3 Guidelines for Caring for Your Older Pets
Here's how to help senior pets get the most out of their golden years.
Pets’ needs change as they age, which means the way we care for them has to change with them. They’ll likely require more frequent trips to the vet, a diet change, and maybe even some new products, like an elevated food and water stand to prevent neck strain. A sick or very elderly pet can also call for those tough conversations between you, your family, and a vet—so it’s important to know how to handle them. Here’s how to make sure your furry family member is as healthy, comfortable, and loved as possible during their last few years and months.
1. Monitor Their Diet
Most mammals—humans and pets alike—tend to gain fat and lose muscle as they age. But there’s no universal rule for tweaking pet food intake accordingly: Some animals need fewer calories and more protein and fiber; others may need the reverse. And the "senior" label on pet food has no legal definition, so it can mean different things depending on the brand. Bottom line: Talk to your vet at each checkup about health and behavioral concerns, including what and how much your pet is eating.
2. Increase Vet Visits
As they age, some pets may lose their sight or hearing, contract arthritis, or develop heart, kidney, or liver disease. Almost half of dogs over age 10 will develop cancer (less is known about the rate of cancer in cats). Pets can also develop cognitive dysfunction. Twice-yearly vet visits can help you detect early signs of certain diseases, many of which can be treated with a combination of prescription drugs, supplements, and lifestyle changes, such as making your cat’s litter box more accessible or providing a heated bed for your arthritic dog.
3. Ask the Tough Questions
Whether to let go of a furry family member is a heartbreaking decision to make, but if your pet is seriously ill, an honest evaluation can help you and your vet determine if it’s time. Use an online quality-of-life scale that takes into account appetite, mobility, and pain; try the ones on lapoflove.com. (Have kids over age 5 participate in this conversation so they don’t feel blindsided by the decision.) If you choose to euthanize, ask your vet about at-home services, which can be more comfortable for a pet who’s struggling to move.
Our Pet Experts
- Raelynn Farnsworth, DVM, clinical associate professor at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Mary Gardner, DVM, cofounder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice in Jupiter, Florida
- Deborah Linder, DVM, veterinary nutritionist and research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University