Is your pet slowing down? Are you seeing some gray around the muzzle? If so, your pet is probably becoming a senior pet. How old is a senior pet, though? When do they reach “senior” status, and what does that mean for you as a pet parent?
Let’s explore the aging process in pets and what you can do to help your pet age gracefully.
How Do Pets Age?
As pets get older, their cells become old and damaged, leading to a gradual and progressive breakdown of their organs.
Although organ dysfunction is unavoidable in senior pets, this dysfunction doesn’t occur all at once. For example, a senior pet may start having kidney problems, followed by digestive issues.
In addition, not all pets age at the same rate. Large breed dogs tend to age faster than small breed dogs and cats. Why this happens is not yet known; continued research into aging in pets might be able to answer that question in the future.
You’ve probably heard that 1 human year equals 7 dog years. Not true! This myth originated in the 1950s and has persisted despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it. Although it is true that dogs and cats age more rapidly than humans, there’s no perfect ratio to equate human years to pet years. The AKC and American Veterinary Medical Association websites have charts that approximate dog and cat years to human years.
When Is a Pet “Senior?”
So, now that we know about aging in pets, what exactly is a senior pet’s age? In general, dogs and cats become senior pets at about age 7. However, this number can vary a bit. Because large breed dogs age faster than small dogs and cats, they reach senior status at 5 to 6 years of age.
We all know pets that live well beyond what is considered senior, so pets often have a lot of life left in them once they hit senior status.
Aging in pets is a fascinating topic. To learn more about how dogs age, a major study, called the Dog Aging Project, is studying aging in dogs to learn more about how factors like genes and the environment affect the aging process. Although dogs age faster than humans, they develop many of the same age-related diseases that people do. Therefore, this project will also shed light on human aging.
Signs of Aging in Pets
When pets reach senior age, they will need more veterinary care and attention to remain as healthy as possible in their older years. Even though old age is not a disease unto itself, older pets can develop age-related health issues that, if not well managed, can decrease a pet’s quality of life.
Senior pets undergo physical and behavioral changes that are important clues of old age. Physical changes include weight gain and graying hair. Behavioral changes in senior pets, including those listed below, are numerous:
- Slower mobility
- Increased anxiety
- Increased vocalizing
- Altered sleep patterns
- Getting stuck in corners
- Withdrawal from family members
Behavioral changes in senior pets often signal some type of underlying medical condition and can turn into challenging behavioral problems. For example, incontinence could indicate weakened bladder muscles. Altered sleep patterns and getting stuck in corners typically indicate cognitive dysfunction, which is the pet equivalent of human Alzheimer’s disease.
As your pet gets older, keep a close eye on any changes in appearance or behavior and report the changes to your veterinarian. These signs of aging let you know that it’s time to develop a new pet care plan with your veterinarian.
Caring for Your Senior Pet
As mentioned above, caring for a senior pet requires extra veterinary care and attention. Generally, managing a senior pet’s health involves twice-yearly checkups, parasite control, dietary changes and lifestyle adjustments. Let’s go through each of these in a little bit more detail:
- Twice-yearly checkups: Senior pet checkups are more in-depth than those for younger pets. In addition to a regular physical exam, your veterinarian may take a closer look at your pet’s dental health and check for age-related health issues (e.g., diabetes, chronic kidney disease).
- Parasite control: Senior pets can have weakened immune systems, making them susceptible to parasites. Your veterinarian will recommend a parasite control program to keep your senior pet parasite-free.
- Dietary changes: A senior pet’s dietary needs are different than those of younger pets. For example, a senior cat with chronic kidney disease will need a special kidney diet. A senior dog with advanced dental disease will need a soft-food diet that’s easier to chew. Regular veterinary checkups will allow your veterinarian to detect changes in your senior pet’s health early and recommend dietary changes that may help improve your pet’s health.
- Lifestyle adjustments: There are many options for lifestyle adjustments for senior pets. For a senior pet with arthritis, adjustments include an orthopedic bed and ramps to climb into the car. For a senior pet with vision loss, keeping the furniture in the same place will minimize the risk of injury caused by bumping into sharp furniture corners. Your veterinarian can help you decide which adjustments will work best for your pet.
This may sound like a lot of work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s okay. Your veterinarian can help you come up with a practical care plan that will keep your senior pet as healthy as possible.
Bringing it Together
As much as we’d like our pets to stay forever young, they will age and their bodies will start to slow down. Of course, that doesn’t mean that senior pets can’t still live full and happy lives. Be proactive about monitoring your pet as they age and work with your veterinarian to keep your pet healthy and happy in their senior years.
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JoAnna Pendergrass is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a two-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America.