Aging Pets
-- 13 Lifelong Tips
A Rodale Press contribution

It seems like only yesterday your dog was a little bundle of fur chasing his tail and your cat a playful kitten bouncing after sunbeams.

In fact, relatively speaking, it was only a short time ago. Most dogs live no more than 15 or 16 years, and for some larger breeds, 10 years is the usual life span. And although there are plenty of 20-year-old cats basking in their senior years, their two decades of life still put them in the "ancient" category.

Like their owners, many pets live to a healthy old age, while others may experience increasing problems -- from mild aches and pains to more serious conditions such as cancer -- as the years go by.

While you can't reverse the hands of time, there's a lot you can do to keep an old friend comfortable and by your side for a long time to come.

For Dogs and Cats

Begin with regular checkups. Once your pet enters her middle years, it's a good idea to let your vet have a look at her at least once a year, says Meryl Littman, V.M.D., chief of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

For dogs, "middle age" is usually around seven years old -- earlier for the largest breeds like Irish wolfhounds or Great Danes. Cats can wait a little longer, usually until they're between eight and ten, says Dr. Littman.

When you take your pet in for her first routine checkup, your vet may recommend that she have a comprehensive examination that tells how she should feel when she's healthy. This will provide a baseline to compare her to as she gets older, Dr. Littman explains.

In addition, ask the vet to check your pet's blood pressure, Dr. Littman adds. High blood pressure can lead to blindness in dogs and is a symptom of high thyroid levels in cats. Untreated, it can also lead to strokes, so it's worth catching early.

Keep those paws moving. Daily exercise will help keep your pet slim and flexible, helping stave off age-related disorders like or digestive problems, says James B. Dalley, D.V.M., associate professor of small animal clinical sciences at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in East Lansing. He recommends walking your pet for at least 20 minutes twice a day. But any amount of exercise is good, he adds.

Watch her weight. "The number one problem in the pet population is obesity," says Guy L. Pidgeon, D.V.M., a specialist in veterinary internal medicine and director of the Department of Veterinary Affairs for Hill's Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kansas.

In dogs, obesity is a big contributor to age-related problems like arthritis and heart disease. In cats, it can lead to diabetes. In fact, cats that already have diabetes may be able to get it under control just by trimming surplus pounds.

How can you tell what kind of shape your pet is in? Dogs should maintain an "hourglass figure," says Dr. Pidgeon. "As you look down on your dog from above, there should be a decided waist right in front of the rear legs. As you run your hands up and down their chest wall, you should be able to feel their ribs."

The same goes for cats: They should stay fairly sleek throughout their lives. If you can't feel her ribs or see her waist, she's probably overweight.

Give extra fiber. Adding more dietary fiber to your pet's diet is a great way to help her lose weight, says Dr. Dalley. Fiber can also help prevent constipation and improve digestion, making an older pet better able to absorb needed nutrients.

To increase your pet's fiber intake, vets recommend buying foods specially designed for overweight or senior pets. Ask your vet for recommendations.

Don't get carried away. While a good diet is important for all pets, don't rush to make changes if your pet is already slim and healthy. "Not all older dogs and cats are fat," says Kathryn Michel, D.V.M., a researcher and nutrition expert in the Department of Clinical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. "A healthy older animal can eat regular food."

Add fresh food to the main course. Holistic veterinarians often recommend that people feed their pets vegetables, fruits and grains instead of commercially prepared pet foods. "If you give animals fresh and healthy foods, it keeps their immune systems up and cuts down on the diseases we see with aging," says Deva Khalsa, V.M.D., a veterinarian in private practice in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and a certified acupuncturist.

Cats are finicky, so they won't always appreciate having fruits or vegetables added to their meals. However, they may eat sprouts. Just mix them well into the regular food, Dr. Khalsa says.

Switch to healthy treats. Giving your pets little snacks "seems to be part of the human/animal bond," says Dr. Michel. But if your pet is elderly or overweight, you could be killing her with kindness.

Dr. Michel recommends substituting healthy snacks -- like carrot sticks and fruit -- for her regular treats. Of course, you may have a tough time convincing your cat that asparagus is just as tasty as a liver treat!

Slip her a supplement. In lieu of snacks, many vets "reward" their patients with a pet vitamin. "They aren't high in calories, and they have flavoring ingredients pets like," says Dr. Dalley. Ask your vet which chewable pet vitamins are best for your pet.

Slip them some antioxidants. In humans, studies have shown that daily doses of the antioxidant vitamins C and E can help protect against heart disease. Dr. Khalsa recommends giving older dogs at least 400 milligrams a day of vitamin C (larger dogs can take more) and 100 to 400 international units of vitamin E. Cats can take 500 milligrams a day of vitamin C and 50 international units of vitamin E. Check with your vet for precise dosing instructions.

To make things easier, you might want to get a liquid or powdered form of the vitamins and mix them in your pet's food. For cats, try mixing the vitamins with a little canola or olive oil and smearing the mixture on her paw. "She'll just lick it off," Dr. Khalsa says.

Keep the water bowl full. Many pets naturally drink less as they get older, which can cause dehydration. Dr. Pidgeon recommends keeping water bowls in different parts of the house. This is particularly important if your pet doesn't get around as well as she used to.

"Measure the water in the morning and again at night to make sure your pet is drinking," he adds.

Keep her close. As they age, many dogs and cats begin to lose some of their hearing, making them much more vulnerable to accidents. "Keep an old animal confined or on a leash outside," advises Dr. Dalley. "You need to become their ears and take more precautions on their behalf."

Help the kids understand. Like people, many elderly pets get a bit cranky and intolerant of interruption. While your senior cat will probably slink away from any hubbub in the house, you may need to ask the kids to be considerate of an elderly dog. "A lot of times children don't recognize the early signs of grumpiness, and they get bitten," Dr. Dalley warns.

For Cats Only

Change diets carefully. Cats don't like changes in their routine, and changing to a new food can cause them to sulk and leave the table for a few days. More is at stake than just a little hunger, since cats that don't eat can develop a serious, possibly fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis. "You need to change cats' diets very slowly," says Dr. Pidgeon.

If you are changing your cat's diet to help her lose weight, he recommends mixing the new food with the old a little at a time. At first, give her no more than one-quarter of the new food and three-quarters of the old. Every day, add just a little more of the new. "Slowly make the change over a two-week period of time, if not longer," he advises.

When to See the Vet

Older pets are prone to a host of minor ailments, as well as a few that aren't so minor. To catch problems early, call your vet if:

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