Caring for an aging pet is both lower-stress and higher-stress than raising a puppy or kitten. On the one hand, older pets tend to prefer napping to climbing the walls or sprinting around the house like a maniac; on the other, they’re at higher risk for serious health issues, and it can be hard to tell the difference between normal aging and cause for concern.
The first step is knowing when to start senior visits with your vet. For cats, 10 years is usually the cutoff for senior status. For dogs, it varies by breed and size, but the American Animal Hospital Association uses the last 25% of the breed’s estimated lifespan as a rule of thumb. Once your pet hits this stage, it’s time to start treating them like the senior they are. Here are the absolute basics.
Make sure they can still get around (and groom themselves)
A loss of mobility is one of the earliest signs of aging in pets, which can affect their ability to run, jump, play, groom themselves, and generally do the things they love to do. As a pet owner, being aware of mobility changes is super important; it allows you to change your home’s setup to make your pet as comfortable and happy as possible. For cats and small dogs, that may mean installing a ramp or series of short steps so they can easily get up to their favorite spots on the bed or couch. For larger dogs, it may mean putting down yoga mats or otherwise reducing the slipperiness of your floors so they’re less likely to slip and fall.
Sometimes, pets lose so much range of motion that they’re no longer able to groom themselves. (This is especially devastating for cats, who take so much care in grooming themselves.) In this scenario, you’ll want to bathe them as often as needed; your vet can help you identify an appropriate schedule and procedure.
Accommodate sight and hearing loss
Unfortunately, losing some amount of sight and hearing is normal for aging pets, and it can make daily life more difficult. While you can’t reverse either condition, you can take certain steps to make your home and routines easier for your pet to navigate. If your pet’s eyesight is failing (or they’ve gone blind altogether), they can still get around as long as they’re familiar with their surroundings. For this reason, you shouldn’t rearrange your furniture or anything else that could become an obstacle.
As for hearing loss, it’s important that you do everything possible to avoid sneaking up on or startling your pet since they can’t hear you coming. Finally, you should never let a deaf dog off-leash, especially around busy streets; they won’t be able to hear the usual noises that can alert them to danger, and may react defensively if taken by surprise.
Keep an eye on their weight
Changes to your pet’s weight can be an indicator that something is seriously wrong, and the older they get, the more important it is to watch for changes. Rapid, noticeable weight loss or gain can be a sign of serious health issues and is cause for an immediate vet appointment.
Whether it’s due to reduced activity from sore joints or plain old aging, many pets’ metabolisms slow down as they age. This can put them at risk of gaining too much weight, which in turn puts them at risk of developing health problems. According to the American Kennel Club, overweight dogs are at a higher risk for many serious health conditions, including heart disease, skin conditions, arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and diabetes. For overweight cats, diabetes is the biggest risk, followed by heart disease and cancer.
Any of these conditions can drastically reduce your pet’s comfort and happiness in their senior years—and since it’s often difficult for older pets to lose weight, it’s important to keep them at a healthy weight their whole life. This mostly boils down to regular vet checkups, an appropriate diet, and plenty of exercise.
Watch for signs of cognitive dysfunction
Just like humans, pets can lose brain function as they age. Knowing the signs of cognitive dysfunction can help you catch any issues as early as possible, which is always better than catching them too late. The acronym DISHAAL summarizes the classic signs, which are:
Alterations in interactions with owners, other pets, and the environment
Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, sometimes with pacing or panting
Changes in activity, either increase or decrease
Learning and memory changes, like failing to pick up new tricks and/or forgetting ones they once knew
Although you can’t cure your pet’s dementia, there are lots of ways to keep their brain engaged throughout their lives. This can be as simple as giving a low-energy dog treats out of a puzzle feeder or as involved as teaching your cat how to sit, shake hands, or ride a skateboard.
Prepare for behavioral changes
Between the aching joints, diminishing eyesight, hearing loss, and impaired cognitive function, navigating the world can be stressful and even scary for senior pets. This can understandably lead to behavioral changes, particularly of the ornery variety: increased aggression towards people or other animals, increased resource-hoarding or other protective behavior, and increased reactivity toward noises.
As their caretaker, these behavioral changes can disrupt your routines and make caring for your pet more challenging than it used to be. Remember to stay patient and gentle—it’s not their fault; they’re just old. As long as you do your best and follow your vet’s advice, your old pal’s golden years will be just that.