It can be difficult for someone who spends time with a pet on a daily basis to spot the first signs of aging since the process is gradual—and with larger dog breeds like the Great Dane it could begin at as early as five years. If your dog or cat is at the onset of his golden years, keep an eye on any physical and behavioral changes, even minor ones. "Start a journal close to your pet's fourth birthday to record his habits and interests, then each month refer to the first entry as a benchmark, noting any differences," says Amy Shojai, author of Complete Care for Your Aging Dog (Who Dares Wins). Watch out for the following conditions—and deal with the symptoms with these suggestions from the experts.
Cats typically reach their twilight years between 10 and 12, but for dogs it varies by size:
Small (up to 20 pounds): 10 to 12 years old
Medium (21-50 pounds): 8 to 10 years old
Large (51-90 pounds): 7 to 8 years old
Giant (91 pounds and over): 5 to 6 years old
Cognitive Dysfunction (CD)
Known as the pet equivalent of Alzheimer's disease, CD affects nearly half of elderly dogs and cats. It can lead to disorientation, reduced or increased activity levels, social issues and memory lapses.
- Senior Solution: Keep your pet mentally stimulated by feeding him through a puzzle toy so he's encouraged to think and work for his food, recommends Kristen Collins (MS, CPDT), an animal behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer at the ASPCA's Animal Behavior Center.
Weak joints—usually in the legs, back and neck—can cause a pet to struggle while getting up in the morning, and to walk or lie down awkwardly. Cats start sleeping more, up to 14 to 16 hours a day.
- Senior Solution: Put a heat lamp over your dog's or cat's bed and a heating pad below to soothe muscles, Shojai says.
Muscle mass tends to decrease and metabolism slows down as pets age, which contributes to their packing on the pounds.
- Senior Solution: At around 7 years old (larger animals should make the switch sooner, so ask your vet first), transition your dog or cat to one of the "senior" food product lines, which are high in protein but low in calories. Many aging pets, especially cats, also struggle with constipation, so smaller, more frequent meals and a diet rich in fiber will aid their digestive system.
Frequent urination and reverting to his pre-house-trained days may indicate a more serious problem, like kidney failure, a brain tumor or neuromuscular conditions.
- Senior Solution: If your vet rules out medical troubles, and you'd prefer not to crate your pet when you're away from home, up the number of litter boxes for cats and buy pee pads for dogs (put at least one in every room).
Vision and Hearing Loss
A pet that no longer responds to previously known cues and commands could be dealing with blindness or deafness, says Collins.
- Senior Solution: Use verbal directions more frequently if your pet's eyesight has worsened. Dogs may not be as comfortable in low light, so consider switching your daily walk to morning rather than at dusk, Shojai says. For animals with hearing problems, a flashlight can help you get their attention. "As pets get older, it's important to utilize all of their senses," she says.
Modern medicine, proper nutrition and attentive medical care are helping dogs age in relatively good health, says veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, editor of Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). But older pets sometimes develop problems that progress quickly, leaving owners struggling to pay the bills. "It's important to plan ahead by expecting the unexpected," he says. Organizations like the ASPCA offer pet insurance for less than $60 a month, but the choices are limited if your animal has already reached old age or is ill. Another option is to open a separate bank account and contribute regularly to it—the money will still be available if you don't end up needing it for medical expenses.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.