Table of Contents
When is a Pet Considered Senior?
The age when a pet is considered senior varies by species and breed, but a rough guide provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association is listed below. For general purposes, many vets consider animals over the age of seven to be seniors.
- Cats: 10 years
- Small or toy breeds (less than 20 pounds): 8 to 11 years
- Medium-sized breeds (20 to 50 pounds): 8 to 10 years
- Large breeds (50 to 90 pounds): 8 to 9 years
- Giant breeds (more than 90 pounds): 6 to 7 years
As your pet ages, you may notice changes in their body condition, including a dull fur coat, cloudy eyes, and loss of muscle. They may sleep more, play less, have accidents in the house, and you may also see a decline in mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive ability. While signs of aging are unavoidable, there are many ways that you can help keep your senior pet happy and healthy for as long as possible.
The Importance of Wellness Care in Senior Pets
Senior pets require additional veterinary care. Routine veterinary exams and lab work can help identify medical issues early when they may be easier to treat. It’s also important to keep your senior pet up to date on recommended vaccines and preventatives.
Physical Exam Twice a Year
For a healthy senior pet (generally 7+ years of age), twice-yearly vet visits are recommended. If you have concerns about your pet’s health or if they have been diagnosed with a chronic medical condition, they will need to be seen more frequently.
Since our fur babies can’t speak, your vet will rely on a thorough history from you, a nose-to-tail physical exam, data (like their weight, temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate), and any indicated diagnostic tests to assess your pet’s health. Frequent vet visits aim to catch any issues early when they may be easier to treat or manage.
Additional focus during a senior pet exam may include discussion of pain management for arthritis, changes to hearing, vision, and cognitive decline, dental disease, and other conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, and cancer that can commonly affect our senior pets.
The vaccines recommended for senior pets may vary based on lifestyle and risk of exposure. Many vaccines are due every three years, however, some are due yearly. If your senior pet has never been vaccinated before, they will need some additional booster shots to ensure an appropriate immune response.
Year-round flea, heartworm, and intestinal parasite prevention is beneficial for most animals. If your pet has a flea allergy, goes outdoors frequently, or lives with young children or immunocompromised individuals this is especially important. There are many different brands and preparations of parasite prevention available, including oral, topical, and injectible products that protect against one type or many types of external and internal parasites. A heartworm test and refill of these preventatives is generally recommended once a year.
In addition to the wellness care mentioned above, your vet may recommend bloodwork, urinalysis, and fecal testing plus or minus x-rays. These tests help evaluate your senior pet’s overall systemic health and determine their baseline values, which can be helpful if they become ill in the future or need to take certain types of medications. Common diagnostic tests recommended for healthy seniors may include:
- Bloodwork including CBC, chemistry, and T4 – A complete blood count (CBC) provides information about cell types in the blood, and numbers of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. A chemistry panel provides information about major organ function (such as the kidneys and liver) and electrolyte levels. T4 is a screening test for thyroid disease, and is important to check on senior pets.
- Urinalysis – A urine test can help provide information about kidney function, as well as evidence of urinary tract infection or abnormal cells.
- Fecal – A fecal test is used to diagnose intestinal parasites.
- X-rays – X-rays of the chest are often recommended in senior pets as a screening tool to evaluate the size and shape of the heart, the appearance of the lungs, and look for any evidence of metastatic cancer which may have spread to the lungs.
Further testing will be recommended based on your pet’s physical exam and health history.
Common Medical Conditions in Senior Cats
Common conditions in senior cats may include the following:
- Dental disease
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Kidney disease
- Eye problems
- Decrease in hearing or vision
Common Medical Conditions in Senior Dogs
Common conditions in senior dogs may include the following:
- Dental disease
- Hearing and vision loss
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Endocrine disease (diabetes, Cushing’s Disease, hypothyroidism)
At Home Care For Senior Pets
Some senior pets may continue to do well on their normal diet; however, others may benefit from a diet tailored to seniors, which may be easier to digest and is formulated to meet their unique protein and metabolic requirements. It is important to monitor your senior pet’s weight and body condition. Obesity may predispose your pet to additional health concerns, and weight loss may be a sign of significant underlying issue. If your pet has a chronic condition, such as kidney disease, your vet may recommend a prescription veterinary diet as part of their treatment plan.
Arthritis and mobility issues affect many senior pets. Per the American Animal Hospital Association, 20% of dogs and 40-92% of cats will experience pain and mobility issues in their lifetime. Despite its prevalence, there are many things that can and should be done to help decrease pain and improve the quality of life for these animals.
Arthritis can be managed through a multimodal approach, including pain medications, supplements, physical therapy, appropriate exercise, and alternative medicine. You can also make changes to your home environment to make it more accessible to your senior pet, such as putting a stool in front of the couch for them to jump up on.
Many senior pets experience cognitive dysfunction (similar to dementia) as well as changes to their hearing and vision. It is important to continue to provide appropriate mental and physical stimulation. This may include gentle walks, play, training, and interactive feeding or puzzle toys.
Quality of Life
It can be extremely difficult to watch a beloved pet decline. No matter how well you care for your fur baby, end-of-life care is something we all have to face. As veterinarians and pet parents, we have the option to help our pets leave the world with dignity and without suffering through humane euthanasia. The decision of when to say goodbye is a difficult and personal one. Quality of life scales, such as this one from Lap of Love (a home euthanasia service), can be extremely helpful.
If you have any concerns about your senior pet’s condition or quality of life be sure to reach out to your vet. They want the best for you and your pet and will be there to help support you through this stage of life.