Caring for Your Senior Pet

Caring for an aged pet can be a mixed blessing. What a glorious achievement that your cat or dog has become a senior citizen. However, now it is incumbent upon you to recognize and care for special medical needs created by the aging process. Age-related problems can progress so slowly that they may go unnoticed. Here are some tips for recognizing common age-related problems.

Stiffness: Pay particular attention to your elderly dog or cat first thing in the morning. If she appears stiff upon waking, but gradually warms out of the stiffness with activity, chances are she is experiencing some arthritis pain. Talk with your veterinarian about your observations. These days there are a plethora of ways to take the edge off of arthritis pain including supplements, anti-inflammatory medications (made specifically for dogs and cats), acupuncture, and rehabilitation therapy (the equivalent of physical therapy for people).

Ocular changes: Have a close look at your pet’s eyes. Most dogs and cats over the age of ten experience a change in the normally crystal-clear lenses of their eyes that cause the pupils to become gray or cloudy. Your veterinarian can determine whether this change is caused by lenticular sclerosis (an age related condition within the lens that does not impair vision and requires no treatment) versus cataracts (opacifications within the lenses that impair vision). If cataracts are diagnosed, referral to a veterinarian who specializes in ophthalmology is warranted to determine if cataract-induced inflammation within the eyes is present. Depending on your pet’s overall health (and your budget), surgical removal of the cataracts to restore vision may be a viable option.

Decreased appetite: There are a number of reasons why senior dogs and cats can become less interested in the food they used to eat with gusto. The explanation may be a simple one, such as an infected, painful tooth or reluctance to bend down to the food bowl because of neck stiffness. Other more serious causes include age-related organ failure or an underlying infectious or cancerous process. If you find yourself hand feeding your elderly pet or having to “doctor up” her food, time to schedule an appointment to see your veterinarian.

Increased thirst: Have you been filling the water bowl more than usual? Is the litter box soaked after just a day or two? Are you finding puddles of urine around the house? If so, your pet may be drinking more water than normal. Many different medical issues can cause increased thirst in older dogs and cats including urinary tract infections, hormonal imbalances, and kidney or liver failure. Even if your elderly pet appears otherwise happy and healthy, her increased thirst is a “heads up” that a trip to the vet is warranted. Her urine will need to be tested, so arrival with a full bladder (hers, not yours) will be appreciated!

Urinary incontinence: Finding a puddle of urine where your dog or cat normally sleeps is evidence that she has urinary incontinence (involuntary urine leakage). There are a myriad of causes for this messy problem in senior pets including urinary tract infections, loss of sphincter tone where the bladder joins the urethra, hormonal imbalances, organ failure, and urinary tract cancer. Medications that can be administered at home have the potential to result in significant improvement. So, if your little snookums is soaking the bed, be sure to schedule a visit with your veterinarian to discuss diagnostic and treatment options.

Elderly pets should receive a thorough veterinary health exam at least twice a year. The sooner medical issues are detected and diagnosed, the greater the likelihood for a positive outcome.

Are you caring for an older dog or cat? If so, what medical issues have become apparent?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.





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13 Comments on “Caring for Your Senior Pet

  1. Dr. Kay, once again, thank you for such an informative article.
    Not only is it an honor to have a pet who reaches a “senior” age, it is a journey. Just as we sometimes become “parents” to our aging parents, so must we be extra vigilant and extra patient when we have senior pets.
    Cognition changes is another thing that comes along with parenting a senior pet. They may be somewhat “confused”, may vocalize more, may have problems “hitting” the litter box, (unrelated to illness) and those of us who love our senior babies “put up with” these things just as we do with our aging human loved ones.
    We have two kitties, one 19 and one 13, and they bring us such joy. Every day that they are still with us is a gift.
    Thank you for your very thougtful blogs and for always giving us such good medical information, as well as food for thought.

  2. Hi Nancy! Thanks for this wonderful article highlighting the joys and challenges of providing love and care for senior dogs! I wanted to briefly mention my beloved dog Sadie’s declining years. I had been studying acupressure for horses during her later years, and began applying acupressure treatments to Sadie for all that ailed her: 2 bouts of vestibular, hip weakness, bladder and bowel weakness, stiffness…Sadie learned to love our “sessions” which were incorporated into any petting, brushing or hugging. If we missed a day or two her gut would revolt and Sadie would come to me and lay down so I could work on her tummy points. There are more acupressure programs and books available these days than there were then-I highly recommend “Four Paws, Five Directions” (hope I can say that here.) IMO all senior pet owners would benefit by learning just a few basic points. Thanks again for all you do!

  3. I feel that all too often symptoms like not being as active, gaining weight, grumpiness etc. are being blamed on old age when in reality they are symptoms of a treatable medical condition. When my Great Pyrenees started with some anxiety issues at age 9 1/2 I had him checked out. He needed a tooth fixed and I was told bloodwork was okay including his thyroid levels. For various reasons I never got a copy of his labwork to look at it myself. So throughout the winter as I noticed his reluctance to go out when it was cold and when he slept in instead of wanting to run outside, I thought it was age catching up, we had started him on pain meds, but it did not make him more active. In the spring I finally got a copy of his labwork and much to my dismay I noticed his thyroid level was very low normal, so I requested a redraw and now it was below normal. Starting him on thyroid meds has once again turned him into a very active and lively dog, he is out doing his job, no more sleeping in this winter, he is ready to go in the morning hopping around and play bowing with excitement, he will be 11 in June. He neither looks nor acts his age. He eats a diet that is 30 to 40 percent protein. He is lean and has good muscle mass, still weighs the same as he did the last 6 years.

  4. Lumps! Lots of lumps! Lipomas and mammary cancer and moles and sebaceous adenomas and melanoma and cysts and what-not. The melanoma was the scariest. It was on the very black lip of a very black dog and I didn’t notice it until it was the size of a chick pea.

    Dental disease! My snot-nosed dog turned out to be a pus-nose dog, with pus coming up from his bad tooth into his sinuses. Tooth gone. “Allergies” gone! All my geriatrics have had dental issues. Is it more common in older dogs?

    re: stiffness. My sweet Kami’s neck stiffness turned out to be from meningitis, which went untreated because my vet assumed it was arthritis. It went up into her brain and she got worse and worse and he said “she’s an old dog” as explanation. So my advice – get a second opinion from a specialist if your vet doesn’t seem interested in geriatrics, or get a new vet. Some seem to love the oldies more than others.

    re: deafness. I didn’t realize my schnauzer mix had gone deaf until she suddenly developed a fear of thunderstorms. She was so attuned to me that she always responded & obeyed me without apparently the verbal element so I had no idea she was losing her hearing. Her world had gone quiet except for thunderstorms which were terrifying by comparison.

    I love the oldies. I have two geriatrics now that I adopted at age 14. Their owner died and the owner’s kids were going to have the put to sleep. When my mom moved out of her home I found a loving family for her 16-year-old chow-lab mix (she died at age 17-1/2).

    I think a lot of elderly people postpone leaving their homes because of their pets. My mom was waiting for her dog to die to move out, but who knew a chow-lab could live so long?

    Pets that have lived with a loving owner for over 10 years are very easy to live with. I fostered a Katrina rescue that was 14 years old and deaf. We thought his owner had died, but he had not – they were reunited and I could see how my foster became such a great companion. I have returned two other senior/geriatrics to their owners after the oldies got loose and wandered far far away. One was blind and the other had heart failure but they still had plenty of get up and go!

    So I guess my “senior issue” is rescue. I have lost two rescues to cancer soon after taking them in, which was heartbreaking, but other geriatrics I’ve taken in have lived rather long retirements. They’re great companions for working people. I don’t feel guilty leaving them alone all day because they’d rather be sleeping anyway. I wish more people would adopt seniors & geriatrics.

  5. I have a male Malinois (Mac) who will be 13 in a few months. Thus far, he is energetic and active, alert, great appetite and has never had any health problems. He loves everyone and every dog he meets…great attitude! He did have some crystals in his urine last year, but drinks plenty of water and has no problem urinating. He also gets thru the night (8-9 hrs.) without asking to go out. He does have seasonal allergies in August/Sept. (skin itching) and I’ve had to put him on prednisone for a few weeks, which increases his thirst and need to go out. Other allergy pills didn’t work. Wish there was another solution? Any suggestions? He does not get any food with grains (only gets bison/venison kibble) and he regularly gets a few raw veggies (carrots/broccoli/celery).

  6. Among my crew I have 3 seniors, a 21 yr old cat, and 12 and 11 yr old Labs and they visit their Vet twice a yr for checkups. The two older Labs have been even more frequently lately for several issues. I have one senior with arthritis so she was started early on fish oil supplements and so far that has helped her more than the metacam did so we have been able to discontinue the metacam.
    Catching problems early has saved lives among my crew so it is well worth the effort.

  7. Our normal annual checkup is a physical, Snap 4 DX and now a blood test.

    I think it meets the guidelines you mentioned a couple weeks ago.

  8. Hi Erich,

    I respectfully disagree with your veterinarian. Abnormalities can often be detected via physical examination, blood and urine testing, radiographs and ultrasound long before the dog becomes or cat becomes symptomatic. Guess I’m wondering if you are working with the right veterinarian.

  9. My oldest dog is nine and my veterinarian does not seem too concerned. The only preventive medicine I can think of is blood tests and she does get a comprehensive one each year, but the vet says the dog will probably display a problem before the blood test would catch it. That is, the blood test is best to identify a problem already displayed.

    I would encourage people to use the sites and to learn about pet nutrition. It is amazing and gratifying to watch dogs beg for pureed carrots and broccoli. We advise people to wash vegetables in water and vinegar, puree them, and add it to kibble.

  10. A Senior Dog is a blessing. Bubba came into my life as a working service dog, we depended on each other. 3 and 1/2 years leter, I left my wheelchair and leaned on my knees so I could stand. Throughout, he was my best friend, confidant and therapist. He, very simply, knew me better than anyone else in my life. For those of you who have had multiple “children”, you know there is one that stands out. Bubba was my stand out. He had survived Cancer 2 times (I had survived 3) and then a mystery. With steroids and pain killers he survived another 3 years, comfortably, wagging his tail and eating as usual. Then cam e the day. The night before, Bubba didn’t want to move. He had a steak dinner, ice cream all taboo and enjoyed to the nth degree. He also had his Mom on the floor next to him. I called my vet and told him it was time and made the longest trip of my life. My friend drove, God Bless her, and I, in the back with my Boy feeding him ice cream. They came out to us. Said when I told them it was time, they knew it was time, they trusted me to know him better than anyone else, as he had done for me. So at 12 years old, 105 pound of the most incredible Boxer ever created went to be with my Mom and Dad, Max, Murphy, Simba, Boozer and Maybe. Kays Ponger Funeral Home cremated my Boy, at no charge as I couldn’t afford it. I went home to the emptiness I had been dreading. I cried that loud, gutteral cry I thought was reserved for only Mothers who had lost a child. Maybe God let me use it because he knew I had. I grieved and holed up, not going out for a month, people wouldn’t understand. Like all of us, I swore I would never get another, they couldn’t possibly measure up to the greatest friend in the world. Then I got a call from The Boxer Rescue. Izzy had been found in an abandoned house. They had taken her puppies (she is full breed, AKC) and left her. For over 20 days. She nursed on herself to stay alive. So, needless to say, Bubba brought me a new child. One that needs me as much as I need her. God Bless you Bubba, I will miss you and shed tears for you for the rest of my life. Run, jump and play, I will meet you at the Bridge.

  11. I’ve noticed that my senior dog puts on weight more easily, so we’re trying to adjust his diet accordingly! He definitely sleeps more, too. He has some disabilities due to back injuries he’s suffered in the past, so we started him on Cosequin and Welactin about 6 months ago. I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in his overall health, attitude, brightness and mobility. We plan to look to acupuncture in the future, as we’ve been told it’s likely he’ll be arthritic. He’s also grumpy and resistant to being picked up at times, especially when he’s lying down comfortably. We’re going to explore doing bi-annual vet visits now that he’s entering his senior years (he’s 8+).

  12. Am coping with my first CCD dog….all of my other dogs have lived their allotted life span with no great mental/behavior issues, so Rosie is now teaching me about a lot about CCD or dementia or whatever it is. Perhaps helping us to recognize the early symptoms…how to handle them, etc would be a great benefit.

  13. I also recommend to my clients to observe if the elderly pet shows cognitive weakness, i.e, standing still and staring at nothing. It is similar to our “why did I come into this room?” Forgetting learned responses to simple requests (I don’t “command” my pupils or my own pets). There is also deafness to consider. Sometimes a bit of “impatience” on the part of the pet, such as an attitude of “leave me alone, please” shows up. Some don’t always recognize their owners unless spoken to. As you said, there are many red flags to be aware of. They deserve our special attention when they age. I call it “pay-back time”, i.e., we pay them back for all the pleasure and joy they have given us throughout their lives.
    Don’t we wish we had such dedicated caregivers when we become old and not as perky as we were?!