Elderly Pets Need Extra Care:  Part 1 – Signs of Old Age

by Dr. Lance Weidenbaum and Dr. Michael Shaff

Elderly dog sleeping on dog bed.

Only a few decades ago, ten years was a long lifetime for most pets. Today our knowledge of veterinary medicine, understanding of animal care, and the excellent foods and medicines available allow pets to share our lives for many years. Many cats now live 15 or even 20 years. Large breed dogs that historically had short lifespans may live 10 - 12 years, and their smaller cousins like Chihuahuas and Pugs can expect to live 12 - 15 years, with a few even reaching their 20s.

Today’s pets are so healthy and active that we may not realize they have become middle-aged or even elderly. Monitoring your pet for signs of aging is important, because they have different nutritional requirements than younger animals, and can develop age-related medical conditions. Knowing the signs of aging is also helpful if your pet came from a shelter and the actual age is not known. 

Signs of Aging in Pets

  • White hair – Aging pets get white hair, too. Many dogs get gray muzzles as they age, and cats will get white hairs throughout their coat. 
  • Sleeping more or fewer hours – Aging pets tire more easily, and may sleep longer hours than they did when younger. Some pets may experience wakefulness at night when they once slept through. 
  • Messy fur, reduced grooming – Many older pets stop caring for their coats, or health conditions may result in greasy hair, dry skin, or other conditions.
  • Increased or decreased reaction to noises – Some pets become more sensitive to loud noises as they age, while others may become hard of hearing or deaf. 
  • Difficulty rising – Your pet may have difficulty standing up from a lying or sitting position, or hopping up into the car or onto the bed. 
  • Stiffness, limping, reluctance to play – All three can indicate aging or could be signs of medical conditions like arthritis, hip dysplasia, or other problems. We will discuss specific conditions in detail in an upcoming article.
  • Anxiety, irritability, increased protectiveness – Aging dogs may become more protective of their owners, property or food, and all aging pets can become more anxious or irritable. 
  • Confusion, disorientation – Your elderly pet may be confused by new surroundings or people, or have trouble finding the litter box. Just like elderly humans, aging pets can develop cognition difficulties or even senility. 
  • Soiling in the house, not using litter box – Elderly pets may not be able to make it outdoors or to the litter box in time, or may have medical conditions affecting them.
  • Wandering, excessive vocalizing – These can also be signs of senility or confusion. Cats may vocalize to call family members who aren’t in sight range. Dogs may wander away without realizing they are far from home. 

These indicators of aging give you clues as to your pet’s needs and state of health. In upcoming articles we will discuss specific health conditions such as cancer, arthritis and joint problems, and senility. 

Elderly Cat lying on a blanket

Dietary Needs of Aging Pets

As pets age their nutritional needs change, and there are now excellent foods especially formulated for them. Some are easier to chew and digest or have special additives to address various conditions such as weight control, kidney disease, sensitive stomach, food allergies, coat condition, and more.

Health Care for Older Pets

When you bring your older pet in for their exam, we look for signs of any of the health conditions that can come with age. We run a senior lab screening to check your pet’s kidney and liver function, and may recommend other key tests such as thyroid analysis. 

We also check for signs of arthritis and stiffness in the joints, as well as our normal evaluation for weight gain, coat condition, heart and lungs, and we screen for parasites. 

If your older pet needs any special tests or care, we’ll discuss the options with you, and help you offer your pet comfortable and healthy years as they age. 

In Part 2 of Elderly Pets Need Extra Care, we’ll look at the signs of arthritis in pets. In Part 3 we’ll share information about cancer, and in Part 4 we’ll explain kidney disease and how to care for your pet with this condition.  Part 5 will be about how we evaluate your pet’s quality of life when you are faced with the difficult decision of euthanizing an animal.

Photo credit dog: jonathan_palmer / Foter /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo credit cat: Bogeycat / Foter /CC BY-NC 2.0

Phone: 954-421-2244   Serving Deerfield Beach, Coconut Creek, and Boca Raton from our offices at Hillsboro Blvd and  Powerline Road in the Dunkin' Donuts plaza.    © Deer Run Animal Hospital 2017