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How to Care for a Senior Pet

advice from 24 hour vet about pet health

Written by Dr. Leslie Brooks, DVM

These days, our pets are living longer, healthier, happier lives than in the past. With the advancement of pet healthcare and our pets living with us as family members, many of our pets can live into ripe old age. Helpful senior pet care tips below.

While this is wonderful for the human-animal bond, it also means we need to be aware of normal aging changes and actions we can take as pet parents to make life a little more comfortable for our senior pets.

  • Veterinary Care Ideas for Senior Pets
  • Common Health Conditions for Senior Pets
  • Ideas to Help Senior Dogs
  • Tips to Help Senior Cats
  • When to Start the “Quality of Life” Discussion

Learn more about Dr. Brooks at Meet Our Vets

When is a Dog or Cat Considered Senior?

cat held by owner

When a pet is considered senior really depends on the species and the breed. For instance, large and giant breeds of dogs tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller breeds of dogs. And cats can, on average, live longer than most dogs.

While every individual pet will age uniquely, the following are guidelines to help you determine when your pet may be considered a senior.

  • Cats are considered senior when they are about 10 years of age.
  • Dogs weighing more than 50-60 pounds are considered senior when they are about 6 years of age.
  • Dogs weighing less than 50 pounds are considered senior when they are about 8 years of age.

Have a question about your senior pet? Veterinarians are standing by.

Veterinary Care for Your Senior Pet

As your pet gets older, their healthcare requirements will need to adapt to their new needs. Older pets may need to visit the vet more often than younger pets. This is because chronic health conditions will need to be monitored closely. And, it is a good idea to have their heart and lungs examined about every six months to make sure everything still checks out okay.

Aging pets may not need as many vaccines as younger ones. It is always a good idea to talk with your vet about what vaccines your dog still needs in their golden years verses which ones you can hold off on.

Also, senior pets are prone to developing health conditions, such as arthritis, that need to be managed and monitored to make sure they are receiving the proper pain control accommodations to keep them comfortable.

Health Conditions Associated with Senior Cats and Dogs

While age is not a disease, there are certain health conditions that affect our senior pets more often than younger ones. Many of these are chronic conditions that should not be ignored just because a pet is older.

There are many safe medications and alternative therapies available these days for a variety of conditions that afflict senior pets. This is wonderful news, because it means we can also keep our pets comfortable and living a good quality of life well into their older years.

Here are a few of the health conditions that are common in old age:

Arthritis in Senior Pets

Just like people, cats and dogs develop arthritis as they get older. Animals are better at hiding their pain, though, so it can sometimes be hard to recognize.

Watch out for the following signs:

  • difficulty standing up or sitting down,
  • being slow to rise in the morning,
  • hesitation going up or down stairs,
  • having decreased energy,
  • or all of a sudden being sensitive or even bite-y or growling when being touched

If your pet is showing signs of arthritis, talk with your veterinarian. There are many safe pain medications and joint supplements available these days to help with this condition. There are also vet clinics that offer alternative therapies, such as massage, laser therapy, and other types of non-medicinal pain relief options for arthritis.

Cancer in Senior Pets

While cancer can affect a pet of truly any age, it is more common in our older pets. There are different types of cancers that dogs and cats can get.

The signs of cancer will depend on the type they get, but here are some things to watch out for:

  • weight loss,
  • decreased appetite, or even a drastic increase in appetite,
  • nausea and vomiting,
  • chronic diarrhea,
  • lethargy,
  • coughing,
  • fast growing tumors on the skin

Again, depending on the type of cancer, your pet may or may not show one of the signs above. If you are concerned cancer could be a possibility, schedule an appointment with your vet so they can examine your pet and discuss diagnostic tests with you.

Senior Pets with Lumps and Bumps

It is very common for older pets to have lumps and bumps on their skin anywhere on their body. This is more common in dogs than cats.

The majority of these lumps and bumps are actually benign in nature, meaning they are not cancerous. Or, at least not a bad type of cancer.

However, it is good to get any new lump or bump checked out by your veterinarian. Also, if they have had a lump for a while and suddenly it doubles in size, you should have it checked out again.

Health Conditions Associated with Senior Cats and Dogs

It is very common for older pets to have lumps and bumps on their skin anywhere on their body. This is more common in dogs than cats.

The majority of these lumps and bumps are actually benign in nature, meaning they are not cancerous. Or, at least not a bad type of cancer.

However, it is good to get any new lump or bump checked out by your veterinarian. Also, if they have had a lump for a while and suddenly it doubles in size, you should have it checked out again.

Senior Pets with Dental Disease

cat yawning

As our pets get older, tartar and plaque tend to build up on their teeth. If they have had dentals throughout their life, this may be less severe. If they never had a dental or are a small breed dog, it is very possible they will have very stinky breath the older they get.

And when our pets are seniors, we are much more hesitant to risk putting them under anesthesia for a dental cleaning.

If your older pet has dental disease that is painful or causes tooth root abscess, there is a chance they may need to get a dental done to get have the problem teeth removed. You will be surprised at how much younger they actually act once their infected teeth are taken out! And they can eat surprisingly well without teeth.

Signs of dental disease include:

  • a foul odor coming from their breath,
  • difficulty eating or dropping food while eating,
  • pawing at their mouth,
  • rubbing their mouth/face on the ground,
  • quivering of their teeth or mouth,
  • bleeding from the mouth,
  • chronic sneezing or nasal discharge,
  • swelling on the face underneath the eye (tooth root abscess)

Heart Disease in Senior Pets

Heart murmurs and arrhythmias are also more common in senior pets. They can even develop a heart murmur in between one veterinary exam and the next without showing any symptoms, which is why having them examined twice a year once they become seniors is important.

There is no cure for heart disease, but there are medications that can help slow down its progression.

  • Signs of heart disease include:
  • coughing,
  • decreased energy,
  • tiring easily,
  • fainting/falling over,
  • having a swollen belly or swollen limbs

Kidney & Liver Disease in Senior Pets

Senior pets can also develop kidney and liver disease. Older cats are especially prone to developing kidney disease. The good news is that cats with kidney disease tend to live years with the disease as long as it is managed appropriately with the right food and medications.

Signs of kidney disease include:

  • increased thirst,
  • increased urination,
  • urinary accidents in the home,
  • weight loss,
  • nausea and vomiting

Liver disease can occur in older cats, but is more common in older dogs. This typically requires monitoring liver enzymes (a blood test) on a regular basis and giving your dog supplements that support the health of the liver.

Signs of liver disease include:

  • weight loss,
  • lethargy,
  • nausea and vomiting,
  • diarrhea,
  • pot-bellied abdomen,
  • and sometimes there are not any signs at all

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in Senior Dogs

senior dog

Just like in humans, our older pets can develop senility as well. In dogs we call this Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and is in a way the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s Disease. While there is still no cure for it, there are certain medications, supplements, and even a prescription food that can help slow down its progression.

Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction include:

  • forgetting commands they used to know well,
  • urinary and stool accidents in the home,
  • increased vocalization,
  • pacing and restlessness,
  • sleeping during the day and being awake at night,
  • appearing to be confused,
  • and other behavior changes (losing their typical personality)

Neurologic Conditions in Senior Pets

Senior pets are also prone to having strokes (thromboembolisms). Strokes can affect your pet’s brain, or even their spinal cord. While your pet may seem normal mentally, they may not be able to walk correctly or may have lingering physical problems that affect their ability to get around for a while.

Some signs that could indicate your pet may have had a stroke include:

  • all of a sudden not being able to use one of their legs correctly and instead of walking on it or holding it up, they drag their foot like they don’t even know it is there,
  • a head tilt,
  • circling and pacing in one direction,
  • loss of the ability to use their back legs/dragging their back legs,
  • all of a sudden going blind,
  • one side of their face appearing droopy

There is usually not any treatment that can be done for a stroke. It is typically a waiting game to see if your pet improves with time, along with good nursing care. Also, it is very difficult to 100% diagnose a stroke in our pets, so we often don’t know for sure if that is what has happened, unless they have an expensive MRI scan performed

dog held by owner

Changes in the Home That Can Help Your Senior Pet

Considering all of the health conditions listed above that could affect our senior pets, it may seem overwhelming to think about taking are of an elderly pet. However, there many things available these days to help you, your family, and your senior pet adjust to this new lifestyle.

Meet with a veterinarian from your smartphone!

Considerations for Senior Dogs

Create Non-slick Walking Surfaces

Senior dogs suffering from arthritis greatly benefit from making sure the floors in the home are not slippery. If you have carpet – wonderful! If you have hardwood floors or any other type of slick surface, try to lay down as many rugs as you can so your dog always has a non-slick surface to step on. There are also special toe grips for dogs that can help them to stand up on slick surfaces.

Easily Accessible Food and Water

Make sure their water and food bowls are easily accessible for them and close enough to wherever they like to rest during the day so they can easily get to them. Even more importantly, make sure your dog does not have to cross a slippery surface to get to them.

Frequent Potty Breaks and Potty Pads

Take your dog out for potty breaks as often as you can. If your senior dog has developed issues with incontinence, try to provide them with potty pads around the home, or at least on their bedding so that if they have some leakage or an accident, they are kept dry. This can also help you by giving them designated places in the home where they are allowed to potty if they can’t make it outside in time.

Dog Ramps

Evaluate your home for where stairs are and how many stairs your dog has to go up or down to be with you, or even just to go outside to use the potty. It is often necessary to put non-slip ramps over or beside stairs that may be in the way of your dog being able to go outside easily or get from one room to another in the house.

New Expectations

You’ll also have to take into consideration if your dog that once ran upstairs to sleep with you at night can no longer make it up the stairs—do you sleep downstairs on the couch with them now? Or do you train them to get used to sleeping downstairs by themselves? Provide them with large, comfortable bedding. Orthopedic dog beds work great for this.

Special Harnesses

There are special harnesses available to help maneuver dogs who are big and have a difficult time getting around. The Help-em-up harness is a great option, especially for very large dogs with arthritis or neurological issues.

Good Nursing Care

If your dog lies around most of the day, make sure to check their body over to look for any sore spots. These will most likely occur over their pressure points, such as their hips and elbows. Just like people, dogs can get pressure sores. Make sure they are changing positions throughout the day – and some dogs may need you to help them change positions. If you notice pressure sores, take a picture to send to your vet to see if they need to be on any antibiotics.

Also, make sure to keep them clean and dry. If your dog has incontinence or accidents in the house, you will need to wash around their bottom daily to make sure they do not get urine scald or an infection.

Pay attention to your dog’s toe nails. Since your dog isn’t out walking around as much, it is common for their toe nails to grow very long, and even curl around into their paw pads. You will need to cut them more often, or have a groomer cut them for you.

cat being held

Considerations for Senior Cats

Since senior cats are more subtle in showing any signs of arthritis or aging, you will need to be more proactive in making accommodations for them.

Litter Boxes

Offer them wider, more shallow litter boxes so it isn’t so difficult for them to get in and out of them. Alternatively, you can use a litter box with a small ramp.

Easily Accessible Food and Water

Try to keep their food and water in an easily accessible location and make sure to have fresh water available at all times.

Accommodations for Getting to High Places

Cats love to climb up things and be in safe, elevated resting spaces. Even though older cats aren’t quite as able to jump like they used to, they still love to sit in high places. Try to have ramps, low steps, or other options available for your cat to be able to still get to high places without having to jump on or off of them.


Older cats have a more difficult time grooming themselves, especially on their back and near the base of their tail. This can cause their fur to become matted and get in tight tangles on their skin.

Try to brush your senior cat every day. Find a gentle brush with soft bristles and only do what your cat will tolerate. If you notice they are starting to get matted fur and can’t get them out on your own, you may need to schedule a grooming appointment so the matted fur can safely be removed.

Clip your cats toe nails regularly. Older cats’ claws tend to grow thick, curl around, and can grow into their paw pads. This can lead to pain and infection. If you have trouble clipping their toe nails, you will need to set up regular appointments with a groomer or at their vet clinic.

Find a Mobile Veterinary Clinic or Groomer to Help with Grooming

There are more and more veterinary clinics and groomers that do house calls these days. It is often more feasible and better for both you and your senior pet if you can have a groomer come to your home for grooming needs (nail trims, matted fur) and a veterinarian come to your home for veterinary needs. 

dog with owner being kissed

Quality of Life Discussion for Senior Pets

It is always a difficult discussion to have, but a necessary one. As your senior pet begins to show aging changes, you should talk with your vet ahead of time to know what to expect with continued aging and how to know if they still are having a decent quality of life.

This will vary for every individual pet. It will depend on their health conditions, their ability to get around, and their mental state. This will also depend on your ability and capability to care for them. For instance, it is very difficult for some people to provide adequate nursing care to a 100-pound dog that can’t get around on their own, not to mention the safety considerations for the pet parent’s own health or physical condition.

There are many different factors to consider when discussing quality of life for our pets, so if your vet hasn’t already brought it up with you, start the conversation now so you can have time to prepare for when the time comes to discuss end of life care as well.

For more information on caring for senior pets, please visit the AVMA’s Senior Pet Care FAQ.How to Care for a Senior PetHow to Care for a Senior Pet

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