Senior Cat

I have some great news: The pets you keep today are likely to live far longer than the pets you grew up with. But there’s a flip side to modern medicine’s gospel: You’ll have to know that much more about your pets’ geriatric care if you’re to keep up with the wonders of veterinary science.

Fortunately, learning more about geriatric pets is simply an extension of your current knowledge base — one I find my clients are eager to bone up on as their pets age. By way of furthering your own store of older-pet information, here’s a list of the seven most common questions my clients ask about their aging pets.

1. Is he too thin? Lots of older pets lose muscle mass and may start to look somewhat scrawny, which has a way of making their owners worry. This is especially true of extremely geriatric dogs and cats.

Nonetheless, with the exception of those suffering from specific diseases associated with severe weight loss (hyperthyroidism and cancer, for example), most older pets tend to reflect the general population. That is to say, they tend more toward the pudgy side — with a concurrent loss of muscle mass that comes with an aging body. And that is a problematic combination.

Fortunately, this common question gives veterinarians an ability to step in and render an opinion as to the quality of the pet’s musculature and overall body condition. What’s more, veterinarians can recommend the right combination of diet and exercise that can help trim off extra pounds and keep muscles more toned. This is always a good thing!

2. Should I change her diet or add supplements? Many pets don’t absolutely require a diet change — as long as they’re being fed a commercial diet that’s labeled “complete and balanced” for their species and life stage.

But if you haven’t changed your older pet to a senior diet yet, talk to your veterinarian. Different breeds enter their senior years at different times, and cats tend to become senior later than dogs, but your veterinarian can provide you with guidance on when is the right time for your pet to move to a senior diet.

Beyond that, if your pet has certain health issues, ask your vet about diets that can help. The array of specialized diets and nutritional specialists at our disposal makes customization of the aging patient’s diet to their specific issues absolutely doable in most cases.

Supplements are also being tested for pets with a variety of geriatric issues like osteoarthritis and cognitive dysfunction (dementia). Some show promise, but the jury’s still out on most.

3. Is he too old for anesthesia? It’s a reasonable question, but one that’s increasingly less applicable to modern veterinary medicine. That’s because our anesthetic drugs, techniques and monitoring tools are safer and more effective than ever before.

Indeed, at our hospital, not a day goes by that we don’t anesthetize a geriatric patient (or several). And that makes sense: Geriatric patients are more at risk for diseases that may require surgery, such as cancer and dental disease, are they not?

That said, pre-anesthetic blood work in older pets is always recommended, because it helps your veterinarian identify underlying conditions, so she can better tailor the anesthesia to your pet’s needs.

4. Is she sick or is she just getting old? It’s a great question! In fact, I wish more owners would ask it. While plenty of pet people have learned this the hard way, others have yet to learn that personality changes, changes in activity level, altered bathroom habits and even abject pain are not “normal” functions of advancing age. I’ve seen way too many treatable diseases and mitigable conditions inadvertently get swept under the rug when they could have been alleviated or even cured.

5. Is it a good idea to get him a new puppy or kitten? It all depends on a pet’s personality and, to some extent, his species. Well-socialized dogs often come to life when new pups (or even kittens) are introduced into a household. In these cases it’s undoubtedly a good thing. For multi-cat households, however, the addition of new cats can often prove more stressful for everyone — not just for the geriatric pet. Any addition should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Indeed, pet owners might consider fostering pets first to see if all personalities mesh well in advance of undertaking a lifelong commitment.

6. Apart from medicines, procedures and supplements, what can I do to help her joints? After embarking on a veterinarian-approved plan for treating the arthritis, making her feel as safe, secure and comfortable as possible is the goal.

Here are a few tips and tricks for the arthritic: Add stairs or ramps to help pets access furniture beds or vehicles. Consider offering one or several kinds of orthopedic beds. Make sure your pet’s muscles stay as strong as possible by keeping her mobile (using no-slip flooring, slings to help them up, etc.). And help keep her safe by ensuring she stays far away from pools or wears life vests near bodies of water, for example.

7. What else can I do to improve his quality of life? Oh, lots! Making the world easier for aging pets isn’t as hard as all that. All you have to do is be mindful of how they’re changing and alter their environment to follow suit. For example, pets who lose vision and hearing need simple considerations like stable routines, cues that take advantage of their remaining senses and careful attention to things like not moving the furniture around a whole lot.

For those with diminished appetites, consider heating up food slightly to bring out its aroma. For those with less coordination, try using floor runners, stabilizing booties or toe grips. And for those whose loss of body fat makes them more susceptible to the cold, ensure their bedding is appropriately padded and close to safe heat sources.

Consider all of the above only the barest of primers — the tip of an iceberg of information you’ll doubtless discover if you just keep digging. And you should. After all, your aging pets aren’t getting any younger.

More on Vetstreet: