Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

Dec 26, 2023 | General Health

How to Improve Your Senior Pet’s Quality of Life

Dr. Jerica Lugo, VMD, of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, understands first-hand the importance of maintaining – and enhancing – a senior pet’s quality of life.

Dr. Lugo lives with cats Panda and Storm, both 14, and an 11-year-old Boston Terrier mix named Annabelle, all of whom have kept her company since before she started vet school.

“They’ve been through a lot with me,” she says. “And that bond only grows over time.”

Watching our furry friends get older can be difficult for pet parents. Just like their owners – as our pets age, their needs evolve. Senior animals require extra care and attention to maintain their health and happiness.

“We don’t want to think of our babies being old,” Dr. Lugo says. “We want to think of them as puppies and kittens forever. But acknowledging that they do age – just like us – means we can make changes and accommodations for them. Whether you’ve been with them for the entirety of their lives or not, that sweet, older pet needs even more TLC than they did when they were young.”

Here are 7 veterinarian-endorsed suggestions to not only sustain but also improve your senior pet’s quality of life.

    1. Schedule Regular Vet Visits

The importance of preventive care cannot be overstated. Older pets are more susceptible to various health issues. According to Dr. Lugo, several disease processes, like feline thyroid and kidney diseases, are far more common in aged patients.

“Heart disease is more common in aged patients,” she continues. “Arthritis is a pretty obvious one. And because of that, bringing them to the vet every six months instead of every year means we may catch things and be able to intervene a lot sooner.”

Because the changes senior pets may go through are often subtle, Dr. Lugo says pet owners must keep a keen eye out for clues that warrant a veterinary visit.

“As pet owners, we’re with our dogs and cats every single day, so we don’t necessarily notice the changes that are happening over time,” she says. “We don’t see they might be slowing down. We don’t necessarily notice changes in body weight and muscle tone as quickly because we’re always at their side.”

Dr. Lugo recalls when her cat Storm began experiencing slight weight loss – common for cats of advanced years, and often dismissed as such, Dr. Lugo says. But be vigilant. It turned out Storm’s loss of pounds was resulting from a thyroid disorder.

“Once I started her on the correct medication, she gained her weight back and was a lot happier,” Dr. Lugo notes.

These little changes make it more important than ever to bring your vet in for routine checkups, weight checks, quality-of-life discussions, arthritis exams, and so much more.

    1. Treat Pain

Frequently, senior pets begin to slow down as their muscle tone decreases. And just as frequently, pain results.

“We tend to think ‘slowing down’ is just a normal age-related process,” Dr. Lugo says. “But in some pets, it can mean there is some underlying arthritis or disease process that is going on that is causing these changes.”

Fortunately, pain management solutions guided by a veterinary professional are available to provide relief, if and when they are needed.

“There’s a lot more that can be done, now, for our pets with arthritis,” Dr. Lugo says.

Several new products are being introduced into the market for pain management, she notes, while many veterinary hospitals are now incorporating other forms of relief, such as acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and cold laser therapy.

“We’re starting to see a lot of those things used in veterinary medicine across the board, and they do seem to help our pets.”

    1. Watch What They Eat

Older pets have different nutritional needs, and specialized senior diets must cater to their changing metabolism and dietary requirements.

“Sometimes we see weight gain as much as loss because our senior animals are not as active as they were when they were younger,” Dr. Lugo explains.

“Nutrition is so important for our pets. We want to make sure they’re not being fed more calories than necessary, which can cause more weight gain and more stress on their joints.”

Protein intake may need to be monitored and routinely adjusted to strike a balance that limits muscle loss while warding off unpleasantness like kidney disease. Occasionally, other adjustments may need to be made based on other ailments.

As older patients enter their teenage years, for instance, they may experience some degree of cognitive dysfunction, Dr. Lugo says.

“Their brains are no longer working the same way as they did when they were young,” she explains. “Pet owners may notice this increasingly at night. Dogs may be more whiney, more alert, or may bark at nothing at all.”

Changes in nutrition, including diets specifically designed to support senior patients, can help with improved brain function.

“We can also introduce certain supplements into their diets to help support the joints and the mind,” Dr. Lugo says.

    1. Encourage Mental (and Physical) Engagement

As senior pets age, they are naturally less active. Still, Dr. Lugo stresses, it is important to keep their minds and bodies engaged.

“My 11-year-old dog does not want to go on a 5-mile walk anymore – even when her pain is managed.” Dr. Lugo says. “She just gets tired more easily. So, to keep her stimulated and active, I’ll play games with her.”

Many pet owners mistakenly believe that training ends at puppyhood, but it can continue well into a dog’s senior years, Dr. Lugo adds.

“Maybe you teach them something new they’ve never done before. Or you reinforce some of the basics for them. This kind of interactive training and play can be really helpful for our senior pets. Puzzles and games are still fun for older dogs. Finding some delicious snacks and hiding them in a toy or around the house helps to keep them more actively engaged in their environment, so they’re not just sleeping in the house all day.”

And while physical activity may be lighter as our pets age, it should always be present.

Inactivity, Dr. Lugo says, is the absolute worst thing for arthritis. Keeping dogs and cats active at some level keeps their muscles strong and ensures their joints are lubricated. Movement helps prevent pain. Pets that lay around all day tend to be stiffer and more uncomfortable when they finally do rise to their feet.

“Pet owners often worry: are they going to overdo it? But I find pets who have been active throughout their lives – and particularly still in their senior years – tend to not gain so much weight, they tend to be more mentally stimulated, and they tend to be healthier,” Dr. Lugo says. “Those are the dogs and cats that I look at and think, ‘I don’t believe this animal is 15!’”

    1. Ensure Good Hair Days

Sometimes, as our pets age, self-hygiene begins to take a backseat.

Cats – particularly those with a few extra pounds – may not be able to reach certain areas to clean properly. Dogs experiencing arthritis may not take kindly to brush-outs.

“It’s important that we help them stay clean,” Dr. Lugo says. “Maybe that means keeping their fur trimmed down more often to keep it out of the way of sensitive areas or wiping or cleaning them after they go outside or to the litter box.”

Pet owners may need to switch up their style of grooming. Younger dogs may have been fine with a full wash, cut, and blow dry without taking a break. However, older pets may have difficulty standing for two hours.

“Work with your groomer and let them know your pet may need breaks. Sometimes when animals are difficult at the groomer’s, we think they’re just old and cranky. But it may just be that they need more breaks or a dose of pain medication before they go to the spa so they’re more comfortable.”

    1. Protect Their Smile

According to Dr. Lugo, dental care is often overlooked in senior pets.

Dogs might not chew bones as often as they age – a process that helps to clean a dog’s chompers. Or perhaps they no longer love the flavor of their dental chews. Whatever the case may be, keeping your dog’s smile intact is more important than ever. And, again, the need may not always be obvious.

“Cats and dogs are very good at not showing us that they’re in pain. Maybe a dog is only chewing on one side of its mouth, or a cat is spitting out dry food, or maybe they only want wet food now. We don’t necessarily associate these behaviors with teeth, we just think they’re being picky eaters.”

But dental visits come with their own set of concerns for pet owners, like anesthesia. While there are some alternatives to anesthetic dental procedures, Dr. Lugo says veterinary hospitals are well-equipped to monitor your pet while they’re receiving dental care and make any changes to protocol based on their age or other conditions.

“Many pet owners have told me that they’ve been astounded at the change in their pets after diseased or abscessed teeth were removed. And I’ve found when we do take care of our pets’ teeth, they feel a million times better.”

  1. Remember – Home is Where the Help Is

Making sure your home is easily accessible and senior-pet friendly can make their golden years shine a bit brighter.

“Older dogs, specifically, may have trouble with slippery surfaces and stairs,” Dr. Lugo says. Runners for carpets or area rugs can help them get on and off their beds when they’re feeling a bit stiff while giving them better traction to walk.

“Yoga mats are a great way to help pets get a little more traction,” Dr. Lugo says. “They’re inexpensive, easy to clean, and can be rolled up and put away if you’re having guests over.”

Placing portable stairs next to favorite furnishings can be helpful for our dogs, and moving beds to a home’s first floor can be ideal for animals who are experiencing severe mobility issues. Dr. Lugo also recommends senior pet owners to gate off stairs when they’re not home, preventing falls.

Older cats, too, may not be able to jump as far or climb as high as they once did. Pet owners who feed their cats on top of a counter or a table to keep the food away from other animals in the house may want to consider moving the dish down a level or two. “We don’t want them to miss out on a meal because they can’t jump so high, anymore.”

Shorter, wider cat trees are also great for cats with climbing deficiencies, allowing them to enjoy a slightly elevated space.

“It’s important for us to recognize how our pets change as they get older. It helps us to give them what they need while staying bonded to them,” Dr. Lugo says. “It’s all about making things a little more accessible for them where we can.”