When the vet told me Buzz had diabetes, I felt faint. He was fourteen years old, a true senior cat. Was this the end? But I learned diabetes is not a death sentence. We would give Buzz two insulin shots a day, and he would live a normal life for years. And this was so–Buzz lived a beautiful life with us for three more years; he remained unchanged. He nestled in our arms as he always did, slept on our beds at night, played with my son Ethan, and drank and ate regularly. We were even able to go away on weekends and longer vacations because our cat sitter gave him his shots. He didn’t behave differently at all, until the very end–like the approaching death of any pet.
Are you thinking about getting a pet? Ready to train a frisky kitten? Chase down a newborn pup? If just the thought of a pup skidding across your new wood floor makes you shudder, choose an older companion–one that suits your lifestyle. The same thinking applies if you’re not in the mood for a kitten that bites your toes or playfully evades you as you try to introduce it to its litter box.
An older pet offers many advantages for those who don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to raise a pet from birth. Dr. Kimberly May, assistant director for professional and public affairs at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), likes to say that older pets come with a lot of “knowns.”
“They’re already housebroken,” she says, “and aren’t as demanding as younger, more energetic pets.” Older dogs have already been taught “good manners and obedience. They can be more compatible with the lifestyles of many busy people because they don’t need the amount of training– housebreaking and obedience–that younger pets may need,” Dr. May explains.
And when adopting an older pet, you know what you’re getting. “Their temperaments are more fully developed, so you have a good idea of how that pet will behave, and they’re fully grown, so there’s no need to guess their mature weight. You don’t need to figure out if your puppy is going to be 20 pounds or 60 pounds when it’s fully grown,” she says.
Who should consider adopting an older dog or cat? Anyone, actually.
But older dogs and cats may be especially right for inexperienced pet owners who want a pet that’s already “broken in.” People whose lifestyles allow a pet, but don’t have time to spend tending to the needs of a much younger pet or perhaps don’t want to spend the time or expend the effort on training young pets to be good pets should also consider an older pet. Families with young children should consider an older pet because its temperament around children is known and the pet can be trusted. Human seniors are perfect matches for canine or feline seniors since an older pet isn’t as physically or emotionally demanding as a younger one, Dr. May explains.
What’s “old”? Smaller dogs, and cats, see old age at about seven years. Larger dog breeds are considered seniors at six, or even five. Dr. Louise Murray, vice president of the ASPCA Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, reasons that while cats over seven are widely considered seniors, cats from 8–10 are really middle-aged, given how long cats can live.
Once you bring home a new companion, how can you keep it healthy? Preventive care is vital for senior pets. Senior pets can develop many of the same medical problems that the AARP set can develop, including cancer, heart disease, kidney or urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes, joint or bone disease, cognitive dysfunction, and weakness. (Keep in mind, though, that younger pets can also be affected by many of these conditions.)
Preventive care lets the doctor identify developing problems early, before they worsen, and this could also prevent higher pet care bills in the future. Preventive care includes appropriate vaccination and parasite treatment to prevent heartworm, intestinal parasites, fleas, and ticks. Dr. Murray of the ASPCA recommends that senior pets visit the vet twice a year. During the exam, the doctor will listen for heart murmurs, and examine the body for lumps or other abnormalities.
“Blood work should also be performed at least once a year, and blood pressure should be measured at each visit. Dogs and cats can develop hypertension just as humans do, and can suffer stroke or sudden blindness if it goes untreated,” she says.
Good nutrition is especially important for senior pets that need balanced, easily digestible food and plenty of fresh, clean water.
Weight control and exercise go hand in hand with good nutrition, for a healthy weight reduces or eliminates many health concerns. Good nutrition–avoiding overfeeding, especially–is part of this, as is regular exercise to keep pets active, limber and stimulated.
In terms of weight, the AVMA’s Dr. May says owners should be able to feel a dog’s ribs without pushing hard; the dog should have a “waist” when viewed from above–a slight “tuck” behind the ribs and before the hips. Your dog should have an abdominal contour that goes upward toward the back legs when viewed from the side. (Cats are similar to dogs; there shouldn’t be a hanging belly fat pad. A good resource for pet weight education is www.petobesityprevention.com/pet-weight-check.)
And just like younger pets, dental issues can occur. Watch for: bad odor or sudden change in odor from mouth; loose or broken teeth; heavy tartar buildup; and bleeding or excessive salivation. “It's essential to address dental issues promptly, before systemic consequences or prolonged discomfort occur,” Dr. Murray says. Senior pets tend to develop dental disease, including tartar, gingivitis, and infection, and this can be very painful as well as a threat to the pet's organs.
Older pets need a safe environment–changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs, or more time indoors.
What are those inevitable age-related conditions? Joint stiffness, and limping or favoring one or more legs can be an issue as can be difficulty rising from a sitting or lying position or going from a standing position to a sitting or lying position. Pets may seem reluctant to climb or descend stairs, jump or do an activity that they used to easily or regularly do.
Organ health must be considered, too. Older pet owners should watch for: sudden changes in appetite or water consumption; changes in urination–more than usual, less than usual, or no urination at all; “accidents” in the house; straining to urinate; blood in urine; changes in bowel habits; poor quality hair coat; vomiting; coughing or difficulty breathing; and tiring easily or not interested in exercise or activity.
Yes, your dog or cat, despite the love and attention you give them, can develop cognitive dysfunction. Mental stimulation is as important for geriatric cats and dogs as it is for people. “You rest, you rust,” Dr. May reminds us. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active.
“To date, we don’t know enough about it to be able to recommend specific preventive measures, but providing your pet with regular mental stimulation, like interaction and walks, may help. We can’t predict which pets will develop this and which ones won’t. There is no known cure, but there are drugs and specific diets available that can help manage cognitive dysfunction in dogs,” says Dr. May.
Abnormal neurological symptoms in pets include pacing, circling, getting "stuck" in corners or behind doors, confusion, and loss of alertness,” says the AVMA’s Dr. Murray.
“However, these symptoms can be caused by a variety of conditions, including brain disease (like tumors) or organ disease (such as liver disease) or other health issues. A veterinarian should perform a thorough assessment. We don't know if cats and dogs suffer from dementia in the sense the term is used in human medicine,” she explains.
Still, pets with cognitive dysfunction may need environmental alterations, such as confinement to safe areas where they are less likely to injure themselves. They may also need more frequent trips outside to prevent accidents. And they certainly need understanding and affection.
Indeed, we don’t walk away from humans once they turn toward old age; the American Kennel Club suggests we treat our older pets with the same respect. Older dogs and cats still have a lot of life in them, but their bodies and minds are changing just as aging humans do.
And Dr. May is out to break a myth that keeps some potential owners of older pets at bay. “There’s a fear they’ll become attached to a pet that may only have a few years to live. With good care, pets are living longer, healthier lives, so there’s no reason to believe that your senior pet will not provide you with a good number of years of love and companionship,” Dr. May explains. “And providing a senior pet with a loving home for their remaining years is the greatest gift you can give them”–the best years of their lives, perhaps.
So if the thought of adopting an older pet has crossed your mind, do it. Buzz had many good years as a senior before he took sick, and even then, lived a good life. Take the pet you’re considering to the vet for a complete exam and make sure yours is fine. Then make the most of the journey with your pet, and enjoy it, even–and especially–as it ages, right along with you.