Senior Pets: When Older Can Be Even Better
By Jason Berger
Thinking about adopting a pet? How about adopting a senior animal? The American Veterinary Medical Association considers cats and small dogs senior at age 7, while larger breeds of dog are seniors at age 6. And senior animals often have many healthy years ahead of them.
Benefits of Adopting Your Senior Pet
Adopting a senior pet has many benefits for both human and animal. In addition to all the love senior pets have left to give, adopting a senior pet can save a life! Older animals are often overlooked by potential adopters. A survey by petfinder.com found that less-adoptable pets—including seniors—wait for a home nearly four times longer than the average adoptable pet does. The survey noted that senior pets had the most difficult time, so adopting a senior pet can save a life.
But adopting senior pets is not just beneficial for the animal—it’s also wonderful for humans!
- Knowing that you are saving a loving, valuable life can be a great feeling for the human of a senior dog or cat. And senior pets instinctively know that you chose them and are grateful for it. They seem to greet their humans with a look in their eyes that says, “Thank you!” And they can love you just as much as kittens or puppies—maybe even more.
- Senior cats are likely to be already litter trained, while senior dogs are likely to be already leash trained. So there is less chance of an unwelcome accident in your home.
- Moreover, when adopting a senior pet, humans know what they are getting. A senior pet has an already established size and personality.
Ensuring the Health of Your Senior Pet
Of course, there are certain important things to keep in mind before adopting a senior pet. In particular, caring for a senior pet’s health brings with it certain manageable challenges. However, with proper care, an older cat or dog can live a long, healthy life.
Particular areas of importance in caring for an older pet include scheduling regular veterinarian visits, staying aware of changes in your pet’s behavior, taking care of your pet’s dental health, keeping your pet at an appropriate body weight, and being aware of health problems more common in senior pets.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that older pets visit the veterinarian for checkups twice a year. AVMA also suggests that owners contact their veterinarian if their pet has a change in behavior, which can be an indication that their pet may have a health problem. For example, if a litter-box trained cat goes outside the litter box or a housetrained dog goes inside the house, or if your pet has a loss of appetite or increased thirst, or gains or loses an inordinate amount of weight, these may indicate health problems you should talk over with your veterinarian.
Be on the lookout for impairments more common in aging pets, including cancer and arthritis. Signs of cancer include weight loss; changes in appetite; sores that do not heal; unusual odors from the mouth and body; and difficulty breathing, chewing, swallowing, urinating, or defecating. Signs of arthritis include limited movement, joint swelling, and wasting away of muscle. As with other health issues, keep your veterinarian posted about your pet’s symptoms.
And there are other important considerations when caring for your senior pet.
Dental Care, Diet, and Exercise for Your Senior Pet
Older pets need adequate dental care. Brushing your dog’s teeth can be important, as well as making sure she has regular dental checkups at the vet. Dental problems can have adverse effects on a senior pet’s heart, lungs, and kidneys. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, signs of dental problems include swollen, red, or bleeding gums; persistent bad breath; loose teeth; or reluctance to eat, play with chew toys, or drink cold water. Bring such problems to the attention of your veterinarian.
Keeping your senior pet at an ideal body weight is also important. In Visual Reference Guides: Cats, Dr. Bruce Fogle says that obesity is the most common nutritional problem in cats and, especially in senior cats, can lead to joint pain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Likewise with older dogs, keeping your pet at an ideal body weight is necessary.
Feeding pets an age-appropriate diet and getting your pet continued exercise, consistent with his or her health condition, is important. You can feed your older pets food formulated for seniors, which can help meet their unique dietary needs. Older dogs generally need a lower-calorie diet to help prevent obesity and a higher-fiber diet to improve gastrointestinal health. In The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Cats, Cat Breeds, & Cat Care, Alan Edwards reports that senior cats in general require a reduced protein level with a corresponding increase in fat levels, but not in quantities that might cause obesity. And always make sure your older pet has plenty of easily accessible clean water.
Playing with Your Senior Pet
A good way to ensure the health of your senior dogs or cats is to play with them. For an older dog, walks are important, although your pet may not be able to walk as far as he once did. Shorter walks, consistent with your pet’s ability, are a good way to make sure your dog gets proper exercise. In addition to walks, an old dog is never too old to learn new tricks! Teaching your dog new things is a good way to keep him physically and mentally engaged.
For senior cats, play is just as important. As petfinder.com notes, “Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can promote muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and help reduce weight in cats that are too heavy”. You can use your cat’s favorite toys to engage in play with her, varying toys to keep things interesting. Also, a little catnip can help your cat enjoy different toys. For both dogs and cats, toys that dispense food or treats are always appreciated. If you have any questions about play appropriate for your pet’s health condition, be sure to discuss this with your veterinarian ahead of time.
And, of course, give your senior pet plenty of comfort, love, and attention! You’ll get plenty of love in return, because the journey of life with a senior pet can be every bit as rewarding as with a younger animal.
Jason Berger is from upstate New York and now lives in Arlington. He has been a volunteer adoption counselor with King Street Cats in Alexandria for 4 years. Jason’s cat Ronnie approves.
Websites on Adopting Senior Animals
Adopt a Senior Pet Month—Petfinder
King Street Cats—What About Me? Program, which shines a light on older, shy, and special-needs cats
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, including information on special adoption fees for older animals
Websites About Medical Conditions Affecting Pets
American Veterinary Medical Association
American Animal Hospital Association