Caring for Senior Pets
Our furry companions need extra special care as they age, just like people do. They become more vulnerable to illness and injury and they may develop chronic conditions, like heart conditions or hip dysplasia, which require ongoing medical treatment or a special diet.
Their nutritional needs change and along with their activity levels and they may even suffer from senile dementia or cognitive impairment. It’s up to us to ensure that our golden oldies needs are met so that they can have happy, healthy and comfortable senior years. Pet insurance can help you give your senior pets much needed medical care and treatment for new and chronic conditions.
It’s important to buy pet insurance for your dogs or cats when they are as young as possible, so that you minimise the exclusions due to pre-existing conditions and maximise the illnesses for which your pet will be covered. It’s also important to note that many pet insurers have an age limit – usually 8 years for dogs and 10 or 11 years for cats. However, once you have bought pet insurance, cover is available for the rest of your pet’s life.
What is ‘senior’?
Defining senior in pets is tricky. It depends on the species, with dogs reaching their senior years earlier than cats, and it depends on breed, with larger dog breeds aging more quickly than small breeds. For example, very large or giant breeds like mastiffs and Great Danes are deemed to be senior at around 5 years old, while toy breeds like Yorkies and Chihuahuas can make it to 10 before being considered senior. On average, dogs can be considered senior at 7 years old while cats are considered senior at about 11 – 14 years old.
Changes in your senior pet
As pets age, they can go through various physical and behavioral changes, their immune systems are compromised and they become more prone to certain health problems.
Common health problems you may see in your senior pet include:
- Various forms of cancer
- Heart disease (more common in dogs)
- Kidney disease (more common in cats)
- Liver disease
- Dental disease
- Respiratory disease/decreased lung function
- Arthritis and other joint/bone diseases and disabilities
- Loss of muscle tone and stamina
- Lumps/fatty cysts/tumors
- Hypothyroidism in dogs
- Hyperthyroidism in cats
- Loss of hearing and vision
- Inflammatory bowel disease (more common in cats)
- Pancreatitis (more common in cats)
Gastric problems are not uncommon in senior pets, as their stomachs may become more sensitive and their digestion system may struggle to cope with the nutrient balance in food for adult pets. For example, their food needs to be more easily digestible, and they need fewer calories and higher levels of essential fatty acids.
Older cats and dogs may also experience changes in appetite, which means you may have feed them smaller portions more often; for example, three or four smaller meals each day instead of two. Food for senior cats may contain extra protein and food for senior dogs may contain more fiber for optimal health.
Your pets might show some behavioral changes as they age; these could be normal changes, such as increased irritability when tired or they could indicate underlying health problems, such as aggressiveness when you touch a certain area of their body, which could indicate pain. For example, some old dogs who develop hip dysplasia may start to bear their teeth and growl if you touch their hindquarters. If your pet starts to exhibit strange or different behavior, consult your vet immediately to see if it has a physical cause. Some changes you might see include:
- Reactivity towards noise – could indicate deafness
- Decreased response to behaviour cues – could also indicate deafness
- Confusion/cognitive dysfunction – which can be managed with medication and dietary changes
- Increased irritability
- Increased aggression – could indicate pain or senility
- Increased anxiety, especially separation anxiety
- Repetitive actions, like circling, pacing or pawing
- Aimless restlessness
- Increased barking, whining
- Changes in sleep patterns
Minimise and manage your pet’s risk of illness and dementia
While it might not be possible to prevent certain diseases, disorders and dementia, it is possible to reduce your senior dog’s or cat’s vulnerability to certain conditions and maintain good health. Regular, gentle exercise (especially swimming) can help keep joints and muscles fit and strong. Training, especially trick training, and other mental stimulation, like puzzle feeders and scent work, can help stave off senility and dementia in senior dogs, while senior cats will enjoy puzzle feeders and interactive toys.
It’s very important that you keep a close eye on your senior pet’s health, so that you are immediately aware of any issues and can take your dog or cat to the vet for a check up. As a rule, senior pets should visit the vet at least twice a year anyway, so that your veterinarian can also closely monitor your pet’s health and detect and treat any health problems early on. These checkups may include dental checks, blood work, body condition evaluation and tests for specific, common diseases.
It’s also important that you keep your pet’s living conditions in mind; for example, if you have steps leading to your garden, you might want to consider putting in a gentle ramp to ease the impact on their joints and bones. If you have tiled floors, you might want to consider elevating the bed slightly so that it doesn’t absorb the cold. You could also elevate food and water bowls so your pet doesn’t have to bend as far to eat or drink. Covering tiled or wood floors with stable mats or carpets can help older pets get up and move easily, without slipping. You may also need to clip your older pet’s nails more often so that they can walk more easily without slipping. Older cats will appreciate low, easily accessible litter boxes, as well more litter boxes throughout the house. Good dental care throughout your dog’s and cat’s life will help protect their teeth and gums during their senior years.
How pet insurance helps senior dogs and cats
Comprehensive cover is your best bet if you want to take proper care of your senior pets, as accident only won’t cover chronic conditions or sudden illnesses. The extent of your cover will depend on when you purchased your pet’s policy and what pre-existing conditions and hereditary or congenital disorders may be excluded. Generally, pet insurance covers:
- Illnesses (including chronic conditions)
- Third party liability (dogs only)
- Loss, theft and reward
In addition to vet fees for illnesses and accidents, pet insurance covers complementary therapy, including:
- Herbal medication
All of which can be useful for managing your senior pet’s pain and treating various maladies, ailments and diseases.