These days, the average life span of all dog breeds is 13 years(see age analogy chart), and cats have been known to live well into their twenties. But some dogs age faster than other. Giant breeds, like bullmastiffs and great Danes, usually show signs of aging before their eighth birthday.
Cats and small breeds like Chihuahuas, on the other hand, can often remain youthfully vigorous until they’re 12 or older.
The pace of aging also depends on individual genetic differences within a breed and the quality of care pets receive from their human guardians.
If you pet has spunky old relatives and has received excellent health care since it was a puppy or kitten, it stands a good chance of longevity.
Still, growing old is a natural (and inevitable) process that we all must face. And as your pet ages, a number of physical and behavioral changes occur.
With age, your pet’s muzzle may turn white, and the faithful companion that once followed you everywhere may nap away the day.
Your pet’s vision may become fuzzier as cataracts develop, and its hearing often fades as the nerves and small bones inside the ears degenerate.
As vision and hearing diminish, your pet may startle more easily when approached.
Dental disease(see dental care) is probably the most universal health problem of older pets. It begins with deposits of plaque which harden to form tartar. If untreated, tartar buildup can lead to gum disease and tooth loss.
And bacterial infections from diseased gums can spread to the kidneys and possibly other organs. So be sure to brush or treat your elderly companion’s teeth daily and take your pet in for regular dental checkups. Cats are also very prone to painful cavities.
Fortunately, older animals rarely develop hardening of the arteries.(see cardiac disease) But some older pet’s do develop heart murmurs caused by the failure of heart valves to close properly.
Older dogs and cats may also develop dilated or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a condition in which the heart muscle enlarges and contracts weakly.
Either condition can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF), which owners may first observe as coughing and shortness of breath.
While medical treatment can help ease the lives of dogs with CHF, there is no known cure.
We are also now diagnosing and treating disease such as hypertension, glaucoma, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic liver disease, and cushings disease just to name a few.
Dogs and cats may also develop nerve disorders as they age.
Repeated episodes of stumbling, for example, may indicate myelopathy – a dysfunction of the spinal cord and its associated nerves. Cats and dogs may develope arthritis on the spine.
Nerve disorders can also arise when tumors or ruptured vertebral disks impinge on nerves.
Some older dogs may lose their balance or tilt their heads due to a nerve malfunction within the vestibular apparatus (the balance mechanism) of the inner ear.
Dogs with this condition tend to improve on their own over several weeks (though head tilting may persist). (Be sure to inform your veterinarian of any changes in your dog’s normal posture or balance.)
Tumors are more common in the older rather than in younger pet. But not all tumors are life-threatening. Many older animals develop benign skin tumors, which veterinarians can easily remove.
But even when has a more serious tumor develops – such as a brain tumor – surgical advances have given many dogs the opportunity to make remarkable comebacks. As with all medical conditions, however, early detection and treatment of tumors offers the best hope for a favorable outcome. (Always have your veterinarian check any lumps you discover while grooming or petting your pet.)
Even the most prim and proper pet may start urinating in the house as it ages.
An older pet’s kidneys (see kidney disease) may lose their ability to concentrate urine, forcing it to drink and urinate more frequently to rid the body of waste products. But a number of other diseases, such as diabetes, can cause increased thirst and urination.
Inappropriate elimination can also stem from a cognitive problem. Your pet simply may not realize what it’s doing.
So don’t automatically assume that “old age” is what’s causing your loved one to drink and urinate more than usual.
Instead, check with your veterinarian.
Aging also brings behavioral changes. Older dogs may not respond as quickly to commands as the once did.
Obedient dogs will still be obedient, of course, but they may not “snap to” as they did in their younger days.
This slowdown may be due to the pain and stiffness of arthritis.
Another possible explanation for slower responses is the general slowdown of information processing in the brain. (Over time, brain mass shrinks, and the once-dependable nerve cells begin to misfire.)
Some behaviorists believe separation anxiety in older dogs may be triggered by aging-related medical problems. When a dog experiences internal discomfort, it might become more clingy.
This theory suggests that if a veterinarian can successfully treat the underlying medical problem or problems, the anxiety will recede.
Your alertness and responsiveness to your pet’s behavior and physical condition can make a big difference in the comfort quotient” of your dog’s golden years. One cardinal rule: don’t automatically attribute signs of illness to getting old.
Sometimes, what we assume are normal age-related infirmities are actually treatable conditions.
For example, people often chalk up to old age a pet’s reluctance to run or walk as far or as briskly as it used to, when the fact the slowdown may be due to a heart condition or arthritis – both of which can be managed with treatment.
Mention any noticeable change in your pet to your veterinarian.
For example, weight loss may signal an underlying medical problem such as heart or periodontal disease, and weight gain may indicate something has gone awry with your dog’s endocrine system.
Your veterinarian may order diagnostic tests to pin down a diagnosis.
Blood work and urinalysis can reveal abnormalities in the kidneys, liver, and other organs.
And many veterinarians recommend routine annual blood tests for all geriatric animals.
X-rays can reveal arthritic joints, and ultrasound can show some forms of heart disease (including valve malfunctions). More specialized imaging techniques can uncover vertebral disk problems and tumors of the spinal cord or brain.
But you may find your elder canine eats less and still puts on extra pounds due to a slower rate of metabolism.
Excess weight can aggravate many canine medical conditions, including heart, respiratory, skin and joint problems. Even five extra pounds on a 30 pound dog or 3-4 pounds on a cat can be detrimental.
To help your portly pet reduce, feed it smaller quantities of food or gradually switch to a diet that packs fewer calories per bowl.
Rather than battling the bulge, some older pet’s have just the opposite problem: they struggle to keep weight on as they age. Check your dog’s weight regularly.
When you do, you should be able to feel but not see the ribs. (Be sure to report any weight changes to your veterinarian.
From the standpoint of nutrition, your older animal is very much an individual.
If your white-whiskered friend is healthy, slim, and eating a good-quality commercial diet for adult pet’s, you certainly don’t need to change its menu or add vitamin and mineral supplements.
As an adjunct to good nutrition, consider exercise and encourage moderate activity. If your dog’s health permits, walking is great exercise. Just be sure to start any exercise program gradually.
For water-loving dogs, swimming is good aerobic exercise.
Swimming is especially good for dogs with arthritis because there is no jarring impact.
Even a game of fetch helps maintain blood circulation and muscle tone. (It also brings you and your old friend closer together!)
Sadly, the time may come when you have to make the difficult decision about letting your beloved pet go.
Your final act of kindness may be to ease the pain of your long-time friend.
But until you need to contemplate such a profound decision, give your senior citizen a little extra care, understanding, and attention.
Savor your the golden years. May they be many and memorable.
Age proofing Checklist:
· Train your dog using both voice and hand commands to ensure that your dog will always the – even if it begins to lose its sight or hearing.
· Keep to a daily routine. Older (and younger) dogs and cats find comfort in knowing what to expect.
· Brush your dog’s teeth daily or use the many dental products available for both dogs and cats.
· Don’t move too quickly into your dog’s space or make sudden movements that might startle your pet.
· If necessary, give your dog more frequent bathroom breaks. Check the liter daily for cats and keep it fresh.
· If your pet has arthritis, make sure it has a warm place to sleep, and avoid activities that stress those old joints.)
· If your older dog is in good overall health, get involved (together) in moderate exercise.
· Match your dog’s caloric intake with its level of activity. Frequently bathe and groom your dog. As pet’s age, their skin glands produce less oil, which increases the chances of dry, flaky skin and matted hair.
· Take your pet in for semi annual veterinary checkups, or more often if it has an ongoing medical condition.