How to Care for Older Dogs & Cats: Must-Know Tips

Fur babies will always be fur babies in the eyes of their loving pet parent. However, as dogs and cats approach their senior years, their care needs will change, requiring thoughtful adjustments to ensure their well-being and quality of life. 

Caring for older dogs and older cats involves various lifestyle adjustments involving their diet, exercise, veterinary care, and more. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore essential tips to provide the best possible care for your senior furry friend.

What’s in This Guide?

 An older dog, receiving special care for senior dogs

How Old is a Senior Dog?

One of the most common beliefs about dog aging is that one can simply take the dog’s age, and multiply it by 7, and the result is the dog’s age in human years. This is not always a reliable estimate because the estimated age of seniority depends on the dog’s breed or size. 

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) gives detailed guidelines for determining when a dog can be considered an older dog or senior dog. As a general rule, larger dogs tend to reach their estimated senior years sooner than smaller dogs

AVMA’s guidelines are as follows:

  • Small dogs or toy dogs (<20 pounds) = senior dog years start at 8 - 11 years of age.
  • (examples: Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Shih Tzu)
  • Medium-sized dogs (20 - 50 pounds) = senior dog years start at 8 - 10  years of age.
  • (examples: Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Border Collie, Siberian Husky)
  • Large dogs (50 - 90 pounds) = senior dog years start at 8 - 9 years of age.
  • (examples: Golden Retriever, Dalmatian, Greyhound)
  • Giant breeds (> 90 pounds) = senior dog years start at 6 - 7 years
  • (examples: Saint Bernard, Great Dane, Mastiff) 

How Old is a Senior Cat? 

Similar to dogs, cats have been commonly thought to age 7x the speed of human aging. However, this is not wholly accurate because a cat’s aging process is more complex, accelerating during the first years and slowing down later on.

When it comes to determining whether a cat is a senior cat or older cat, the process is more straightforward than that of dogs’ — owing to the relatively less varied range of sizes in domestic cat breeds. 

Unlike dogs, cats have a universal estimated age of seniority. Cats are generally considered senior by the time they are ~10 years of age.

An older cat receiving special care for senior cats to stay healthy

How Do You Care for an Older Dog or Cat?

Both dogs and cats undergo physical and cognitive changes as they age. A few notable age-related changes in both species include reduced energy levels, slower movements, changes in coat quality, possible dental issues, and possible cognitive challenges

To give a senior dog or cat the best possible care and quality of life, here are a few expert care tips for older dogs and older cats.

1. A Strong Start to Great Senior Pet Care: A Veterinary Wellness Exam

With a comprehensive veterinary wellness exam for pets, pet parents can start senior pet care on the right foot. A veterinary wellness exam for older dogs and older cats will give you a comprehensive idea of your furry friend’s health. This preventive care measure also allows for the early detection of age-related issues such as arthritis, diabetes, or kidney issues.

Note: Senior dogs and cats are more prone to developing illness than younger pets. Therefore, it is recommended for senior dogs and cats to be brought to their vet for a wellness exam at least twice a year. Regular check-ups, including bloodwork and screenings, enable early intervention for health issues — which generally leads to better prognoses.

2. Nutrition Tailored to Older Dogs & Older Cats

Older dogs and cats have different nutritional needs than younger pets. Veterinarians can help create nutrition plans that promote weight management, joint health, and healthy organ function — to ensure an older dog’s or cat’s overall well-being. By speaking with a veterinarian, pet parents can get expert recommendations for senior pet foods that are rich in antioxidants, joint-supporting compounds, and easily digestible proteins. 

Note: Senior dogs and cats may also exhibit picky eating habits. Though it is normal for older cats and dogs to have a decreased appetite, too much picky eating and weight loss can be detrimental to their health. If you observe this in your older dog or cat, reach out to a veterinarian. 

3. Appropriate Exercise for Older Pets

As dogs and cats get older, they may exhibit mobility issues, joint issues, and/or reduced energy. They need to get the right type (and amount) of exercise to keep excess weight at bay, promote great circulation, reduce inflammation, and even improve joint mobility.

In general, senior dogs can benefit from low-impact activities, such as gentle walks, swimming, and interactive play

Meanwhile, senior cats can generally benefit from interactive toys, regular cat games, and scratching posts. Cat parents can also get senior-cat-friendly climbing structures  — these are typically padded, lower, and have the hidey hole or bed on the base level, which means climbing is always optional. 

Finding the right type of exercise for your older dog’s or older cat’s specific needs is yet another aspect of senior pet care that pet parents can discuss with veterinarians during a pet’s wellness exams.

n older dog or senior dog getting appropriate moderate outdoor exercise

4. Grooming for Older Dogs and Cats

An older cat’s or dog’s coat gets dull and prone to matting as they age. This is particularly true for senior cats that no longer have the mobility to reach certain parts of their body. Regular monthly baths (unless otherwise recommended by your veterinarian) will help keep their fur clean. Regular weekly brushing helps distribute natural oils, preventing matting and skin issues. 

Make sure to also trim an older dog’s or cat’s nails as long nails can affect their mobility. Last but not least, regular ear cleaning (as-needed for cats and every 2 -4 weeks for dogs) will help keep ear infections at bay.

5. Thorough Dental Care

Older cats and dogs are prone to dental problems. Dental issues (e.g. tooth decay, periodontal disease) can lead to pain, difficulty eating, and systemic health problems. This is why it’s important to implement a regular dental care routine — including professional dental cleaning by the vet and at-home toothbrushing.

Daily toothbrushing for dogs and cats is ideal — but twice or thrice a week toothbrushing for dogs and cats also yields benefits. In additon, it is recommended for senior pets to get a dental exam and dental cleaning twice a year, unless otherwise recommended by the veterinarian.

6. Creating a Comfortable Environment

Both older dogs and cats generally prefer soft bedding, especially if they are suffering from arthritis. It is also important to note that older dogs and cats tend to get cold easily. A blanket or two will also be helpful in keeping your fur baby warm. In addition, make sure to position their bed away from drafts.

An older aging cat or senior cat that has a comfortable bed to rest in which is especially necessary for older cats

7. Maintaining Cognitive Health for Senior Pets

Some senior pets may experience cognitive issues, resulting in disorientation and increased anxiety. Engaging older dogs and older cats with mental stimulation activities will help maintain their cognitive function. Puzzle toys and interactive games are helpful for both dogs and cats. 

Basic training exercises and exploring new dog friendly destinations can be other sources of mental stimulation for dogs. 

Aside from giving mental stimulation, these enriching activities also give emotional benefits for pets as they get to bond with their favorite person.

8.  Managing Any Chronic Conditions

As pets age, they may develop chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, or heart disease. Work closely with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive management plan. This may include medications, dietary adjustments, cold laser therapy for their joints, and lifestyle modifications tailored to your pet's specific needs.

Note: For pet parents who need to get a regular supply of medications and preventives, refills  and ordering is a breeze with the Sploot Vets app, available on Google Play and App Store.

9. Keeping an Open Line with Your Vet

Regular communication with your veterinarian is crucial for providing great care. It also gives pet parents added peace of mind. Wellness exams are good opportunities for sharing observations about your pet's behavior, appetite, and any changes in activity. As for any concerning symptoms (e.g. severe changes in behavior, sudden illness, and injury), feel  free to reach out to an urgent pet care veterinarian, like Sploot. 

Note: Our Sploot Vets app provides a live chat feature to help pet parents easily connect to our veterinary professionals.

A senior dog or older dog getting a wellness exam at Sploot Veterinary Care, a primary and urgent vet clinic with locations in Denver and Chicago

Final Thoughts on Caring for Older Dogs & Older Cats

Caring for older dogs and aging cats is a rewarding responsibility. By understanding and addressing their changing needs, pet owners can ensure that their furry companions enjoy a comfortable, fulfilling, and happy life in their golden years. 

Regular veterinary care, a nutritious diet, appropriate exercise, and all the tips listed in this guide contribute to the overall well-being of senior pets. If you have further questions about taking care of an older dog or older cat, we’re here to help!

Sploot Veterinary Care is a primary & urgent pet care veterinary clinic, with daily appointment availability. Our clinic doors are open from 10 am to 10 pm, 365 days a year. Schedule an appointment easily online or through the Sploot Vets App. All of our locations also accept walk-ins and urgent intakes

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