You and your furbaby have enjoyed ten glorious years together. You've watched her grow from a frisky little pup learning to potty train to learning to sit on command after snagging more than a handful of treats. Sure you've had your moments like when she ran away and you spent three hours combing your neighborhood only to find her patiently waiting at your doorstep. She's been a constant companion in your life and the one who dutifully sat by your side when you were laid up in bed with the flu. But lately, she seems to be slowing down and napping for increasingly longer periods of time.
Of course at 10 years old, with each dog year being equal to about seven human years, your furbaby is the ripe old age of 70 and you want to make sure she lives out the remaining time she has left in the most joyous way. Dr. Ernie Ward, author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter - A Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010 HCI) and owner, chief-of-staff at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, North Carolina, recommends that pet parents be mindful of a host of potential health issues their senior pet's caretaker.
"While we may still view our eight-year old Lab as our "puppy" the reality is she is undergoing many of the same physical changes of a 50-year old person," says Dr. Ward."Simple changes in nutrition and lifestyle can make a huge difference in preventing age-related diseases and preserving quality of life."
The definition of a senior pet
Historically, any pet over age seven is considered a senior pet, says Dr. Ward. In strict physiological terms, giant breed dogs over age five should be considered senior and toy breeds and cats over age nine are viewed as senior pets. The differences in ages are due to the rate of physiological changes in certain breeds; giant breeds age faster.
Senior pets need specialized diets
As dogs and cats age so do their nutrient requirements and ability to digest certain foods, notes Dr. Ward. If your pet is over seven years old, it's important to talk to your veterinarian about switching to a diet specially-formulated for older pets.
"Senior pets need less fat and carbohydrates and more highly digestible proteins," says Dr. Ward. "For example, older cats actually require higher amounts of protein because studies show their ability to digest proteins deteriorates as they age. In general, older pets need fewer calories because they're less active and begin to lose muscle mass."
Diet and supplements
Dr. Ward recommends that pet parents give their senior pet low or no-grain, higher protein diets for older cats and highly digestible, low-fat diets for dogs. And since nutritional gaps and cellular damage can accelerate as pets age due to genetics, pollutants and illness, Dr. Ward advises giving nutritional supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils), glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate, and a good multi-vitamin (especially B vitamins and vitamins A, D, E, and K, biotin and beta-carotene) to almost every older pet. He also prescribes SAM-e, silybin/milk thistle, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and probiotics to many senior pets to combat age changes.
Preventative medical care: What you need to know
Start testing at seven years old. Changes in kidney, liver and pancreatic function, arthritis, cataracts, heart disease and high blood pressure are more common in older pets. To diagnose a disease in the early stages requires consistent examinations and lab tests. As soon as your pet turns seven, pet parents should ask for basic blood and urine tests, even if their pet appears perfectly healthy. The value of routine testing is that it establishes baselines for future reference.
"I recently saw a nine-year old cat for a routine visit," says Dr. Ward. "The owner reported her cat was in excellent health yet our test results showed an increase in two kidney enzymes from the previous year. While the kidney values were still within normal limits, the change alerted me to a potential problem. Additional tests confirmed early kidney disease. If not for the previous test results, we would've never diagnosed kidney disease at this early stage. "
Bottom line: The money you spend on routine diagnostic tests may save you big bucks in the future and add years of life to your pet. Never ignore that tiny voice telling you "something isn't right." If you suspect something - anything - is wrong with a pet over age 7, have it checked out.