Is Your Pet Considered a Senior or a Geriatric?
Did you know the difference between senior and geriatric? Many people use them interchangeably. You can find out where your pet stands, better understand the signs of aging and support them the best you can to help them.
I have to say, when my dog Star started showing me she was no longer a senior but entering the geriatric phase, I was in denial. She started "ignoring" me on walks. I would call, and she would be sniffing around something interesting in her own little world while the song "Forever Young" stopped in my head. I know I'm being dramatic, but when she fell asleep outside and did not answer frantic calls and a family search, only to find her sleeping peacefully outside lying in a sunbeam, I realized. Oh my God! This is happening. My heart dog is really aging. Combined with many other signs, I will do my best to keep her fit and sharp as she can be, short of signing her up for doggy Lumosity! Read on to learn tips for your aging cats and dogs from my 30 years of veterinary practice experience.
When is your dog considered a senior or a geriatric?
To specify the difference, senior is just a number. Pets over a certain age (considered eight years in most pets), but geriatric means they are becoming frail and encountering loss of abilities. Generally speaking, large breed dogs are considered senior, around 5-6 years old, while small breeds may be considered senior at t 8-10 years old. It can be challenging to accept that your pet is becoming geriatric. Geriatric dogs are more fragile, may be experiencing muscle atrophy and are weaker, causing mobility issues, are often visually impaired, and are more dependent on us overall. They need special attention to their hygiene when they have accidents in the house and sometimes slip and fall in them.
When is my cat considered a senior or a geriatric?
The American Association of Feline Practitioners consider cats to mature at 7 to 10 and seniors at 11 to 14. Geriatric is listed as over 15, but I would argue the signs of being "geriatric" are often not recognized as much in cats.
Signs of geriatric status:
- Hearing loss: They fall asleep somewhere, and you call, and they don't come. They seem to be ignoring you, but they can't hear you calling.
- Loss of vision: They hesitate when approaching stairs up and down. They cringe when a hand reaches for them or a shadow crosses their path even. This is worse at night.
- Mobility issues, more dependence on us to help them with stairs, transitions, and getting up and down
- Cats with mobility issues finally stop jumping on the counter, not because they are finally learning this is off-limits; they can't do it anymore. They will miss their targets when jumping, sleep more, and are more reclusive.
- Altered sleep/wake cycle
- Loss of habits and inability to learn new ones or tricks
- Appears lost at times, gets stuck
- Examples of Cognitive dysfunction/Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is a common age-related condition in older dogs, similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans. It can cause various changes that affect your pup's behavior, including confusion, disorientation, sleep disturbances, loss of house training, and memory problems. As the condition progresses, it can also lead to social withdrawal and decreased responsiveness to family members. They start having accidents in their bed (both fecal and urinary). They get caught by surprise and can't make it to the door. Things you can do:
- Provide a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet with Omega-3 fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides.
- Attention to their weight and body condition. Keep them trim. The more weight they carry, the more likely they are to suffer from arthritis, and obesity is a risk factor for the decline.
- Are they urinating a lot more than they used to? Make sure they have bloodwork to check for kidney, endocrine, or liver issues so that you might intervene with necessary diet adjustments and organ support.
- Provide enrichment. Keep moving. Pets can walk a little and ride a little. Studies show that more active pets are less prone to dementia.
- Consider scent work. Play games and consider puzzles!
- Play and engage with them.
- Keep their nails and dogs and cats with long hair between their pads trimmed to make walking easier and maintain normal posture.
- Protect the feet with booties if they scuff their feet and nails
- Brush them regularly and treat them to a massage while grooming them.
- Cats get clumping of hair along their back because they can no longer groom there. Their nails can become brittle and overgrown and catch on things causing injury. Regular grooming assistance is helpful.
Sleep and Routine
- Keep a routine as much as possible with adequate sleep. You can give melatonin or CBD to calm in the evening before bedtime.
- Schedule more frequent assessments with your veterinarian to control their pain. Discuss calming supplements (such as CBD) and prescriptions if needed.
- Keep them safe by blockading stairs and access to a pool
- Vocalizing and panting at night. Restlessness at night is known as "sundowners" as the sleep/wake cycle is disrupted.
Keep them safe
- Improve footing using yoga mats and runners.
- Consider toe grips or booties for traction on slick floors.
- Make sure they have identification on them and consider a microchip. They make collars that say blind or deaf so that people know when they approach them.
- Get them used to a ramp before you need it. There is nothing worse than trying to get a senior in the car that would otherwise have learned to not be fearful of a ramp.
- Do not walk them in the heat of the day. Many older dogs have loud panting and can overheat easily. Walk early in the day and later when it cools down.
- Don't let them sleep in the sun during the heat of the day. Pets can get skin cancer too, especially if they lack pigmentation/have lighter coloring.
Keep them comfortable/Veterinary care
- Consider acupuncture for pain, calm behavior, and overall wellness. Look into physical therapy/rehabilitation for strengthening and pain management and massage and stretching for comfort. Cats do surprisingly well with acupuncture.
- Brush their teeth and address dental issues with your veterinarian
- Care for senior and geriatric dogs should include regular blood tests and exams to monitor their health more closely so that intervention can be made should they need kidney, liver, or thyroid support, some of the more common conditions seen in older dogs.
- Address any anxiety with your veterinarian and whether supplements or prescriptions can help. Natural ways to calm anxiety include Thunder Shirts, CBD, melatonin at bedtime, and a consistent routine.
- Seniors need more frequent potty breaks. Dogs should go out one last time at night. This will also help keep urinary tract infections at bay as they are more prone and need to go frequently.
- Cats will need litter boxes that are easier to get in and out of. These can be made out of under-the-bed storage boxes that can have one end cut out so they are easy to step into.
By providing your senior with love, attention, and a tailored healthcare plan, you can ensure they enjoy a comfortable and happy retirement. If you’re concerned about any changes in your behavior or cognitive abilities, talk to your veterinarian right away so they can evaluate the situation and provide recommendations for keeping them healthy into their golden years.
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