Pet Connection: Help your pet have a comfortable old age

It gets us all in the end. But just as exercising, eating right and mental gymnastics can help humans live longer and better, the same is true for dogs and cats. We want to share the best ways to promote longevity for animals as they enter their middle and senior years.

But first, what defines a senior pet?

That depends on species, breed and size. Cats tend to enter the golden years between the ages of 7 and 11. Some dogs show brain aging as early as 6 or 7 years, while others seem to remain young in heart and mind until they are 10 to 12 years old. Toy poodles and Chihuahuas are among the longest-lived breeds, and some are still bouncing around at 15 and living to be 20 or more.

The important thing to remember is that every dog and cat is an individual, so the age at which they start to show physical or mental decline can vary. To improve your pet’s chances of living into old age gracefully, he needs five things: regular veterinary care, a great diet, physical exercise, social enrichment and mental stimulation. As he ages, all of these components will help him stay fit and can even improve cognition.

▪  A lot of us operate on the principle “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That might work with cars, but cats and dogs? Not so much. We often don’t see what’s going wrong with pets because they don’t complain, and it’s easy to miss subtle signs. An annual veterinary exam, or even twice a year for seniors if you can swing it financially, means that your pet is getting the once-over from your veterinarian’s fresh eyes and experienced perspective. That can make all the difference in catching diseases early so they can be treated or managed more effectively.

▪  Stick with your pet’s normal, high-quality food if he’s still healthy and active, but make sure he doesn’t eat too much, especially if he’s less active than he once was. If he’s putting on weight, your veterinarian may recommend a lower-fat senior diet. If he’s too thin, he may need a food that’s higher in protein and fat. Pets with health problems such as kidney failure or heart disease may need special diets. If you’re concerned about cognitive impairment, ask your veterinarian about one of the foods containing supplements that improve brain function.

▪  Keep him moving, within the limits of his age and abilities. If he can’t run, walk. If he can’t walk as far, take shorter walks. If his mobility isn’t what it once was, play gentle games indoors or in your yard.

▪  Keep his brain busy. Pets need consistent mental and social stimulation. Make mealtime more challenging with a feeding maze or a toy he must move to make the food fall out. Play hide-and-seek games at home, practice his obedience skills or start training him for a sport such as nose work, which can be played by dogs of any size or age. Heck, tell him about that story you heard on NPR on the way home. He probably won’t offer an opinion on it, but listening to you and interacting with you will help his brain stay limber. This type of enrichment is vital for a dog’s or cat’s physical, mental and behavioral health.

Most important, never assume that nothing can be done to mitigate the effects of aging. If you notice that your dog or cat seems less active or playful, is confused or starts to break housetraining when he never did before, tell your veterinarian. Those can be signs of cognitive dysfunction or a medical problem that can be treated. With treatment or environmental changes, your old pet may have a new lease on life.

The buzz

Shelter medicine programs at the University of California, Davis, and University of Florida plan to save the lives of a million cats over the next five years. The Million Cat Challenge hopes shelters and animal control facilities will sign on to one or more of the following five initiatives: finding alternatives that will keep cats in homes or the community rather than in shelters; managing admission to correspond with a shelter’s ability to provide safe, humane care; matching the number of cats in a shelter at any given time with the shelter’s capacity to ensure their welfare; removing barriers to adoption; and returning healthy, unowned cats to the areas where they were trapped after sterilizing and vaccinating them.

▪  Virginia has become the first state whose attorney general has formed an animal law unit. The attorney general’s staff will assist local and state law enforcement and other agencies with cases involving animal welfare, animal fighting or animal abuse. “We’ve seen firsthand in Virginia that animal fighting is associated with other serious crimes such as drug distribution, possession of illegal alcohol or firearms, assaults and illegal gambling,” says Attorney General Mark R. Herring. “There’s also evidence that abuse of animals or exposure to animal abuse, especially by young people, can be predictive of future abusive or criminal behavior.”

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Dr. Becker can also be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.