What do You Need to Know About Older Pets and Their Health Care

: As we enter our golden years, it’s important to be proactive about our pets’ health. One of the best ways to do this is by getting them checked out regularly by a veterinarian. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about older pets and their health care. From vaccines to senior pet insurance, we’ll cover everything you need to know so you can take care of your loved ones with ease.

Oh, how our emotions can be pulled this way and that! The affection we have for our pets becomes more intense as we watch them age right before our eyes.  And as they begin to reach their later years we have to take special precautions to optimize their health and well being.  Those “Golden Years” with our pets can be a truly wonderful time if we pay attention to their special needs. In this section of The Pet Center you will find some helpful advice for you and your pet. 

Older pets and their health care

Lets take a look at some of the difficulties our older dogs and cats run into simply because they have “been around a while.”   The aging changes we see in dogs and cats are difficulties we humans suffer from, too.  Many times through the years of practice I have paused and watched in sympathetic sadness as an old dog hobbled slowly across the parking lot to the awaiting car…and the dog’s owner, equally hobbled and bent by age shuffling alongside.  When a pet and it’s owner are experiencing similar difficulties on a daily basis there is a special bond, a strong connection of mutual understanding that exists no where else in the human/animal experience. An aging pet can evoke emotions from us at any time; but when an elderly person experiences the rapid aging of a beloved pet the deepest kinds of feelings often surface in the pet owner’s consciousness.  It can be a lonely and deeply personal experience.

major changes when a young dog or cat is compared to an older one


Compared to a young dog or cat an older one may show a 30% decrease in Metabolic Rate.  Very simplified this means that all the chemical reactions that combine to keep the pet alive and working are slowed down.  The “fire” is burning less intensely, hormones are not calling out loudly any more to their target tissues and glucose is in less demand for fuel. The Thyroid Gland has a major part to play in metabolism and as a pet ages the Thyroid hormone simply can’t get things done as fast as it used to. The older pet does not need, nor does not often care, to eat as much as it once did because the demand for energy is so much less.  When the metabolism slows down, all the body’s machinery slows as a result.


Many factors play into the pet’s desire and ability to be mobile, alert and inquisitive.  Older pets often don’t have the energy to fetch or swim, or they may be holding back because of the achy joints and old injuries creating pain and discomfort.   Or it may be that chasing chipmunks is too unsophisticated for an elderly dog or cat…let the youngsters waste their time!  Sometimes an older pet simply cannot see or hear things that used to trigger an impulse to investigate.

By far, though, the most common reason older pets do not “get around” like they used to is arthritis. The wear and tear on joint surfaces and even the buildup of calcium deposits and bone can really impart a restriction of movement and a sense of discomfort in any pet.  Dogs seem to be more susceptible to arthritis than cats, possibly because of size and behavior differences. After a while, some dogs act like they would like to “get up and go” but sense that in doing so they will pay a price in pain.  So why not just park on the couch and relax?  The photo of the X-ray on the right shows a typical arthritic hip joint were a smooth and rounded femoral head (thigh bone) has been remolded and stressed to the point where it actually has a flattened and irregular surface.  The socket part of the hip joint (called an acetabulum) is too shallow to support the weight of the dog properly and the socket, too, has changed its shape in response to the abnormal wearing.  There is even a bony buildup within the joint capsule.  A hip like this will definitely create discomfort.  Also take a look at the X-ray in the Digestive Section below and you will see a view of a spine where nearly all the vertebrae have fused together.  The term for this process is spondylosis.

In recent time there have been a few new products that have made living with arthritis much less stressful for dogs.   Providing them with a measure of comfort allows enhanced activity levels and added zest for life.  The Pfizer Company’s division called Pfizer Animal Health introduced a product called RIMADYL a few years ago that has greatly improved the quality of life for arthritic dogs.  Fort Dodge Labs introduced a once-a-day dosing schedule for a product called EtoGesic.  This non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug promises to be a big step in the right direction for arthritic dogs. A number of other anti-arthritic medications are available from your veterinarian. Conveniently, some can be given once a day and with or without food.  Also, many older pets improve remarkably when supplements are added to even a high quality diet.


It is estimated that 30% of older dogs have noticeable heart problems. Cats don’t seem to have quite the same rate of circulatory disturbances as dogs but can be more difficult to treat because of their smaller size and less predictable response to some medications than dogs.

Dogs and cats have the good fortune to seldom have the predisposition to some of the common vascular disorders humans experience.  Dogs and cats almost never suffer from “heart attacks” where a blood clot obstructs flow through a coronary artery. (Cats occasionally suffer from clot formation in the left ventricle that can pass to the lower aorta at the femoral arteries.   This causes a very serious and painful condition called a “saddle thrombus”, fortunately a rare condition.)  Strokes, resulting from blood clots choking off the blood supply to a part of the brain, are also very rare in dogs and cats and when they do happen, it is usually in a pet that is very aged.

Generally the older dog and cat will suffer from heart rhythm disturbances, some types of which can be corrected with medications.  Also, cardiomegaly (enlarged heart) is common in dogs and cats.   Valve closure defects can be a life shortening affliction in pets.  These various valve defects create what is termed a “heart murmur” where the heart actually sounds leaky and sloppy.

So, as a pet gets older some of these disorders start to occur.  And the disorders that have been present since youth now really make an impact due to the older pet’s weakened overall health status. An older pet simply does not have the ability to exchange and deliver oxygenated blood as efficiently and therefore exercise intensity and frequency drop off.   In severe cases of circulatory impairment the pet will pant frequently and even display a bluish color to the tongue instead of the normal bright pink of well oxygenated tissues. In congestive heart failure the lungs become swollen with fluid because the weakened heart cannot pump the blood through the lungs with the proper dynamics.  As a result the dog  coughs persistently, always seems “out of breath”, and has very low exercise tolerance.

In the last few years there have been some very helpful medications to assist cardiac patients, and special diets with restricted salt content can play in important role, too.  There are veterinarians who are specialists in Cardiology who provide expert care for pet cardiac patients. They can be accessed at The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 


The most obvious sign of aging in a dog (and less in cats) is often seen in their eyes.  That appearance to the center of the eye where instead of being dark or black it really looks like wax paper…that is due to a cataract.  The normally clear lens begins to dehydrate and reflects light back from the eye instead of trapping the light and focusing it on the retina.  There are many categories and causes of cataracts and if necessary the affected lens can be removed by veterinarians with special training. Any dog or cat may develop cataracts but it seems more common in some breeds such as the Boston Terrier.  Some veterinarians specialize in Ophthalmology and do advanced work with older dogs and cats with ocular problems. You can go to the Ophthalmology Specialist’s page here.

Glaucoma, an increase in pressure within the eye, can have serious consequences, too.  Often undetected until intra-ocular damage has been done, Glaucoma can be controlled.  The usual signs are rather general and innocent.  Certain breeds have a greater chance to develop Glaucoma, such as Cocker Spaniels. Be sure to have your veterinarian give a close look at your pet’s eyes especially after they reach 8 years of age.  If equipped, your veterinarian can measure the eye pressure in the office as part of the physical exam.

Tumors of the eye structures do occur.  Any change from what you perceive to be normal about your pet’s eyes is reason enough to have a good examination done.

Skin and Coat

Older pets often have a ragged, mottled appearance to their coat which can simply be a result of a general decline in nutritional health and cellular vigor.  Cats of distinguished age are notorious for not grooming themselves like they did when younger and that’s when the fur mats present themselves!  Frequent brushing of the older pet is very important, plus they like the special attention.
The skin is more susceptible to infection in older pets, especially beneath those fur mats that  form if grooming is lacking.  The skin seems to lose its elasticity and becomes thinner. Some older pets on the “senior” pet food formulas have dry and flaky skin due in part from the restricted fat content of these types of food.  Common sense about bathing, grooming and nutrition will keep the older pet’s skin and coat in optimum condition for the pet’s age.  There are numerous pages about Pet Nutrition… start here.


One of the most overlooked aspects of the older pet’s health status is oral hygiene.  Take a peek into your pet’s mouth and see what condition the teeth and gums present.  You may be surprised.  While you may not see anything like in the photo, a very high percentage of older pets have very poor oral health.  Not only will infected gums and loose, plaque-encrusted teeth be painful for the pet, but also an infected mouth can seed bacteria into the blood stream to be carried throughout the pet’s body.  Cardiac and renal pathology are often a direct result of blood-borne bacteria whose origin is the mouth.  Many older dogs and cats respond very positively after having had a dentistry with tooth extractions.   Antibiotics are a requirement after any dental procedures in an infected mouth environment. Here is an excellent overview of proper oral hygiene in pets and how dental procedures are performed..have a look.

Body Shape

Have you ever gotten the impression that your old dog or cat friend has gotten smaller? You are right.  As the pet advances with age there is a definite decrease in lean body mass (that is the makeup of the pet that is not fat tissue.)  Some pets actually gain total body mass from excessive fat storage.  In general, though, the older pet will have less muscle tissue that it did as a youth due in part from less usage of those muscles.  As well, bone density decreases due to multiple factors, one of which is lack of exercise.  As the pet’s body seems to shrink somewhat there usually is a change in posture, too, so overall appearance can surely be different from what you recall of your pet years ago.


Not surprisingly, many older dogs and cats begin to fail mentally as they reach their teens.  There is no question that they forget such behaviors as how to find the door to go outside.  And sometimes when they are outdoors they will wander off, seemingly looking for home but in the wrong direction!  The neurons in the brain diminish in number and vitality and older pets often will simply lose interest in the things that used to spark activity.  As human research in the aging process’ effects on mental acuity progresses, no doubt our pets will benefit as well.  There is a great discussion of behavior problems in dogs and cats, written by two veterinarians, at this page.

It is not unusual for an older pet to withdraw, too.  They seem to devise a “comfort zone” within which they retreat and often don’t care to have visitors. Contributing to the withdrawal process is their fading sense of awareness…their hearing is dampened, vision is obscured, mobility hampered, and mental alertness clouded.  The smell of food doesn’t excite them either.  So… into their comfort zone they retreat and sleep the dull and uninteresting day away.  Learn about Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in dogs where their mental deterioration can adversely impact their quality of life.   There is a prescription medication called AniprylŽ that may be helpful in assisting better mental acuity in older dogs.


More dogs and cats have died from kidney dysfunction than you would believe!   When I graduated from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine in June of 1970, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to successfully transplant healthy kidneys into dogs and cats terminally ill with renal failure.  I just knew someday it would happen.  It didn’t.

Each kidney is equipped with thousands of little tubules that do the work of filtering out body waste products and passing this fluid waste into the ureters and on to the bladder.  Unfortunately, the tubules do not repair themselves, like skin or muscle do, if they are damaged.  So whenever a tubule is blocked by scar tissue, damaged by toxins like ethylene glycol anti-freeze, harmed by infections like Leptospirosis, or destroyed by pressure from a kidney or bladder stone…the tubule is finished forever!  Even the aging process eliminates tubules over time and eventually there aren’t enough good ones remaining to rid the body of toxins.  A condition called Uremic Poisoning is the result. After an animal is born the number of tubules never increases, always decreases.

As you can see, the health care options for older pets aren’t any different from those used for younger ones. Many vets have specialised in this area and are able to offer high-quality healthcare to help your pet maintain a happy, healthy life. For more information, head to your local vet!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it hard to take care of older pets?

It gets harder to take care of pets as they get older. Aging dog owners frequently battle with their pets’ dementia and incontinence in addition to stumbling through the confusing end-of-life care options.

How do you handle an emotionally aging dog?

Spend enough time crying and grieving. Do not attempt to suppress your feelings like a super hero. When you’re mourning, it’s okay and good to cry, become angry, and vent your feelings. Grief has no temporal limit, in all honesty.

Is pet insurance worth it for older pets?

Older animals have a higher propensity to put on weight, become ill, and lose their ability to fight off illness and disease. The expenditures related to these problems may be partially or entirely covered by pet insurance.

Leave a Comment