Pets and people are living longer, and we all seek to have both quality, as well as quantity, in those years. The challenge is how to accomplish this.
Routine preventative health care throughout life is instrumental in maintaining vigor and achieving longevity. This includes managing body weight and exercise. Even moderately overweight dogs live two years less than normal-weight dogs, and suffer from more chronic illness as they age. I am often asked if routine screening lab work is necessary for ensuring pet health. This truly depends on your goals as a pet parent. If you wish to identify internal health issues before they are obvious and while they are most treatable, then yes, it is valuable. If you only believe a test is valuable if your pet is ill and advanced abnormalities are almost certain to be present, then preclinical screening will not be your choice. My own treasured cat, Fishy, was able to live to age 13, because diagnostic testing at age 7, when he was the picture of health, revealed both heart and kidney disease, which could be treated.
How can we keep pets happy with the inevitable changes that occur with age? Joint disease is a common source of pain in seniors. Decreased mobility, pain and a sedentary lifestyle predispose to other chronic illnesses. Medication, massage, physical therapy and diet are all tools to keep pets comfortable. In addition, integrative veterinary medicine therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, supplements and laser therapy can also help in reaching the same goals. In our homes, we can lower cat perches, use graduated platforms, add steps and ramps and use orthopedic beds for our seniors. Providing stable footing by using carpet runners, booties, toe grips and keeping foothair trimmed and nails short can help keep pets ambulatory.
Most aging pets see a decline in sensory perception. Loss of visual acuity and decreased hearing are common. The sense of smell is retained with age, and this can be utilized to help pets find specific areas, such as beds, pet doors or litter boxes, which they may not see well. By not rearranging furniture and modifying our communication methods (example: using hand signals or vibration, instead of verbal cues) and adding extra light in darker areas, we may aid our seniors. Hearing aids have been attempted in dogs, but only about 25 percent accept them, even after extensive training. Loss of mobility and loss of ability to perceive their environment well can heighten anxiety and phobias in aging animals.
Dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is seen in animals also. This may manifest as a loss of training (either obedience and house training), decreased engagement with people or toys, getting lost or stuck in corners, aimless barking, aggression, fear or reversal of day and night cycles. Keeping the mind active may help to mitigate this decline. Activity toys, food puzzles, auditory stimulation devices and visual stimulation are useful to enrich mental activity. Olfactory stimulation and pheromones also increase interest in the environment. Play can be modified to increase social interaction with older pets. Tennis balls rolled across the carpet to my 14-year-old retriever cross, Beefy, thrilled him even when he could no longer run in the yard. Medications and dietary modifications can also help with cognitive decline.
Diets for aging animal family members should be discussed with a veterinarian and tailored to each individual pet. A diet supplemented with medium chain triglyceride oils or coconut oil to decrease cognitive decline could prove disastrous to a pet prone to pancreatitis or with certain types of seizures. There is no legal definition of a “senior diet,” so pet foods labeled as such vary widely. Some are lower protein; some are higher protein. Some are higher fiber, lower calorie; some are lower fiber, higher calorie. Calorie density needs to be dictated by your pet’s needs. Metabolic rate declines with age, and some pets need fewer calories to prevent obesity. Other pets, especially elderly cats, may lose excessive weight and muscle and require higher calorie, higher protein diets. Diseases of the liver and kidney, as well as protein loss through the gut or urine may prompt lower protein diets in some individuals. However, the protein requirements of cats actually increases with age. In all situations, the type and digestibility of protein is as important as the percentage on a bag of food.