Is There Life After 7?
Many small changes can be introduced into the life of the older pet as they reach 7 years old (sooner in large breed dogs). These can improve quality of life over the long term and make it easier for you to spot health issues as they arise. Most aging pets find it difficult to cope with change so any alterations should be made gradually one at a time over a period of 1-2 weeks.
In general older pets appreciate keeping to a routine. They may feel the cold more due to changes in circulation and distribution of body fat so should be provided with a draught free place to sleep with plenty of warm comfortable bedding. If there are other younger pets in the household care should be taken that the older animal can rest or eat without being disturbed. It is worthwhile weighing your pet at least every month and keeping a record of these weights so that any gradually changes can be identified.
Once the difference between species has been taken into account many of the changes which take place in the aging cat or dog are reasonably similar. Older pets have a lower energy requirement due to a decreased metabolic rate, lower activity levels and lower lean body mass. They require a diet that takes these factors into consideration to avoid obesity and its associated problems. However older animals often need a more palatable food which tends to be energy rich. An energy rich food fed in small amounts is a more acceptable diet than a large amount of a lower energy food which is likely to be less palatable and therefore not eaten.
The availability of nutrients from the diet should also be considered in the healthy aging pet. Particular nutrients may be more difficult to obtain from some sources than others. For example proteins are made up of chains of amino acids which are important in the diets of both dogs and cats. The shorter the chain the easier it is for the animal to obtain the building blocks for growth and repair, so the quality of the protein and not the content is important in the diet of a healthy old cat or dog. In pets with impaired kidney function high levels of protein may put additional stress on the kidneys as this is the organ which excretes the products of protein metabolism. In cases of renal (kidney) function decline your vet may recommend a diet which has carefully selected types and levels of protein.
What should a pet over 7 be fed?
There is a wide range of commercially prepared pet foods designed particularly for the senior pet. Pet food manufacturers spend large amounts of money carefully balancing essential nutrients so that the food gives optimum benefit to the pet it is designed for. Any complete food which is designed for your pets age will be suitable providing your pet does not have an underlying medical condition which requires a specific diet.
It is important to ensure the food is a ‘complete’ food as this means it is a balanced diet when fed on its own and nothing further needs to be added to it. The manufacturer’s best before date is also important as certain nutrients such as vitamins may degrade over time. Many owners add meat such as chicken or ham to their pets food. There should be no need to supplement your pets diet if fed on a complete pet food adding extras will alter the careful balance of nutrients that the scientists have managed to achieve. A food designed for older pets is often more palatable and can be fed in smaller amounts depending upon the food. It can also be useful to have highly valued foods such as chicken or ham to use when you need to encourage your pet to eat (e.g. when ill), use as a training aid or just to give as a special occasional treat.
If you decide to change your pets diet it is best done gradually over a period of up to two weeks as older pets often cannot cope with sudden changes. It is important to ensure your pet is well in themselves before beginning a diet change so that any adverse effects of the diet can be seen fully.
Once you are happy with the diet you have chosen and have weighed out their daily allowance using the feeding guide on the packet and your pets weight you need to decide how often and how they are to be fed. Ideally small portions often could be offered but this is not always practical in real life. The idea behind this is to even out the work carried out by organs such as the liver and kidney and give the digestive system a better chance to do its job. One or two larger meals makes the body work hard for a period then idle whilst there is nothing to be broken down. Cats are naturally designed to eat 10 or more small meals a day whereas in the wild dogs will eat as much as they can after a kill and may go several days before the next meal.
Making your pet work for their food will help lengthen mealtimes and keep their mind active if they have puzzles to solve. It also a form of gentle exercise. There is a wide range of food dispensing toys available for both dogs and cats, most pets figure the toy out quite quickly but some may need some help.
It is important that your pet has access to drinking water at all times. The amount which is drunk will vary slightly between individuals depending upon the environmental temperature, what type of diet they are fed and how much exercise they are taking. On average a normal healthy cat or dog should drink approximately 50ml of water per Kilogram bodyweight in a 24 hour period. Any amount over 100ml/kg/24 hours indicates a problem and should be investigated immediately by your veterinary surgeon.
Pets fed on tinned or wet food make drink less than those fed on a dry diet as the water content of tinned pet foods can be as much as 70% and so they do not need as much water from other sources. In warm weather or after exercise water intake may increase slightly but should never exceed 100ml/kg/24 hours in the healthy pet.
As your pet gets older it is a good idea to measure their water intake over 24 hours so that you know what a normal amount is for them. To do this measure an amount of water into their drinking bowl and make sure this is their only water source for 24 hours then measure what remains. Repeat over 3 days to obtain an average if possible. If water intake is measured every 3-6 months then any gradual increase due to disease can be identified much earlier and treatment given.
Older pets may find it more difficult to groom themselves if muscles and joints become stiff and sore. Grooming them helps the condition of the skin and coat and allows the pet to be closely inspected and problems detected early. It gives an opportunity for one to one attention with each pet which is just as important as the act of grooming itself as it is an important social behaviour in the dog (more so than in the cat) and so it helps to establish the owner-pet bond.
When grooming your pet it is a good idea to start by examining them from nose to tail. Check for any discharges, sore red areas, hair loss and parasites such as fleas. The coat can then be groomed using a brush or comb suitable for that coat type. If your pet is not used to being groomed they should be introduced gradually to the brush over a period of several weeks to months. Nails should also be checked and clipped if too long. Some cats loose the ability to fully retract their claws as they get older this may cause them to catch on soft furnishings. Care should be taken not to clip the nails too short as a blood vessel and associated nerve supply run a short way down the centre of each nail. Cutting this will cause bleeding and may be painful.
There is no set amount of exercise your pet should receive as they reach 7 or 8. Exercise should always be tailored to the individual depending upon weight, fitness and the health of their joints, bones, muscles, heart and lungs. As a general rule frequent shorter periods of exercise are more ideal than one long outing. Cats will generally regulate the amount of exercise they do and are more likely to rest themselves than overdo it when compared to dogs, although some cats may need to be encouraged to exercise through play. This has the added bonus of keeping their mind alert and active as well.
When exercising your dog it is important to observe them in the hour or so after. If they seem stiff or uncomfortable after resting following exercise it would be worth reducing the length of time spent on each walk and increasing the number of walks if possible. For example a dog who usually has two half hour walks could be changed to three 20 minute walks instead. Each dog has different limits and are able to cope with different intensities and amounts of exercise. Just be prepared to tailor your routine to these changes as your dog gets older.
There are certain changes which should be investigated. If you find your pet tires more easily or coughs when out then it is advisable to have them examined by a vet. If your pet becomes lame in one or more legs then exercise should be stopped immediately and they should be completely rested. If the amount of limping is slight then rest your pet for 1 week and restrict them from climbing stairs or jumping onto furniture. If they do not improve or deteriorate during this time then consult your vet. After a prolonged period of rest any exercise should be introduced gradually. If they are not able to bear weight then they should be examined by a vet. Until then keep them rested.
There are other forms of exercise available apart from walking. Hydrotherapy or swimming is becoming more popular amongst pet owners as it doesn’t put much pressure on the joints. Many dogs in particular enjoy swimming and hydrotherapy centres give them a safe place to do this. The water is usually heated and filtered and the dog will often wear a harness for safety. There is even the option of attaching buoyancy aids if needed. Many dogs who dislike baths or avoid water when out on walks actively enjoy swimming sessions much to the surprise of their owners so it is worth trying one session. Any good centre will not make your dog swim if they are truly afraid.
Urination and Defecation
As your pet gets older their toileting habits may change as certain muscles can become weaker requiring them to pass urine and faeces more frequently than before. However the overall amount passed should remain the same.
Some pets may develop urinary or faecal incontinence. Incontinence can be described as the involuntary passage of urine or faeces and should not be confused with inappropriate toileting or house soiling. Urinary incontinence can be caused by infection, loss of function of the urinary sphincter, neurological disease, tumours or can be associated with prostatic disease. Many geriatric pets have some ability to control urination but may leak urine during periods of rest or sleep. It is important to keep their rear end clean and dry to prevent urine scalding which can make the skin sore, irritated and open to infection. Barrier creams or Vaseline can be used to protect the skin and it can often help if the coat is clipped short around the hind legs. Bedding should be chosen with cleanliness in mind and ideally should be made from materials which draw moisture away from the animal. Alternatively it could be covered with incontinence pads similar to those used in humans or when toilet training puppies.
Incontinence should not be confused with house soiling or inappropriate urination. If accidents are occurring within a period of time which your pet can normally hold themselves medical reasons should be ruled out first before looking at behavioural influences such as anxiety or over attachment. A loss of toilet training can also be a sign of cognitive dysfunction (dementia). Supplements and medications are available which can help with this.
Coping With Sensory Loss
Many animals may develop hearing difficulties where they loose the ability to detect low frequency sounds. Changing the pitch of your voice, using a handclap or whistle may help if they find it difficult to hear your normal voice. Disobedience may be due to hearing problems or could also be a sign of cognitive dysfunction (dementia) if unsure contact your vet for advice. Many pets can be taught hand signals if their hearing is significantly impaired and many dogs may already know several signals if you use hand gestures either intentionally or subconsciously when giving verbal commands.
Many pets cope surprisingly well with a loss of vision. This can fist be recognised if they bump into things or are reluctant to walk down steps or stairs. If the furniture is kept in the same place most cats and dogs will move around confidently in their own homes. Cats should be kept indoors and dogs on leads when walking to reduce the risk of road traffic accidents. Ordinarily dogs and cats place less importance on sight than people do and receive a greater percentage of information about their surroundings by smell, sound and touch which is why they are able to cope so well if their vision is impaired.