I have a soft spot for seniors. I love my pets and want them to live as long and as comfortably as possible. This starts at the beginning of their life with a good foundation. Good nutrition and exercise and not being overweight helps pets live a longer happier life. Investing in training helps bond the pet to the family and extend its life. Behavior problems are the #1 reason pets are given up or euthanized. Dogs really do want to please you, but boredom and lack of enough exercise can cause them to be destructive or over exuberant.
If you’ve established the good foundation, then the middle years are just enjoyable and help you appreciate them as they become seniors.
Pets become seniors at different ages depending on species, breed, weight and size. The overweight and giant animals become seniors much earlier than cats and small dogs.
I recommend wellness testing on seniors, because it gives me a look inside to see how their organs are doing and provides a good baseline if all is normal. Animals do not show clinical signs until they have lost 75% of an organ. With the wellness testing, we can find problems and manage them before they are a crisis.
Proper nutrition is the cornerstone for everyone but especially seniors. This includes the proper amount. If you are feeding your pet a premium pet food and he is overweight, you are not helping your pet any more than if you were feeding him a generic. Being overweight, especially obese, is hard on all the organs and puts your pet at high risk for diabetes, heart failure and hypertension, and it exacerbates arthritis.
Feed your senior a good quality senior dog food with meat in the first three ingredients. Seniors require a higher quantity of protein, unless they have a kidney insufficiency. They also need more fiber and fatty acids.
Cells are dying all the time, and they release free radicals. Antioxidants help to scavenge these free radicals. These cells are dying faster in the seniors, obese and sick animals, so it is recommended that they take antioxidants. Most senior foods have some antioxidants in them, and they also come as supplements. I like to give my seniors an added antioxidant supplement. The more antioxidants that are present, the more effectively you halt the free radical damage, boost immunity, speed healing and slow the aging process. I especially like to recommend it to those old dogs that have started barking for no reason, pace aimlessly, have arthritis, any inflammatory or degenerative conditions, leukemia and cancer. Thundershirts are another great product for anxiety in dogs. As their senses start to decrease our seniors can become more anxious and this can also cause them to pace and bark for no reason.
Pets get arthritis and often they hide the pain. You may just see that they are slowing down, sleeping more, licking their legs or slow to get up. A glucosamine supplement taken twice a day helps a majority of these animals. It takes a couple of weeks to get into their system. Some senior foods have a glucosamine in them. This will help in the very early stages, but it needs to supplemented. There are many glucosamine supplements out there, and they are not all created equally. It is based on the molecular size and purity of the glusoamine and chondrotin. Many of the companies also have not done the research to show that their product works. It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you have tried one and not seen any improvement, give GLC a try. I have seen it work in large dogs with severe arthritis.
There may come a time when your pet needs more than a glucosamine to keep him comfortable. Aspirin should not be given long-term, because it can cause gastric ulcers, and it is not a very effective pain medication. The NSAIDs like Previcox and Metacam work well. If your pet would have to be on them long-term, it is recommended that they have blood work done periodically to monitor liver function. There are also some foods like JM that have high levels of DHA in them that make the joints feel better without having to do any supplementing.Cats are not small dogs and have different problems and medications.
Cats are often forgotten when thinking of arthritis, but despite their small stature, they also develop arthritis. You may notice that she isn’t jumping up on things as often or hides more. Cats do not metabolize pain medications very well or fast, and most over-the-counter medications will become toxic. Certain heart conditions will have cats on aspirin, but it is a very small dose given only every 48 hours, so it really won’t help with arthritis pain. As with anybody, having your cat at the proper weight will help, and making her exercise some will help keep her limber. Cats can take glucosamine too. The product of choice for our cats is Dasuquin, which is a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin plus another potent compound that helps slow down the cartilage breakdown pathways. Another great feature is that it is highly palpable. It is a natural chicken- and tuna-flavored powder that you sprinkle on their food. This is very important because we all know how fun it is to pill a cat, and if they don’t take it, it won’t work. Chondroitin is also used to protect the bladder wall in those cats that suffer from cystitis.
We talked about obesity with dogs, and it is even harder on the cats. The average lifespan of an overweight cat is 13 years, and it’s just a matter of time before she’s diabetic. The average life span of a cat at ideal weight is 18 years. That’s five years we are losing by loving our cats too much with food. That overweight cat may be acting just fine, but it is a ticking time bomb with no reserve if she were to get sick, and it is the number one cause of diabetes in the cat. The complaint I hear the most is that it is too hard to control food intake if you are feeding multiple cats; the cats are always crying for more food. I do understand the difficulty and extra effort. I have had multiple cats, but cats really are smart, and they can be trained to know that food is only available twice a day. If they keep asking you for more than get the comb out and give her a grooming. She’ll either like it or learn to quit asking you for food. Meal times are also very important in multi-cat households because it lets you know that each one is eating and how much. This can be an important clue that something is wrong if she misses a meal. If it is a free-feeding situation it could be days before you notice that one isn’t eating as much, even if you see them at the bowl. Animals, especially cats, are great at hiding their problems, and we want every clue we can to catch a problem before it is a crisis.
Our pets are aging years to our one, and it is recommended that the seniors be examined twice a year. The health of your pet can change rapidly, and these changes can go unnoticed. Early intervention leads to a lifetime of good health.
Watch for these signs:
- Just not acting themself
- Interacting less often with family
- Responding less often or less enthusiastically
- Showing changes in behavior/activity level
- Having difficulty jumping
- Exhibiting increased stiffness or limping
- Drinking more often
- Urinating more often
- Changing eating patterns
- Noticeably gaining or losing weight
- Losing housetraining habits
- Changing sleeping patterns
- Becoming confused or disoriented
- Changing hair coat, skin, or new lumps or bumps
- Scratching more often
- Exhibiting bad breath/red or swollen gums
- Showing tremors or shaking
The Aging Process
The aging process is influenced by many factors including environment, immune mediated, toxic substances and genetics. Considerable individual variation exists even with litter mates.
As pets age their basal metabolism rate decreases and, along with decreased activity, will lead to weight gain. Progressive loss of muscle mass, related to inactivity, combined with a decrease in dietary protein may be responsible for or exaggerate hind limb weakness. This can be confused with arthritis or disuse atrophy.
But often our geriatric pets are too thin. There are many age-related causes of insidious weight loss that include metabolic disease, cardiac failure, dental disease, cancer and maldigestion.
The normal loss of smell, taste buds, jaw muscle atrophy and a lack of sufficient saliva to swallow dry food or senility can contribute to decreased appetite in the “healthy” pet.
Non-medical options for encouraging your pet to eat:
- More frequent meals
- Hand feeding
- Adding water to the dry food
- Feeding canned food
- Warming the food
- Mild exercise prior to meal time
- Bowls for cats should be wide and shallow so sides don’t touch whiskers
Nutrition is important in all stages of life but especially in the geriatrics, where the food can even become a prescription for their medical condition. As the pet ages there is decreased intestinal absorption, decreased enzyme production, decreased colonic motility and a dryness of all tissues including saliva and colonic mucosa. Senior diets address these issues with increased digestibility, protein and fiber and also antioxidants.
Free radicals are produced by the environment, inflammation and age-related diseases. As we age we produce more free radicals and have fewer scavengers to destroy them. That is where antioxidants come in. They decrease the damage from free radicals and support the immune system. There are small amounts of antioxidants in most senior foods but an antioxidant supplement is better. Antioxidants include:
- Vitamins E and C and zinc neutralize damage from the free radicals
- Fatty acids, DHA, and EPA protect cell membranes
- Lipleic Acid and L-carnitine limits production of free radicals
- Carotenoids and Flavonoid inactivate free radicals