provide a soft sleeping place, extra blankets or heated pet bed.

Emphasize physical contact. Nothing tells a senior pet that you love them like a good belly rub. A gentle massage is great for seniors with joint pain, and just as pleasurable for those without. Regular grooming helps keep your pet’s coat healthy and matt-free, and is a great way to spend quality time together. Embrace every day you share with your senior pet. Snuggle up and enjoy your special bond.

Judy Layne lives in Hackett’s Cove with her husband and their two adopted pets. A lifelong animal lover, Judy is a volunteer with the NS SPCA.