Everyone loves a puppy or kitten and the whole house gets excited about the idea of bringing one home. Sometimes, in the excitement we forget that taking responsibility for bringing a pet into the house is a lifelong commitment. Both you and your pet are aging and while it may seem trivial when you first bring a puppy or kitten into your home, knowing how to care for an elderly pet will become an important consideration in just a few short years. This article strives to answer some of the most important questions about living with an aging pet.

When will my pet reach “old age”?

There is no single answer to this question. Most veterinarians consider domestic cats “elderly” around 8 – 10 years of age, earlier if the cat lives outside and perhaps a little later if kept indoors. With dogs, it can vary based on size and breed. In general, small dogs (less than 20 lbs) age slowest becoming elderly sometime between 9 and 12 years of age. Medium sized dogs (about 21 to 50 lbs) start to show signs of aging around age 9 to 11 years; large dogs seem to age a bit faster, reaching old age around 7 to 9 years of age; and, the largest breeds’ age quite quickly and show signs of becoming old at age 6 or 7 years.

Do people and pets age at the same rate or in the same way?

No. Our pets often live much shorter life spans than we do, so they age more rapidly than we do in most cases. Domestic pets face a number of what are called “geriatric” diseases unique to their species such as feline leukemia, hip dysplasia (especially in dogs), feline hepatic lipidosis (a liver disease specific to cats) among others. They also suffer from a number of the same “geriatric” diseases as we do such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, bowel disease, hyperthyroidism and dental decay.

As my pets age, do they need shots and vet visits as often as they do when they are younger?

In general, yes. Once they reach adulthood all dogs and cats should have a checkup and vaccine booster (this may vary due to laws in specific areas) every year. Puppies and kittens need to see the vet more often until they’ve had all their shots. Older pets with numerous chronic health issues will also need to see the vet more often.

Are there things I can do to help my pet live a longer, healthier live and if yes, what?

Yes, definitely, beginning a healthy lifestyle when they are young, which include a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, enough rest, clean water, a clean body and environment (including regular bathing, vet and dental exams, as well as flea, tick and heartworm treatment) all contribute to keeping your pet healthy and helping them to live longer and more actively. Remember, as your pet ages, he or she may need to reduce their activity level. They may also need more rest, and more frequent opportunities to go “out”.

Will my pet’s behavior change, as they get older?

Probably, yes. Dogs and cats can lose their sight and/or hearing as they age. In addition to the health conditions mentioned above, all of which can change your pet’s behavior, they also can suffer from senility. Their appetite may either increase or decrease. They may seem more fearful or confused, especially of loud noises or new situations. They may become more aggressive. Some medications such as antibiotics, pain medication and steroids, which are often prescribed to elderly pets may change their behavior.

When my pet starts to show signs of aging, are there things I can do to make their life better or more comfortable and if so, what?

Yes, the most important thing you can do for your pet at any age is to have a relationship with a qualified, experienced veterinarian. After that, make sure the pet is comfortable. Give them a safe, quiet and well-padded place to lie down and “get away from it all”. Often older pets have special dietary needs. They may require softer food, a calorie restricted or enhanced diet or, a diet that addresses some specific health concern such as diabetes, arthritis or hypothyroid. If your pet has vision or hearing problems, make sure you communicate with them in a way that they can understand. If your pet is blind or visually impaired, it’s very important not to rearrange furniture and to provide “safe spots” for the pet to lie down undisturbed.

We can’t do anything about the fact that those we love, including our pets, are aging but there are a number of things we can do to help them live healthier longer and to make their world more comfortable as they age. By asking the right questions and getting the right answers, we can improve our lives and those of our pets.

For more information about pets and aging, visit Kansas State University (http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/pethealth/agingpets101910.html).