November is National Senior Pet Month!

Senior Pets
By:  IVMA Member Dr. Leslie Brooks

November is National Senior Pet Month! With the advancement and growth of veterinary medicine, funding, and research over the past few decades, our pets are living longer, healthier, and happier lives than ever before. While this is wonderful for the human-animal bond, it also means we should be aware of normal aging changes and things we can do as pet owners to make life a little more comfortable for our senior pets.

What Age is Considered Senior?
The age at which a dog or cat is considered senior depends on the species and the breed. For instance, large and giant dog breeds tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller dog breeds. And cats can, on average, live longer than most dogs.
While every pet may age differently, here are some general guidelines to help you determine when your pet may be considered a senior:

  • Cats: > 8-10 years of age
  • Dogs > 50 pounds: > 6 years of age
  • Dogs < 50 pounds: > 8 years of age

Veterinary Care for Your Senior Pet
As your pet gets older, their healthcare requirements will need to adapt to their new needs. Older pets may need to visit the vet more often than younger pets to check in on any chronic medical conditions, and to check for any new medical conditions that could arise. If your pet has stayed up-to-date on all of their adulthood vaccines, your vet may recommend that vaccines begin to be spaced out further or that some just aren’t necessary anymore. The one vaccine that will need to still be given, though, is rabies.  Also, senior pets are prone to developing health conditions, such as arthritis, that need to be managed and monitored to make sure they are receiving the proper pain control and accommodations to keep them comfortable.

Health Conditions Associated with Senior Pets
While, age is not a disease, there are certain health conditions that affect our senior pets more often than younger ones. Many of these are chronic conditions that should not be ignored just because a pet is older.

Here are a few of the health conditions that are common in old age:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Lumps and Bumps
  • Dental Disease
  • Heart Disease
  • Kidney & Liver Disease
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
  • Neurologic Conditions

While some of these conditions can be easily treated, others will need lifelong management and frequent follow-ups with your veterinarian.  And, it is important to not assume certain changes in your pet are just due to old age. Many of these conditions cause pain, urinary and stool accidents in the home, loss of appetite, nausea, coughing, lethargy, and diarrhea. Always check with your vet if you notice any of these things in an older pet.

Helping Your Senior Pet at Home
Considering all of the health conditions listed above that could affect our senior pets, it may seem overwhelming to think about taking are of an elderly pet. However, there many things available these days to help you, your family, and your senior pet adjust to this new lifestyle.


  • Non-slick walking surfaces – Senior dogs suffering from arthritis greatly benefit from making sure the floors in the home are not slippery. If you have carpet- wonderful! If you have hardwood floors or any other type of slick surface, try to lay down as many rugs as you can so your dog always has a non-slick surface to step on. There are also special toe grips for dogs that can help them to stand up on slick surfaces.
  • Easily accessible food and water – Make sure their water and food bowls are easily accessible for them and close enough to wherever they like to rest during the day so they can easily get to them. Even more importantly, make sure your dog does not have to cross a slippery surface to get to them.
  • Potty pads –Take your dog out for potty breaks as often as you can. If your senior dog has developed issues with incontinence, try to provide them with potty pads around the home, or at least on their bedding so that if they have some leakage or an accident, they are kept dry. This can also help you by giving them designated places in the home where they are allowed to potty if they can’t make it outside in time.
  • Ramps – Evaluate your home for where stairs are and how many stairs your dog has to go up or down to be with you, or even just to go outside to use the potty. It is often necessary to put non-slip ramps over or beside stairs that may be in the way of your dog being able to go outside easily or get from one room to another in the house.
  • New expectations –You’ll also have to take into consideration if your dog that once ran upstairs to sleep with you at night can no longer make it up the stairs—do you sleep downstairs on the couch with them now? Or do you train them to get used to sleeping downstairs by themselves? Provide them with large, comfortable bedding. Orthopedic dog beds work great for this.
  • Special harnesses – There are special harnesses available to help maneuver dogs who are big and have a difficult time getting around. The Help-em-up harness is a great option, especially for very large dogs with arthritis or neurological issues.
  • Good nursing care –If your dog lies around most of the day, make sure to check their body over to look for any sore spots. These will most likely occur over their pressure points, such as their hips and elbows. Just like people, dogs can get pressure sores. Make sure they are changing positions throughout the day- and some dogs may need you to help them change positions. If you notice pressure sores, take a picture to send to your vet to see if they need to be on any antibiotics.
  • Also, make sure to keep them clean and dry. If your dog has incontinence or accidents in the house, you will need to wash around their bottom daily to make sure they do not get urine scald or an infection.
  • Pay attention to your dog’s toe nails. Since your dog isn’t out walking around as much, it is common for their toe nails to grow very long, and even curl around into their paw pads. You will need to cut them more often, or have a groomer cut them for you.


  • Since senior cats are more subtle than dogs in showing any signs of arthritis or aging, you will need to be more proactive in making accommodations for them.
  • Litter boxes – Offer them wider, more shallow litter boxes so it isn’t so difficult for them to get in and out of them. Alternatively, you can use a litter box with a small ramp.
  • Accessible food and water –Try to keep their food and water in an easily accessible location and make sure to have fresh water available at all times.
  • Accommodations for getting to high places – Cats love to climb up things and be in safe, elevated resting spaces. Even though older cats aren’t quite as able to jump like they used to, they still love to sit in high places. Try to have ramps, low steps, or other options available for your cat to be able to still get to high places without having to jump on or off of them.
  • Grooming – Older cats have a more difficult time grooming themselves, especially on their back and near the base of their tail. This can cause their fur to become matted and get in tight tangles on their skin.Try to brush your senior cat every day. Find a gentle brush with soft bristles and only do what your cat will tolerate. If you notice they are starting to get matted fur and can’t get them out on your own, you may need to schedule a grooming appointment so the matted fur can safely be removed.
  • Clip your cats toe nails regularly. Older cats’ claws tend to grow thick, curl around, and can grow into their paw pads. This can lead to pain and infection. If you have trouble clipping their toe nails, you will need to set up regular appointments with a groomer or at their vet clinic.

**There are more and more veterinary clinics and groomers that do house calls these days. It is often more feasible and better for both you and your senior pet if you can have a groomer come to your home for grooming needs (nail trims, matted fur), and a veterinarian come to your home for veterinary needs.**

Quality of Life Discussion
As your senior pet begins to show mental or physical changes with age, you should talk with your vet ahead of time to know what to expect with continued aging, and how to know if they have a good quality of life.  This will vary for every individual pet. It will depend on their health conditions, their ability to get around, and their mental state. This will also depend on your ability and capability to care for them. For instance, it is very difficult for some people to provide adequate nursing care to a 100-pound dog that can’t get around on their own, not to mention the safety considerations for the pet owner’s own health or physical condition.  There are many different factors to consider when discussing quality of life for our pets, so if your vet hasn’t already brought it up with you, start the conversation now so you can have time to prepare for when the time comes to discuss end of life care as well.

For more information on caring for senior pets, please visit: