Advances in healthcare and pet education means our pets are living longer than ever
before. With this happy news comes an inevitable increase in age-related health
problems and a need to understand our pets’ changing needs. It’s important to
recognise these signs in our pets. Screening to aid prevention, early diagnosis and
treatment of age-related problems is vital in human medicine and its importance is
also recognised in the veterinary world.
When is old?
It’s important to know when we classify pets as ‘elderly’ to alert us when to look for
signs of old age and consider implementing changes.
It may help to understand age in term of human years.
Cats are considered elderly from 11 years of age. Cats aged 11-14 are known as
senior and 15 years upwards geriatric. Their first two years of life equate to 24
human years with every year after equivalent to 4 years. A 16 year old cat would be
equivalent to an 80 year old person.
Dogs are more complex. They are classed as senior after 7 years old but this
depends on breed. Smaller breeds mature slower and live longer than large breeds.
The UK kennel club say the first 2 years of a small dogs life are roughly the same as
12.5 human years, while in medium breeds it’s 10.5 and large breeds it’s 9 years.
Each year thereafter is multiplied by 4.3-13.4 depending on the breed to find their
human equivalent in years. While this doesn’t work in every respect, it does let us
work out a rough estimate of an older pet’s equivalent age.
Why should we treat them differently?
Just as in humans, age brings changes in physiology: reduced ability to smell and
taste, reduced ability to digest certain foods, reduced hearing and immune function.
In addition, there are changes in skin elasticity and stress tolerance, and wear and
tear of organs leading to damage, disease, pain and behaviour changes. Pets often
can’t tell you if something hurts or they feel strange, instead we must watch for signs.
This can be tricky in pets like cats and rabbits that retain an evolutionary tendency to
fake wellness, as they would in the wild, for survival. Rabbits are extremely good at
this, putting up with extreme pain whilst often appearing normal. This trait means
owners and vets have to be eagle-eyed to pick up subtle signs of illness or aging in
What signs can I look for?
● Changes in appetite. Reduced appetite may be a sign of dental disease,
mouth pain or many medical conditions. Increased appetite many be a sign of
conditions such as hyperthyroid disease in cats, or diabetes in dog and cats.
● Changes in thirst. Increased thirst can have many causes such as urinary
tract infections, diabetes or kidney disease. Reduced thirst will lead to
dehydration, but can be a sign of stress in some animals, or of some diseases
of the mouth.
● Stiffness, especially after rest, may be a sign of degenerative joint disease
(DJD, also known as arthritis). Cats often hide these signs. They may only
show behaviour changes such as a reduced grooming, increased sleeping
and reluctance to jump. There are medications, supplements and tips that our
vets can discuss with you that may ease the signs.
● Vision changes can have many causes such as cataracts, hypertension,
retinal disease or brain issues. A veterinary examination will determine
possible causes and options. Impaired hearing is common in dogs and cats.
● Lumps or bumps are more likely in older pets, and it is important to get them
checked out by one of our vets. While most are benign, some may be more
serious, and the earlier they are diagnosed and treated, the better the
● Dental disease is common in aging pets. Regular teeth cleaning is important,
but even when done well, dental disease can occur. Watch for bad breath,
discomfort while eating, drooling, or pawing at the mouth. Check your pet's
teeth regularly and speak to one of our vets about concerns.
● Grooming is required, especially when dogs and cats struggle to do it
themselves, otherwise painful mats may occur. Cats often need their claws
trimming as with age they struggle to retract them.
● Behaviour changes such as confusion, aggression, hiding and increased
vocalisation can be due to senility. Behaviour changes can also be due to
pain. It is normal to a certain extent for our older pets to want to stay in more,
sleep less, be more clingy and more fussy with food, but if taken to extremes,
this may need veterinary attention.
What can I do?
Attending regular pet health checks ensures the time and opportunity to discuss your
pet’s individual nutrition, exercise and general needs as they age. We can discuss
any signs you have noticed, perform an examination and suggest screening tests
looking for common age-related conditions, which if caught early can lead to a better
quality or even quantity of life.
Your individual pet’s needs can be discussed in a senior pet health check but
consider these general areas of aged pet care.
● Exercise. Older cats are less active and sleep more. Some dogs will continue
long walks well into old age, but remember over-doing it can leave them sore
afterwards. Short, frequent walks at their own pace are better for our aged
dogs, especially if you notice stiffness.
● Nutrition. Reduced activity often makes weight gain an issue. Senior pet
foods offer lower fat or protein diets, containing reportedly “anti-aging”
nutrients that are easier to digest. Cats are prone to dehydration so ensure
they have several different water sources. Most prefer ceramic or metal bowls
and some like running water, so consider a water fountain. Wet food
increases water intake. Speak to our team who can give advice based on your
pet’s individual needs.
● Environment. To help with DJD, provide a padded bed. Using stairs may end
in a fall or worsening of signs, so ideally restrict access. Laminate and tile
flooring is slippy for elderly pets so runners/rugs help. Ramps can be used for
avoiding step access to the house. Older cats may prefer to not go out in the
cold so provide access to a litter tray with low edges. Ensure outside access
doesn't require much agility to use, as this may put them off.
Is your pet getting older? Make an appointment for a Senior Pet Check and
let’s work together to keep them happy and healthy in their twilight years.