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The golden years: Caring for your aging pet

dog Is your pet reaching the "golden years"? If so, you should be prepared for a variety of physical, mental and behavioral changes. Being informed about what to expect can help you ease some of the problems your best friend may experience with the passing years.

How Pets Age
Our pets age much faster than we do. Although the rule of thumb is to multiple human years by a factor of seven, different pets age at different rates. Generally, smaller breeds of dogs live longer than larger breeds, and cats live longer than dogs.

Beyond that, life span will vary with each individual, depending upon many factors including overall health and lifestyle. Your veterinarian can help you determine what stage of life your furry friend is in.

As our pets age, they go through changes that are remarkably similar to those of aging humans: hair turns gray, joints begin to wear out, and stamina declines. Often, the changes come on subtly; you may notice little more than longer naps and shorter runs.

Compensating for Sensory Changes
Progressive loss of hearing and sight are common in older pets. Not surprisingly, these changes can elicit behavioral changes ranging from anxiety to aggression. However, there is no reason your pet cannot continue to have an excellent quality of life if you make allowances for his limitations.

If your best friend is losing his eyesight, you should avoid changing things around the house – particularly water, food, bedding and furniture. If you take your dog into unfamiliar territory, keep him on a lead and walk him slowly through the new place. Stay close by and reassure him.

If your pet’s vision is normal, you may be able to compensate for deafness by using hand signals. Dogs, in particular, normally communicate with each other through body movements, so they will readily understand hand signals.

Never let a pet that is visually or hearing impaired roam freely outside.

Coping with Arthritis
Just as in humans, arthritic changes in bones and joints often occur in senior pets. They can present significant problems in large breeds and overweight dogs.

An arthritic dog may show changes in gait, limp, have trouble climbing stairs or finding a comfortable place to rest. You can help your pet cope with arthritis in several ways:

  • Keep him slim and trim, because excess weight puts stress on joints.
  • Make sure he gets adequate exercise, according to your vet’s recommendation, to keep his joints from stiffening even more.
  • Provide extra thick bedding, or a bed specially constructed for spine and joint health.
  • Be sure that your pet can easily get to his food, water and toileting areas.
  • If your pet has trouble climbing stairs, construct a ramp to the outside.

A visit to your veterinarian is also in order. There are new medications available that can significantly lessen the pain and stiffness of arthritis.

Regular Exams May Save a Life
Many diseases that are known to afflict aging humans also affect our aging pets: kidney, heart, and liver disease; tumors; cancers; diabetes; depression; Alzheimer’s; and neuroses. Regular physical examinations by your pet’s veterinarian are needed for early detection of problems. Even if your pet has no unusual problems, regular screenings and advice can help you maintain your pet’ body weight and condition and ensure a better quality of life during those senior years.

Since pets age much faster than humans most veterinary experts recommend twice yearly physicals as pets pass their middle years. Says Dr. William Tranquilli, of the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital: "At the age of seven, we suggest biannual visits with your veterinarian. That may seem like a lot, but if you think of it in terms of how fast your pet is aging, it would be like a person going for an annual physical every 3 to 4 years."

Weight loss, a significant decrease in appetite, excessive panting, constant whining or pacing, loss of housebreaking, persistent coughing or gagging in a dog, hair loss, chewing paws and other changes in behavior can be early indicators of a medical problem. If you see new or unusual behaviors, don’t wait for a regular exam; have your pet checked by his veterinarian.

Recommendations for Aging Pets
The American Academy of Animal Health offers the following advice for caring for your older pet (also see the AAHA website at

  • Keep vaccinations current
  • Brush frequently to keep fur from matting
  • Clip toenails to prevent overgrowth and to avoid slips and falls on slick surfaces
  • Keep plenty of fresh water available and monitor consumption
  • Keep indoors most of the time, especially in inclement weather
  • Weigh on the same scale and record results every 60 days