Consider your dog, the same pup who at age three was still jumping about, is entering middle-age by years six and seven. In fact, a seven-year-old dog under 20 pounds is equivalent to a 44-year-old human, while a seven-year-old dog over 50 pounds is, well, 50. And in just two more years those same dogs will be the equivalent of 52 and 61, respectively.
Cats? Well, a 10-year-old cat figures out to about 53 in human years and in two years the same cat will be roughly equivalent to a 61-year-old.
So our pets can start slowing down fast. We’re not really concerned about explaining why this happens any more than we feel the need to explain why you keep looking for those reading glasses that are so clearly resting on top of your head. What we’d like to do is show you how you can make the senior years as great as the days that preceded them. And the good news is that things have gotten better to make the best of it, including new products, therapies as well as advances in veterinarian medicine. All of which means that our dogs and cats can enjoy a quality of life in the senior years that can be just as fun and fulfilling and, in many ways, even more so.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love young pets,” said Sharon Olson, owner of Fur Their Sake (furtheirsake.com), a pet-sitting business specializing in senior and special needs pets. “But the older ones, I just feel like you can connect with them better. The younger ones are just so hungry for attention, they’re kind of all over the place. The older ones are not so frenetic so you can really make a bond with them.
With that in mind, we offer half-a-dozen things you can do, and a few nots—back away from the bacon-flavored treat—to increase the chances of making your pet’s golden years, well, golden.
WATCH & LEARN
One of the most dangerous things that can happen to pets as they age is that they become invisible. That cute little kitty who used to like to settle on your chest, that cute little pup who incessantly demanded your attention, have grown up and now have settled into their own corners of the home. This may sound comfortable but can also lead to unintended neglect.
“There’s a real danger that as our pets get older they start to take second place to what else is going on in the house,” said Dr. Gary Tatayama of Yorba Regional Animal Hospital. “They can become part of the furniture, we know they are there we just don’t pay much attention to them. That’s when you start to run into problems.”
Tatayama says you should start looking for changes in behavior: is your pet eating less? Drinking more water? Are there changes in their urination or defecation routine? Are they shedding more than usual? Has their coat lost its luster?
Cats are more likely to retreat if they feel poorly to the point where they can virtually disappear. It’s a good idea to keep tabs on them around the litter box; are there more clumps than usual? Do you notice signs of diarrhea? Does your cat linger in the box?
“It’s important to remember that our pets are not like us,” Tatayama said. “We’re wimps. I’ve had dogs walk into the office with broken legs their owners didn’t know they had. I once examined a dog with 75 percent of his chest filled with fluid and he was wagging his tail. They’re really good at hiding if they’re hurt.”
Tom Bagamane is founder of Seniorpetproducts.com which has literally thousands of items designed specifically for older pets. Need a doggie toothbrush? He’s got them. How about a hairball remedy? Got them too.
And yet Bagamane doesn’t hesitate to name his hottest seller these days: dog diapers.
Bagamane’s site has numerous types of diapers, disposal and washable, single and in packs. They range in price from about under $10 to more than $20 and come in various colors and styles and sizes.
The reason is simple. When a dog gets older and begins to experience incontinence in the house it’s rarely because the dog has suddenly forgot its training. More than likely, the dog is experiencing some kind of medical condition that may, or may not, be treatable.
Since incontinence is one of the top reasons pets are put to sleep, a device that minimizes the problem seems invaluable, which is why Bagamane says that diapers are selling like “wildfire” all over the place, including orders from Europe and Japan.
One thing that doesn’t change as our dogs get older is the importance of daily walks. It not only provides critical exercise but stimulation for their brains. A dog left inside or in the yard all day can not only have his muscles but mind atrophy from little to no use.
Of course, as dogs get older, it becomes a little more complicated than just grabbing a leash and heading out the door. You may have to adjust your speed or your usual route as your dog ages.
“Hey, they’re going to get slower,” said Leslie McMahon, physical therapist from Two Hands Four Paws. “That’s not the puppy you brought home years ago. It may take an hour for them to make the walk that used to take 15 minutes. You have to pay attention and adjust accordingly. It may be that you’ll have to take walks in the morning and evening. You may need to budget more time.”
“I think the most important thing as our pets get older is learning to adapt to what they can do,” she said. “As with people when they get old, dogs are going to have good and bad days. There are going to be days when your dog is going to want to walk around the block, and days when he’ll just want to go to the next tree. What’s ‘normal’ isn’t the same every day for them.”
One of the reasons dogs walk less, and cats retreat to secluded parts of the home, is that they begin to feel the loss of a significant amount of mobility usually related to issues in their hips and/or joints.
Experts say you should be on the alert not only for any grunting or groaning coming from your pet, but any changes in behavior.
“If you have a cat that used to jump onto the couch and now that same cat steps onto the couch, you might have an issue,” Tatayama said.
Tatayama says that one great way to encourage movement with dogs is hydrotherapy. But it can be hard to get a dog in a pool. That’s why people go to Leslie McMahon whose Los Angeles-based practice includes massage and swim therapy.
She says that while people ask her for tips on exercises and stretches to do with dogs no one who hasn’t studied the method should attempt therapy without first being taught. “People tend to do too much with the dog and that can do more harm than good.”
Still, there are things you can do. Tatayama suggests one of the easiest, and best, is putting surfaces down around the house that make it easier and more comfortable for your dog and cat to walk on: carpeting, rugs and floor mats. All of which make it easier for them to grip and are easier on the pads of their paws.
You can do the same for your dog when they are out of the house with canine shoes and boots which, Bagamane says are becoming increasingly popular. While providing the aforementioned grip and comfort they also can be critical in preventing the spread of parvo since one way that dogs get the usually fatal disease is by being infected when stepping in infected feces with pads that are cracked.
“There are so many reasons, whether it’s prevention of disease, the disgusting stuff you find on the streets or dog parks, or just how hot a sidewalk can be on a summer day,” said Bagamane, whose website also features other products that help with mobility including wheelchairs, harnesses and ramps. “If we walked on our hands, you can bet we wouldn’t think this was some kind of luxury item.”
It is likely there is nothing that poses more problems to a dog or cat than being overweight. It presents problems with mobility, cardiovascular issues as well as the likelihood of diabetes. And if this sounds like our pets are mirroring our own overweight problems, McMahon says, that’s easy to figure out.
“Our pets are fat because we are fat,” McMahon said. “We’re far less active so our pets are far less active.”
This is critical because every extra pound on a dog is equal to five extra pounds on a human. So, while it might not seem a big deal if your dog is five pounds overweight, the fact is, that is equivalent to being 25 pounds overweight. As a dog or cat ages, excess weight puts an increasingly heavy load on joints and hips.
Besides issues of activity, dogs and cats are many times overweight simply because they eat too much, and many times because what they eat is no good. Sound familiar? It should because, unfortunately, much of what makes us fat, makes our pets fat.
“One thing people should consider is that people are working longer hours and they come home later,” McMahon said. “Many times the last thing they want to do is deal with their pet, or maybe they feel guilty about not spending enough time. So they over feed them or, out of guilt, they give them treat after treat.”
Gabe Martinez, general manager at Seniorpetproducts.com, says it’s important for people to read the serving size instructions on their chosen cat and dog food, that “just filling up the bowl” is the last thing you want to do.
Generally, older dogs need about 20 percent fewer calories than they needed in their prime, and those calories should include more digestible protein, vitamins and minerals.
As far as discerning what exactly is in the food, he offers this simple method: “Make sure there aren’t a lot of long names that you’ve never heard of. You want to make sure there’s stuff in there you recognize like fish oil or vitamin C, you want to make sure the food hasn’t been manufactured to the ‘nth degree. Then it’s just man-made junk food.”
HAVE A PLAN
Experts say the time to start planning for your pet’s senior years is before they arrive.
“Meet with your veterinarian and make sure they know your pet is getting older,” said Bagamane. “Make your veterinarian your partner, and plan for the future. Just like with people, we’re seeing a shift in focus away from disease-based care to one that is more proactive when it comes to prevention.”
It’s important to get started early because pets age six and seven times faster than we do. A matter of six months might seem short to us, but to a dog or cat, it’s a significant amount of time. To wait until problems actually arise, is to tempt fate.
“We’re a nation of reactors, we wait until something is wrong instead of employing some prevention,” said McMahon. “Most people don’t think about coming to us until it’s too late. I’ve had some very sad cases where, if I had seen the dog six months earlier, I could have done something for them. But there comes a point when things are irreversible.”
“The biggest thing is to have routine exams, annual exams especially,” said Tatayama. “You want to have a baseline that you can compare against as the animal gets older and, for many problems, blood work is the only way we can find out about things.”
“It’s in their genes to hide any weakness since it’s the sick who get picked off in the wild. They don’t want to tell you when they’re sick so, as they get older, it’s our job to keep closer tabs on them and be observant. We owe them that.”