What does “healthy aging” mean for your pet? Is it the same as for you? Basically, the answer is yes, with one glaring difference. Your pet cannot be trusted to tell you when something is starting to go wrong. Subtle warning signs of a problem may resemble age-related changes. For example, increased sleeping might be a headache or blurred vision. Difficulty rising could be arthritis, but could also be weakness related to low blood pressure, altered electrolytes, bone pain, or dizziness. We humans also tend to rationalize and “anthropomorphize” our pet’s issues, which can sadly delay diagnosis of many treatable diseases. Then it seems surprising when our pets are really sick and we hear of the degree or chronicity of the problem.
Given the rapidity of animal aging and their short life span, the only way to reliably monitor aging is by frequent visits to the veterinarian with an examination and geriatric lab work including a Complete Blood Count, Chemistry Panel and a Urinalysis. Chronic kidney disease is one of top three diseases of geriatric pets and kidney failure is only reliably diagnosed by checking a urine sample for concentrating ability (urine specific gravity.) Ideally, this should be every six months for a dog over nine to 10 years (over seven years for Giant Breeds like Great Danes) and every year for cats over 10 years of age. For exotic pets, these recommendations will vary depending on the size and type of pet. This can become expensive and makes a good argument for pet insurance to cover some of the ongoing costs. When choosing a pet insurance, take care to check for geriatric exclusion clauses given that many pet insurance companies are also aware that aging pets require more care.
What else can we do to fend off some of the preventable changes of aging? Just as in humans, a healthy diet and exercise are crucial. Most commercial and many alternative diets are complete, but when in doubt, your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist will be able to consult on the appropriateness of the diet. Most “senior” diets do not have significant changes in ingredients or electrolytes that make them better than regular diets. Supplements like fish oil may have a place in treatment of canine osteoarthritis, but their role in prevention of other diseases such as heart disease or dementia is unknown. I still recommend them if there is no fish in the pet’s diet. There are instances when fish oil supplements are discouraged, specifically in some human cancers during chemotherapy.
Exercise of the body and mind are both important to provide your aging pet. Exercising with your dog has been found to improve health for the human in multiple research studies, and the reverse is likely true as well. The cardiovascular and muscular strength that moderate exercise provides is important to keep both healthy, but also serves as a reserve when you are sick. This reserve strength will improve recovery after accidents, surgery or other health issues. Outdoor exercise is also a mental boost for our dogs with input into all their senses. Time spent with their owner is also important for mental health, so part of a moderate exercise program should include an interactive component.
Exercising a cat or exotic pet can be a little more difficult, to say the least, but is extremely important given the high rate of obesity in our pets. Cats may enjoy chasing a toy on a wand or chase toys or balled up socks, but sadly some cats are not interested in chasing. For these cats, a companion cat or dog may provide some impetus for moving around even if it’s just to get away from the other animal. (Conflict can provide good stimulation ;) A younger cat could keep the older cat more active both physically and cognitively. The same is likely true for birds and small mammals.
At home, grooming and petting your cat or dog provides both with the benefits of companionship. Having friends and relationships is as important for our pets as for us. Studies in humans have shown increased longevity and mental health for those people who actively continue human interaction and relationships. Sometimes a pet and their human can become isolated from the rest of the world and this is not healthy for either individual. One of the least judgmental places for dog owners is the dog park where dogs of all sizes, temperaments and interests congregate with their humans of the same variability. For indoor-only cats, frequent household visitors and companionship with other housecats should provide good stimulation.
The best part of living with a pet is having a good friend who lives every day to its fullest. We can follow their example while we age as well and continue to fully enjoy each moment.
Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes