While it's easy to spot the outward signs of aging such as graying haircoat and slower pace, it's important to remember a pet's body is also changing on the inside. Senior pets are more likely to develop certain health problems. Cancer is the cause of death in almost half of dogs and about a third of cats over 10 years old. Here are some signs of cancer to look out for:
- Abdominal swelling
- Bleeding from the mouth, nose, or other body openings
- Difficulty eating, swallowing, or breathing
- Lumps, bumps, or discolored skin
- Non-healing sores
- Persistent diarrhea or vomiting
- Decreased appetite or body weight
- Unexplained swelling, heat, pain, or lameness
Here are some of the other most common health problems as pets age:
- Heart disease
- Kidney or urinary tract disease
- Liver disease
- Joint or bone disease
- Overweight or obesity
- Vision or hearing loss
It is normal for pets to lose some of their sight and hearing as they age, similar to people. Senior pets might develop cataracts affecting their vision, and they might not respond as well to voice commands.
Pets with poor eyesight or even blindness can still get around well as long as they are familiar with their surroundings. If your pet's eyesight is failing, avoid rearranging or adding furniture or other items that could become obstacles.
Teaching your pet hand signals at a younger age might make it easier for you to communicate with your pet as their hearing worsens with age. Training them to respond to simple gestures that indicate “come” or “stop” can allow you to safely retain control of your pet without the use of words.
Changes in behavior
Behavior changes in your pet can be the first signs of aging. These changes might be due to discomfort or pain (as with arthritis), worsening sight or hearing, certain diseases, or just the normal aging process. A type of brain impairment called “cognitive dysfunction,” which is similar to senility in people, also may be responsible.
Common behavior changes in senior pets with cognitive dysfunction include the following:
- Increased reaction to strange or loud sounds
- Increased barking/meowing
- Increased aggressive/protective behavior
- Increased anxiety
- Acting disoriented or confused
- Increased wandering
- House soiling (“accidents”)
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Less interest in playing
- Repeating the same actions over and over
- Decreased response to voice commands
- Poorer memory and learning ability
If your pet is showing of these behavior changes or other warning signs of disease, contact your veterinarian and let them know the specific changes you've seen. Sometimes, the changes may seem contradictory — such as signs of hearing loss but increased sensitivity to strange sounds.
Certain diets, medications, and opportunities to interact with their environment can help support brain function in senior pets. Your veterinarian can recommend which ones might be right for your pet.
Changes in activity
Changes in your pet's activity level can be a warning sign of underlying disease. A common cause of activity change is arthritis. You may notice that your pet is starting to avoid activities like running, jumping, climbing stairs, or getting into cars. Other signs of arthritis include the following:
- Favoring a leg
- Walking stiffly
- Difficulty sitting down or standing up
- Sleeping more
- Resisting being touched or petted
- Playing less
- Showing unusual aggression towards people or other pets
There may be other reasons for these changes, too. All are good reasons to have your veterinarian examine your pet to find out what's going on.
Advances in veterinary medicine have made it easier to diagnose and effectively treat arthritis and other aging-related diseases. Your veterinarian can recommend the best tests to determine why your pet's activity level or other behaviors have changed. Once the cause is found, your veterinarian can recommend the most effective treatment.
And treatment doesn't stop with medications. If your pet has arthritis, simple changes or additions to your home can help them feel more comfortable. Examples include orthopedic pet beds, raised feeding platforms, and pet stairs and ramps.