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Why We Love Our Older Pets
Older pets, like fine wine, only get better with time.

Think of all the changes that have occurred in your pets over the last ten years or so. The puppy that chewed every carpet in your house now rests comfortably on your new, intact, Oriental rug as the two of you watch television together. The kitten that dive-bombed your head from the top of the curtain rod now contently observes your work from her perch on top of the computer. Young, rambunctious pets that required lots of your time have aged into mature, regal animals that live to give you companionship and respect.

Just as you have watched your older pet change, so has your pet lived through all of your life changes. This animal has shared all of your joys and sorrows. Your pet was there to support you when a relative passed away. Your pet was by your side when you youngest left for college. Your pet protected your infant when a stranger came too close. When you stop to think about it, you may have spent more quality time with your older pet than with some of the loved ones in your immediate family.

So what do you do now that your pet is aging? How do you make this special being in your life as comfortable, happy, and healthy as possible? There is no simple answer. But with a little special care, a little extra attention, and a big dose of common sense, your older pet should feel good and provide you with all that extra attention you've come to expect for many years to come.

How To Tell If Your Pet Is "Old"

Remember in grammar school when the kid next to you announced that one human year equaled seven dog years? Or was it that one dog year equaled 7 human years? You never really got it straight. But you did figure out that your 10-year-old dog was as old as your 70-year-grandpa. And they looked about the same, too. Both had gray whiskers, neither could hear too well and they always took an afternoon nap together.

Well, times have changed. The last several decades have seen an increase in life expectancy for both pets and their owners. We expect to act younger and live longer than our grandparents. So should your pets. Our pets' life span is determined by a variety of factors, including genetics, breed type, nutrition, life time care, veterinary care, and luck. Even so, our pets, in general, are living longer lives. The 1 to 7 ratio does not hold true when cats routinely live into their late teens or even early twenties and toy dogs live into their mid and late teens. Even large dogs are living longer, with retrievers often enjoying 13 to 14 years.

Despite their longer life expectancy, your pets' bodies will start to experience aging changes before they enter their second decade of life. So your cat's kidneys may start to age by 8 or 9 years of age. And your dog's hips may start to hurt by the time he's 10. Large dogs will experience these changes even earlier. For this reason, many veterinarians consider your pet as a geriatric patient as early as 7 to 9 years of age. Remember that major aging changes can occur in a pet in a matter of months, not the years you've come to expect in people. These middle years are the time to start making changes that will keep your pet happy and healthy.

Keeping Active In The Older Years

So the dog can't hear as well as she used to, has horrendous breath, and is limping. And the cat is starting to look a little bit like a watermelon on legs and refuses to play anymore. Should you just chalk all this up to old age and let the poor critters be? Of course not! Inactivity on your part or your pet's will accelerate the negative aspects of aging. An active, trim pet feels better physically and mentally. Owners that intervene in their pet's health stop minor problems before they become major life-threatening catastrophes. It is important to make adjustments that allow your pets to keep using their brains and their bodies.

Here are some common sense examples: If your pet dog can no longer run your daily 5K run, do not just leave him home alone all day. Instead, do a shorter run or a longer walk so the pet exercises daily. If your dog has stopped taking car rides with you because it is too painful to jump in the truck, build a ramp or make some stairs or switch cars with your spouse. If the dog no longer runs to greet you because she slides on the tile, tape down a rug runner. If the cat no longer chases your toes, try putting catnip on a feather toy to peak her interest. If your dog misses your college-age children, enroll him in a nursing home visitation program and start obedience training. If the dog's breath stinks, get his teeth cleaned, invest in a toothbrush, and get to work. If he limps, find out why and see if some pain medications helps.

Older pets require different, but challenging activities to keep from getting bored and depressed, It is not difficult to come up with a few ideas. And older pets get medical problems that need to be treated. As they said in vet school, "Old age is not a disease, it is a fact of life" Do Not Ignore It. Treat the changes that accompany it and your pet will thank you for it.

Providing A Stable Environment

Older pets dislike change and depend on a stable routine and environment. Keeping change to a minimum reduces stress that can cause disease. Changing your perfume may actually bother a dog that has learned to identify you by smell as his eyes have begun to fail. The dog that used to cope with boarding may now require a pet sitter. The noise, change of diet, and cold floors of the boarding kennel upset the dog. An upset, older dog may refuse to eat, sleep, or take his medications. This can worsen underlying medical troubles such as arthritis or heart disease. Instead, the sitter can keep the dog on his own daily food and walk schedule and allow him to sleep in his own bed. You may need to find a sitter that sleeps in the house overnight so that the pet is not alone.

Cats also require consistency. Rearranging the furniture may bother a cat that is losing night vision. Either leave the old couch where it's been the last 10 years or use a nightlight so it can be seen. You can also expect trouble if you take a job that requires you to be away all day after you've worked at home for the last several years. You may need to hire a neighbor, trustworthy teen, or sitter to visit with the animal during the day. Some changes may need to be made in routine or the surroundings to help your older pet. A pet that used to sleep through the night may now need a nocturnal bathroom break. The cat that used to leap on your bed may now need a ramp or step stool. The dog that only slept outside may now need to become a house pet. The animal that only slept on cold tile may now need a padded bed with a blanket. The dog that used to come when he heard the car in the driveway may now need you to stamp your foot when you enter so he knows you are home. The cat that fastidiously groomed himself may now need you to comb out the knots everyday. The pet that never needed his nails clipped may now need them trimmed on a weekly basis. All of these changes are simple, but can significantly add to the quality of an older pet's life.

The Older Pet's Body Changes

In general, the changes seen with aging in our pets are similar to those we see in ourselves. All the body systems are affected. You'll notice gray hairs on your pet's face and body, perhaps a drier and flakier coat. Little and sometimes big bumps and lumps may appear on previously flawless skin. Muscle strength may decrease, resulting in a larger waistline and less enthusiasm for all day runs. Joints may become arthritic, so the dog that used to be a mean, lean fighting machine, may start to slow down and gain weight as those aching joints limit exercise. The ability to hear, see, taste, and smell will all diminish. Even your pet's appetite may decrease if he can't smell his dinner any longer. You'll notice a cloudiness in those beautiful eyes that wasn't there a few short years ago. Even your pet's nails will change, becoming harder and growing faster that before. Years of accumulated tarter can lead to gum disease resulting in bad breath, sore teeth, and a desire to skip dinner and those hard treats.

As the outside changes, so does the inside of your older pet. The kidneys will not function at 100 percent, so your pet may drink and urinate more. The digestive tract will change, possibly resulting in a pet with constipation. Heart disease becomes far more likely in an older animal, as do thyroid problems and diseases such as diabetes. And, just as in people, the incidence of all types of cancer increases. And though we don't like to think about it, some of our older pets will experience a decrease in their mental abilities.

How To Meet Your Older Pet's Needs

Remember that the changes you see in your older pet should not be ignored. Just because these changes accompany aging does not mean that they can't be stopped, slowed, or even reversed. At the least, you may be able to make minor changes that help both your pet and you cope. The extra time you spend meeting your older pet's needs will allow you to enjoy more quality time with one of the best friend's you'll ever have.

Grooming changes are easy. Increase the frequency of brushing and nail clipping as your pet needs it. Even older cats that always used to groom themselves may now need daily brushing. Switch to a softer brush if the old brush now irritates your pet's skin. Bath with conditioning shampoos and use a cream rinse to combat dry coats. Learn to brush your pet's teeth to fight off gum disease and let the veterinarian clean them as recommended. Keep long hair trimmed away from aging eyes and matted hair off of tired footpads.

Try to keep your pet at a proper weight by switching to lower calorie foods designed for geriatrics. Encourage daily exercise to keep weight down and joints limber. Older dogs may not want a daily run, but will enjoy several shorter walks a day. Check collars to make sure they still fit and switch to a harness if a neck collar bothers your pet. You can even add a daily walk into your older cat's routine. Invest in a collapsible bowl so you can carry water when you walk your older pet.

Make the house more comfortable. Keep older pets off cold, hard floors by investing in a therapeutic pet bed. Buy elevated feeders (05881) for older dogs with sore necks and backs. Place carpet runners on slippery floors and a ramp or stool by hard to reach beds and couches. Put an extra bed downstairs for those pets that can no longer climb upstairs each night. Invest in pet music tapes for the older dog that is now more terrified than ever of thunderstorms. Turn on a night light for the cat that now gets lost in the middle of the night. Use common sense to identify your pet's needs in the house and yard and make simple adjustments.

Investigate dietary supplements for your pets. Simple additions such as glucosamines can increase joint mobility and ease of motion. Some older pets benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements, as well. Others may need digestive enzyme replacements.

You must keep you older pet's mouth clean. Buy the proper chew toys and treats and replace as often as necessary. Mouth exercise is not just for puppies! Pick up a pet toothbrush and learn to use it. Not only will you help your pet feel better and eat more easily, but you will also decrease the need for dental cleanings done under anesthesia and keep harmful mouth bacteria away from your pet's heart, kidneys, and other body organs. Untreated mouth disease can actually permanently damage your pet's entire body.

Report all changes to your veterinarian. Mental or physical changes that you think are irreversible side effects of aging may be warnings of disease to come or actually highly treatable conditions. Increased thirst may be a sign of kidney disease or diabetes; both can be treated. Weight gain may signal an under active thyroid gland; it can be treated. Weight loss can be a sign of several different diseases and must be diagnosed by your veterinarian. Some skin growths may be merely cosmetic; others must be removed. Even a dog with signs of 'senility' may be able to help with prescription medication. A dog or a cat that has lost it's house training may have a treatable medical problem; not just be 'old'. A painful dog may have arthritis and respond to pain reducing drugs. Check out any changes with your veterinarian and schedule check-ups every six months.

The Relationship Continues

It was your love and excellent care of your pets that allowed them to reach their senior years. It's your keen eye that will allow these pets to enjoy their remaining years on earth. Watch for subtle physical and behavioral changes. The earlier they are detected and dealt with, the less impact they will have on your pet's health. This will allow your pets to feel better. And the better they feel, the more love they are able to return to you. So everyone benefits when you spend time helping and enjoying your older pets. Sit back, take a look at one of your best friends sitting next to you, and vow to help out as best you can.
 
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