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How to Care for Senior Pets

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How to Care for Senior Cats and Dogs

Pets are living longer than ever thanks in part to advances in veterinary medicine and great care by their pet parents. This is wonderful news since it means more time together with our furry family members. Knowing how to care for your senior pet can help them live as long as possible.

Defining the Term "Senior"

You may be surprised to learn that there's no one age when a pet becomes "senior." That's because the aging process varies for individual pets based on factors including their species, size, and environment.

Generally speaking, cats might be considered senior anywhere from 7 to 11 years old. Giant breed dogs are often seniors by age 5 or 6. Large and medium-sized dogs may be seen as senior at about 7 or 8 years old. Small dogs like Chihuahuas can live to be 20 years old, so 6 or 7 may only be middle age for them.

Common Health Problems

As pets get older, they may be more prone to certain health issues. Some of the most common conditions for senior pets include:

  • Dental disease – Tooth and gum problems can be painful and make it difficult for your pet to eat. Dental disease can also contribute to liver, heart, and respiratory infections, especially in older animals with lowered immune system function. Fortunately, dental disease can be prevented with regular brushing along with routine cleanings at your veterinarian's office.
  • Cancer – Senior pets may be more likely to develop cancer. Lymphoma, which is cancer of the white blood cells, is common for both dogs and cats. Dogs may also be more at risk for soft tissue, skin, breast, and bone cancer.
  • Arthritis – This degenerative joint disease tends to be more common in larger dogs, but it can happen to any sized dog or cat. Arthritis can affect your pet's mobility making it difficult for your pet to go up or down the stairs, jump up onto the couch, or climb into the car. It can be managed with anti-inflammatory and pain medications, as well as weight control and moderate exercise.
  • Kidney disease – Kidney failure is commonly seen in senior cats. Although it can't be reversed, it can be treated through treatments such as special diets, fluid therapy, and medications. The earlier it's caught, the better the prognosis can be for your pet so be sure to visit the veterinarian regularly.
  • Thyroid disorders – Hypothyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones, is often seen in senior dogs. It can result in increased water consumption, hair loss with dry skin, weight gain with no clear reason, and decrease in mental sharpness. Senior cats are more likely to have hyperthyroidism where the gland overproduces hormones causing symptoms such as weight loss despite a healthy appetite, rapid heart rate, and increased thirst.
  • Hearing and vision loss – Like humans, dogs and cats may see declines in their ability to see and hear as they get older. You may need to take extra steps to care for a pet with hearing loss like training them to understand hand signals. Failing vision may be caused by cataracts or glaucoma, which may be treated with surgery or medications.
  • Senility – Senior pets may have memory, learning, or other cognitive issues. They may seem confused, forgetful, or anxious and exhibit changes in behavior, such as wandering around aimlessly.

fluffy cat looking to the side

Veterinary Care

Senior pets should visit the veterinarian at least twice a year for routine check-ups. This can help your veterinarian detect health issues in the early stages when they’re easier to treat. It also allows them to stay on top of existing health issues and recommend changes in your pet's care as needed.


Nutritional needs change as pets get older. For instance, they won't need to take in as many calories if their activity levels decrease. They may also benefit from foods that are easier to digest or geared to help manage specific disorders. Ask your veterinarian for help determining the healthiest diet for your senior pet.


Your senior pet may be slowing down and seem less interested or downright resistant to activities like going for walks or playing games. However, senior dogs and cats need exercise to help maintain a healthy body weight, maintain muscle mass, and keep them from getting bored, which can lead to unwanted behaviors. Talk to your veterinarian about options for exercise, including swimming and physical therapy exercises.

Mental Stimulation

Senior pets need mental as well as physical exercise. Some ways to do this include teaching them new tricks and providing them with treat-filled puzzle toys. This kind of stimulation can help keep your senior pet mentally sharp and reduce anxiety.

long-haired greying dachshund


There are alterations you can make around your home to help improve your senior pet's quality of life. For instance:

  • Set up pet steps or ramps so your pet can get up to their favorite spots more easily. They can be purchased online or at your local pet store. Make sure they're safe and sturdy. You don't want your pet to fall and get injured.
  • Make sure essential items such as food and water bowls, pet beds, and litterboxes are accessible. For instance, you may need to move the litterbox to the main floor if your cat is having difficulty with stairs.
  • Try raising your pet's food and water bowls if they’re having difficulty eating or making a mess at mealtime.
  • Consider buying an orthopedic bed, which can help relieve aching joints and provide them with a cozy place to rest.
  • Look into a litterbox with a lower front lip. Senior cats may have difficulty getting in and out of their regular litterbox or one with a hood.
  • Provide extra light at night and in darkened stairways to help pets feel more secure when moving around the house.
  • Consider purchasing a dog collar light to help illuminate their path when outside.

Safety is also an important concern for senior pets. While you may have pet-proofed your home at one time, you should take another look around to see if you need to make any changes, especially if your pet has mobility, vision, or hearing issues. Make sure your home is free of hazards that could harm your pet.

handsome black cat

Adopting a Senior Pet

If you’re thinking about adopting a pet, give some thought to welcoming a senior cat or dog into your home. They're already trained, but they can still learn new tricks. They may also be calmer and quieter, which can be a better fit for households with older adults or small children.

Plus, you could save a life. Senior pets tend to be overlooked for puppies and kittens, which can put them at risk of being euthanized at overcrowded shelters. And just because they're older, it doesn't mean they have health or behavioral problems. They may be just the sort of loveable companion you're looking for.

Senior Pets and Pet Insurance

Pet insurance is a great way to get help manage the costs of veterinary care for a senior pet. It can cover accidents as well as common ailments, such as arthritis, cancer, and thyroid problems. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance doesn't have an upper age limit, so you can enroll your senior pet at any age. Get a personalized quote now.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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