We all want our animal companions to live long and happy lives, so how can we ensure they stay in optimum health during their advancing years? Victoria Spicer seeks advice from the experts.
As with humans, animals’ bodies can slow down as they get older, but veterinary and nutritional improvements mean pets can now live longer, healthier lives than ever before.
‘Many owners view ageing as a normal process and feel nothing can be done to help relieve signs of old age,’ says Gemma Lovegrove, veterinary manager for Cats Protection in UK. ‘Others worry about mentioning problems they’ve noticed in their older cat as they fear the vet will say it’s serious. However, very often, support can be given to improve your pet’s quality of life.’
Our animal companions age at different rates. Cats and smaller dogs may live well into their late teens, while some larger dog breeds may only live until the age of eight or nine. Once your pet passes ‘middle age’, it’s worth considering ways to preserve their quality of life. For example, an animal’s immune system will function less well with age, so it’s vital they receive regular vet check-ups in addition to routine worming, vaccinations and flea treatments.
Regular clinic examinations will also increase the chances of any health problems being discovered early. And, while older pets are often more susceptible to conditions such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, diabetes, cataracts and cancers, it’s worth remembering that many of these are treatable.
Osteoarthritis is also very common in older animals, although there are ways to alleviate this potentially disabling condition. ‘From physio and hydrotherapy to effective modern drugs with minimal or no side effects, there are lots of things that can be done,’ says vet Caroline Reay.
Significant weight loss in older age can be the first sign of ill health. If you find your pet is refusing to eat, you should seek your vet’s advice. ‘An older cat’s sense of smell can diminish with age, which may lead to a loss in appetite,’ says Gemma. To encourage your pet to eat, try giving meals on a little-and-often basis, adding a little water, or warming the food to increase the smell.
Conversely, pets can be prone to weight gain as they get older, despite not eating extra. ‘It’s now well-known that being overweight is linked with problems such as arthritis, as well as an increased incidence of cancer, pancreatitis and diabetes,’ says Caroline.
When it comes to nutrients, many pet food companies make special feeds that target older cats and dogs, providing concentrated sources of protein, reduced fat, easily digestible carbohydrates, and key vitamins and minerals. Dental issues are also prevalent in the older pet. Look out for any redness of the gums, discomfort or smelly breath, as this may be an indication of disease. Regular brushing will help, as will yearly dental checks by your vet.
Equally important to look out for are behavioural changes in your cat or dog, which could be related to a decrease in vision and hearing, or to cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This can cause confusion, disturbed sleep patterns, a decreased attention span and house-training difficulties in your pet. ‘Older dogs can change in temperament, with some becoming friendlier and more attached to their owners, and others getting grumpier,’ says dog trainer Bobs Broadbent. ‘Some may become anxious because they cannot see or hear as well as they used to. A sudden personality change can be a sign of illness, but in old age this could equally be a gradual process, so take time to observe your pet’s behaviour.’
The message is clear: old age need not mean a cheerless life for your pet, and there’s a lot you can do to maximise its wellbeing. Whether it’s a much-loved cat or dog, extra vigilance and regular check-ups – plus a focus on the quality of the time they have as well as the quantity – is sure to pay dividends for you both.
To contribute to their general wellbeing, dogs, cats and short- haired rabbits should be groomed weekly, while long-haired rabbits will need daily attention. ‘Older cats experiencing stiffness may find it more difficult to groom themselves,’ comments Gemma Lovegrove from Cats Protection, UK. ‘Gentle use of a soft brush can help.’ Vicky Lees, who owns The Dog Spa in the UK, adds: Circular massaging movements with a soft brush can increase circulation and blood flow to the skin and hair follicles, stimulating the lymphatic nodes to boost the immune system.’
Keep them busy
Older dogs should stay active to avoid age-related issues such as obesity and arthritis, but don’t let your pet overdo it. ‘As dogs get older they tend to slow down, but taking less exercise can be the start to putting on weight,’ warns dog trainer Bobs Broadbent. Your dog must be allowed to move at its own pace. Aim for regular, shorter walks and don’t suddenly increase the amount of exercise they get as this may leave them stiff and sore the next day. Also, bear in mind that older dogs may be able to see and hear less well, so they can become disoriented or lost when out for walks. Your vet can help you devise a suitable exercise routine for your own animal.
Older pets may become disorientated by deviations from their routine or loud noises, particularly as their senses begin to fail. Having said that, certain types of change can enhance their quality of life. They may sleep more than before, so will appreciate access to a softer bed in a warm and draught-free place. Cats may be unable or unwilling to jump up to higher surfaces, so you may need to provide ‘steps’ up to their favourite spots. Older dogs sometimes struggle with journeys – a specially designed ramp will help them access the car.
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