May 06 2015

9 Steps To Keep Your Senior Healthy

Senior dog sleeping

Whose heart doesn’t melt when you look into the eyes of a grey-muzzled senior pet? Thanks to better nutrition, medicine, and home care, our pets are living longer than ever. Our goal though, is not just longevity but also quality by keeping our lovable seniors healthier!

When is your pet a senior? Well that depends on size, as larger dogs age faster than small dogs, and cats, who always like to do their own thing, age differently again. We are all well aware that pets do age much faster than people; so when does your pet become a senior?

As a generalization:

Giant dogs 7

Large dogs 8

Medium dogs 9

Small dogs 10

Cats 10

Want to know how old your pet is in “human” years check out this conversion calculator.

These golden years can be as wonderful as the puppy/kitten years, but as our pets age their bodies become less able to cope with physical and environmental stress. With prevention and being pro-active we, you and your veterinary team, can add years and quality of life to your senior pet, and make those golden years just as happy and healthy as their adult years!


If our pet ages 5 to 7 years for every 1 human year, just think how much can change in that one year, especially during those senior years! (10 to 11, for a large dog, is similar to a person going from 66 to 72.)

Dogs and cats age faster than we do, so their health problems progress faster too. Experts agree that healthy seniors should be examined more frequently as dogs and cats are great at hiding illness. Our goal is to diagnose medical issues earlier, before the pet shows overt clinical signs, because the earlier in a disease process we can make a diagnosis and start a treatment, the better the outcome. By examining our senior pets more frequently we are able to catch minor changes in the heart, body condition, dental disease, kidney function when it is far easier to control.

My Madison was a healthy, happy cat and had perfect senior exams and tests until her 13th birthday. I expected no less when I did her senior exam and tests on her 13th birthday, as she had no changes at home, eating, drinking, litter box all normal. Weight – Perfect! But her tests revealed her kidneys were no longer functioning at 100%. At this early stage all I needed to do was alter her nutrition, no need for extensive medical or in hospital treatment. The results? My Madison lived to be 23!   Madison is a great example of how early detection and intervention improved her quality and quantity of life.

As the saying goes “prevention is worth a pound of cure!”.


Because our pets are great at hiding medical issues, we use a multitude of different medical tests to help uncover hidden problems. Blood tests, urine tests and monitoring blood pressure are the most common tests done on a regular basis. These tests give your veterinarian and yourself a window into the health of your pet. For example, underlying thyroid disease in cats, if caught early by doing routine blood test, can be easily treated before your cat develops secondary heart disease. Another great example of how prevention is worth a pound of cure!


We believe that all seniors should be on additional essential fatty acids (DHA & EPA). Besides helping the joints, heart, skin, coat, kidneys AND brain, we know that Omega 3 and 6 FA have marked anti-inflammatory effects when added to the diet in proper levels. Though most diets contain Omega 3 &6 FA, unless you are feeding J/D from Hill’s, we recommend supplementing the diet, as the diets do not contain high enough levels of the essential fatty acids (DHA and EPA).


A healthy diet is a vital part of living a healthy life and so obviously it is vital to keeping our seniors healthy. As our pet ages they start to produce less saliva, their intestinal surface area decreases, their appetite decrease, which all results in decrease absorption of nutrients. Smaller, more frequent meals are often easier on a senior’s digestive system. Diets for healthy seniors, such as Hill’s G/D or Royal Canin Mature, typically contain less fat but not less protein.

During the senior years it is not uncommon to have to change a diet more than once. If your pet develops certain medical conditions a diet change may become an integral part of the treatment plan. As well, as a pet changes from a senior to a geriatric, it may be important to alter the diet again and now increase the fat levels. During the senior years it is best to consult your veterinarian to help you determine what is best for your pet based on your pet’s exam and test results.

At what age do you need to adjust your pet’s diet?

  • Small and medium dogs – 7 years
  • Large dogs – 6 years
  • Giant dogs – 5 years
  • Cats – 8 years

As our pet ages they tend to lose muscle mass and balance, as well, we see a thickening of their joint capsules and ligaments resulting in less flexibility. There are great exercises that you can do at home and help maintain your dog’s strength and flexibility, and though these are easy exercises to do, care must be taken to do the exercises correctly so as not to cause permanent damage. When to start? NOW! It is much easier to maintain muscle mass and flexibility then it is to try and rebuild. Cookie Stretches, Passive Range of Motion, and Cavaletti Poles are all great ways of helping a senior dog maintain healthy joints and ligaments. See you veterinarian to help you determine which exercises are best for your pet and to make sure you are doing them correctly.

Low impact exercise, such as walks and swims, are important for mental stimulation as well as maintaining muscle mass. Never exercise your dog so that he is sore the next day – no weekend warriors here! If your dog finds one 30-minute walk too much then try frequent smaller walks.

Cats are not as easy to convince that exercise is important to them. Starting early is the key once again. Encourage your cat to move by having them chase a laser, a treat, or having them hunt for their food. Once again you must adjust your exercise plan to fit the needs of your cat. During these play times it is a great time to observe and monitor any changes in your cat and discuss them with your veterinarian.


Did you know that 60% of our senior pets will develop some form of dementia? Studies have shown that the addition of Omega fatty Acids and by making your pet use their brain (use it or lose it) we can slow the progression of dementia. Just like humans, senior dogs and cats still need exercise, mental stimulation, and socializing to remain vibrant. Using puzzle toys for dogs and cats, such as the tick tock toy for cats, are all great ways to help keep your pet mentally stimulated. Remember though, as our pet ages there are age related changes to their lungs, heart and blood vessels, not to mention arthritis, which will reduce a senior pet’s exercise tolerance.


As our pet ages we may need to do some home adjustments to make our homes functional for our senior pets. As mentioned earlier, our senior pets may start to have balance issues, and since 90% of senior cats and 60% senior dogs have some form of arthritis walking on those slippery floors can start to be challenging. Use of non-slip throw rugs or yoga mats can help to keep your pet mobile in the house.

Pimp out his bed! Ensure the bed is large enough for your dog to be able to stretch out. Heated bed, orthopedic beds, they are all out there! Sometimes it does take a bit of trial to find out what your pet likes.

Older pets cannot regulate their body temperature as well as they once could. It is important to keep your pet warm and dry, so consider heated beds and coats. Also remember the other extreme, as they are more sensitive to heat and humidity as well. So you need to be more aware of heat stress in our senior pets.

Vision may diminish with time and we can help out pet’s anxiety by using adequate lighting outside and around the home, especially around stairs and at night! Use a flashlight on those evening walks can make your pet feel less nervous even when on a leash. Presently with my Jordan, who is 12, she has just started hesitating going down the stairs unless they are well light. As well keeping floors clear of clutter can help decrease anxiety of your pet moving around the home.

As hearing decreases the use of vibrating collars can help you communicate with your pet. It is great to start using these early on, so you can train your pet to the collar.


Owners typically know their pets very well and many changes in their pet are obvious even to the untrained eye. Some signs though, people often chalk up to just being old when actually it is a symptom of a problem that can be treated. It is important that you monitor changes in your dog’s and cat’s health between regular vet visits. We recommend you review the senior checklist on a monthly basis and IF these clinical signs present themselves in your pet, contact your veterinarian.


Bad teeth aren’t just about bad breath! Studies have linked dental disease in pets and humans to diseases of the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and complicating the treatment of diabetes just to name a few. As our pets age their immune system does not respond as efficiently and they have a decrease ability to fight off infection. Serious health concerns can occur due to the constant presence of bacteria entering the blood stream through inflamed gums. There have been some studies in humans that suggest there may be a direct link between periodontal disease and some forms of cancer. During senior wellness exams we often find painful tooth root abscesses, broken teeth, and tooth resorption that the pet was skilled at hiding. We know our seniors already have decrease nutrient absorption through their intestines. By ignoring oral pain we compound the problem and add to their nutritional deficiencies. Many people tell me they would do a dental if Fido was younger, but actually oral health becomes even more important in our seniors if we want to keep them living longer; and not just longer but also healthy with a good quality of life.

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