When a cat or dog reaches 6 years of age, we can consider them SENIOR pets. As our pets age, their bodies begin to slow down and their vital organ functions start to decline. They become less active, sleep more, and are more prone to disease. Not all animals go on to develop all the age-associated changes, nor will these changes occur in a fixed pattern. As a result, we can't predict when certain changes will take place or if they ever will. We can, however, help to prevent and minimise these changes by ensuring that our pets are fed well, housed comfortably and have regular check-ups at the vet.
a) How does a pet's nutritional needs change as it gets older? When do you start giving your pet "senior" foods, and why is this necessary?
In general, our older pets are less active so they do not need as many calories as when they were younger. It is a good idea to feed them a ‘senior’ diet because these diets have been specially formulated to meet their needs at this stage of life. Older pets also do not see, smell and taste their food as well. It may help to warm up their food (for dogs and cats) to enhance its flavour, or even to hand-feed them. As a pet ages, its body will undergo some changes as wear and tear kicks in. Its kidney and liver functions may slow down; its ability to digest rich foods (with high protein and carbohydrates) may be compromised, hence causing diarrhea (and/or vomiting). Its joint cartilages may also undergo degenerative changes leading to arthritis. Some of them even develop 'weaker' hearts (with heart murmurs resulting from degenerative changes in the heart muscles and valves).
Like us humans, ageing pets do require special nutritional needs. Their diet should be higher in fibre, lower in protein, carbohydrate and salt. Some commercial diets even have additional vitamins and minerals added in to protect senior pets' joints, digestive system and skin integument.
b) What level of exercise do older animals need? Will they still need 3 walks a day and a round of frisbee at the park?
Of course they will still enjoy a fun time at the park! Senior dogs (and cats, if you do bring yours out for walks!) do require regular exercise to keep them in good shape. However, the pace and the nature of activity should be tailored to suit the health condition of your pet. Remember that older pets may develop heart problems and degenerative joint diseases.
Never ever force your senior pet to run at high speeds or long distances! Slow walks at a comfortable pace and distance (i.e. 15-20mins slow walk, 2 times a day is comfortable). If you notice that your older pets are panting in a laboured manner, or turning blue at its tongue/gums, STOP all exercise and calm it down immediately. Offer small amounts of water slowly.
c) Do older animals need more visits to the vet? Should we take older pets for a biannual check-up rather than the usual once-yearly check?
If your senior pet is healthy and active, then an annual visit to the vet is good enough. This annual check up may include the annual vaccinations. If required, your vet can also perform a blood screening panel to check your pet's kidney and liver functions. These optional blood tests can be done yearly as a screening procedure. However, if there are abnormalities detected via these blood tests, your vet may schedule a review every 3-6 months with repeated blood tests to monitor the related health conditions closely. Older pets are also more prone to developing lumps and bumps on their skin. These growths may be benign (harmless) or malignant (i.e. nasty and will spread to other parts of the body). Your vet may then advise that a sample be taken or that the lump be completely removed. Sometimes, an x-ray of your pet's joints may be needed if it has problems walking and climbing the stairs. Your pet may also require dental scaling and polishing if there is a lot of tartar on its teeth or if it has tooth decay.
In general, be watchful for any changes in your pet's appetite, drinking habits and behaviour. Some of the things to look out for include increased thirst/urination, loss of weight, vomiting/diarrhea, poor appetite and frequent coughing. If anything concerns you, take your pet to the vet. Do not wait until it is too late! It also pays to do your homework. Different species of animals have different needs. The sort of diseases that they are prone to developing will also vary. Find out what your pet's specific needs are and how you can prepare for its old age.
d) Do older animals need additional vitamins or supplements?
If you are already giving your senior pet a commercial senior formula, there should not be a need to add extra supplements. Excessive vitamins and other forms of supplements given in high doses may lead to some fatal health conditions like kidney stones. However, if your pet has joint or skin problems that require additional supplements, consult your vet for the necessary and correct type of vitamins and supplements.
e) Do older animals still need to go for their annual vaccinations, or will they have enough immunity already?
If your pet is still actively going out for daily walks, mixing with other dogs or boarding at pet hotels, it is important to continue the annual vaccinations. If your pet stays indoors most of the time and has no contact with any other animals, you could discuss with your vet and possibly customise a vaccination programme specific to your pet's needs. The vet may suggest a vaccination once every 2-3 years.
f) What kind of pet care supplies and environment do owners need to provide for older pets (e.g. comfy, soft bed; plenty of chance to rest in peace)
Ensuring your pet's comfort means making sure that your pet has a reasonably comfortable surface to lie on, and that its immediate environment or sleeping area is kept clean and hygienic. Some older animals develop severe mobility problems. They spend a lot of time lying down in one spot and may even start to urinate and defecate in their beds. These animals will need extra cushioning to ensure that they don't develop bedsores, and will need their beds to be regularly cleaned and kept dry. Make sure the floor surface is not too slippery (i.e. marble floor) as older pets may have problems walking on slippery surfaces if they have degenerative joint diseases. Stairs and slopes should be avoided to prevent unnecessary accidents. Ageing animals are also less able to cope with stressful events such as temperature changes so make sure that your dog or cat is warm at night, or that your hamster or bird is housed where it is neither too draughty nor too hot.