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The bond between owner and pet is something that cannot really be described. Especially with older pets, there is a level of comfort and a knowingness that ‘this is my pet’ and ‘this is my human.’ There is a companionship and a sense of belonging that is unique and special. 

For many human companions, the aging of a pet is a difficult time. They go through many changes, both physically and mentally – and often, it might feel like it is all happening too soon. However, this is a natural progression of their lives, and there are some things that you can look out for to help them through this transition.

Pets age quicker than humans. It isn’t exactly true that 1 human year equates to one dog (or cat) year. Smaller pets live longer, while larger breeds might have shorter life spans. A cat that is 7 years old in human years is around 54 in cat years. Similarly, a dog that is 7 years in human years is between 44 and 56 years in dog years (depending on the size of the dog). 

It is around this point when cats and smaller dogs are considered to be geriatric. Larger dogs are considered to be geriatric at about 6 human years. The good news is that advances in veterinary care and dietary products can help your pet live happier for longer. 

Your pet cannot tell you when something is wrong. Sometimes the signs and symptoms are quite obvious, but often – especially with older pets – it might not be noticeable at first if you don’t pay attention. Some medical conditions become more challenging to treat as they advance. Paying close attention to your pet, especially as they get older, can help you identify any issues quicker. 

Writing down any changes in their behavior can help you keep track of what is happening with your pet. This could mean that you can get them the medical care they need earlier. You would want to pay close attention to their behavior, sleeping patterns, bodily functions, and any physical changes like lumps or bumps that develop. You can also note whether there is a change in their appetite or thirst, weight gain or loss, energy levels, and mental awareness.

 

How can I tell my pet is in pain?

As they get older, your pet could experience health problems similar to what we find in older people. This could include cancer, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, kidney or urinary tract issues, weakness, senility, and joint or bone diseases. 

Although arthritis is a relatively common cause of pain in pets, their pain could also be caused by other ailments. Degeneration of the nerves, muscle mass loss or weakness, and torn or injured ligaments could all contribute to your pet’s pain. Similarly, inflammation of organs or respiratory or heart disease could also cause them to have pain.

Arthritis is common in older cats and dogs. It could cause them to have trouble getting up and down stairs, jumping, bending down, or walking on slippery floors like tiles or hardwood. Arthritis is inflammation in the joints that causes pain and stiffness. Because of this, you could see your pet favoring one limb or having difficulty sitting or standing. They may also not be as playful as they used to be, running and jumping less. You might notice that they are stiff or limp slightly in the mornings or when they get up from a long nap. 

The pain and discomfort in a limb could cause them to excessively lick or chew at the area. This could cause a gold spot and even damage the skin and is a definite sign to look out for. Severe pain can manifest as irritability and even aggression, so look out for changes in your dog’s behavior.

Other behavior that you could see is a reluctance to be groomed or picked up. Pain, and especially pain from osteoarthritis, can become generalized. That means that your pet could experience pain in parts of their body other than just the joints affected by inflammation. If they are in pain, they will show signs of discomfort while being groomed. They will also engage less and less in self-grooming efforts. 

Your pet might be experiencing back pain if they start to resist when you want to pick them up. The pressure of your hands pulling them up could be increasing the pain that they have along their spine, and thus they will pull away or crouch when you try to pick them up.

 

Anxiety in my older pet.

Older dogs often have more anxiety. They might become more sensitive and easily irritable, especially when they are around unfamiliar people or pets. They might show an increased need to be touched or follow you around and show higher levels of anxiety when they are left alone. 

Anxiety (including nighttime separation anxiety) could stem from physical changes to your older pet’s body. Higher levels of anxiety could be caused by medical conditions affecting your pet’s mobility, cognition, hormones, senses, or appetite. It could also be caused by conditions that cause inflammation and pain. 

Pets who are experiencing vision or hearing problems could show signs of anxiety, especially if they need to navigate tricky surroundings like going up or down stairs. Their sensitivity to noise can also make them anxious, especially when someone approaches them from behind. Your pet could develop fears or phobias of things or situations that didn’t bother them before when they start to develop sensory decline.

Another factor that could contribute to higher levels of anxiety could be due to changes in the family like a divorce, death, birth, or a new pet. In fact, anything that could change their routine and the predictability of their daily lives could cause them anxiety. This includes changes in their environment, like moving home or even going on vacation!

Older dogs are particularly prone to separation anxiety – where they become anxious when you are not around. They might even experience this during the night while you are sleeping. Your pet might act out on their separation anxiety at night by trying to wake you up: pacing around, panting, or even pawing at you. 

Your pet’s anxiety could manifest as them pacing or being restless, panting, or drooling with no other cause. They might hide or tremble and lose control of their bladder or bowel. Your anxious pet can also seem depressed or disinterested. Anxiety could also show up as destructive behavior or house soiling. If your pet is anxious, they might not want to eat and spend either more or less time sleeping. 

If your pet is experiencing anxiety, they might start vocalizing more by howling or whining (in dogs) or meowing (in cats). If they have anxiety, they will likely vocalize more in situations where they didn’t do it before. It is their way of getting your attention and telling you: ‘I’m not ok here.’ 

In some cases, higher levels of anxiety could show up as increased aggression. This could be directed to unfamiliar people and pets. 

As your pet gets older, it is likely that they will encounter pain and anxiety. This could manifest as physical limitations, or you could notice a change in their behavior. Paying close attention to your pets and noting changes in the way they move or behave can help you to get them the care that they need sooner. This can significantly improve their experience as they transition into old age. 

References:

How to Care for an Aging Pet | Health.com

How to Care for an Aging Pet – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Senior pet care FAQ | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

Caring for Your Aging Pet – What You Need to Know – One Green Planet

Helping Your ‘Good Old Dog’ Navigate Aging : NPR

Six Tips on Caring for Older Dogs | The Bark

Senior Pet Care Tips • MSPCA-Angell

What to Do When Your Dog Gets Old (thesprucepets.com)

Treating Arthritis in an Older Dog | The Grey Muzzle Organization

How to Help An Older Dog with Arthritis and Other Mobility Problems (preventivevet.com)

Pain Relief for Senior Dog Joints | Hill’s Senior Pets (hillstransforminglives.co.za)

How to Recognize Pain in Aging Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)

Old Dog Pain Relief: Safe Options for Senior Dog Pain Management (chewy.com)

Caring for Senior Dogs: Canine Arthritis 101 | Petfinder

Back Pain in Older Dogs: What You Should Know | PetCoach

Behavior Problems in Older Dogs | ASPCA

Old Dog Anxiety & How To Help (seniortailwaggers.com)