Just as we don’t like admitting to ourselves that we are aging, it is hard to admit that our beloved pets are getting older along with us. Pets are considered seniors around the age of seven. And like humans, older pets can develop a variety of health problems—heart disease, kidney disease, senility and more. 

Of course, prevention is the best medicine. Dogs and cats need to be active both mentally and physically to stay healthy throughout their lives, so be sure to give them the right amount of exercise for the breed. Annual veterinary exams are recommended up to age six and then twice yearly from seven on so that you can catch problems early, when they are easier—and less expensive—to treat. 

Helpful: Ask your veterinarian what tests, exams and immunizations your pet will be expected to need over the next year, and set aside money for them in advance.

Here’s what to watch—and watch out for—as your pet ages…

Proper nutrition. Even if you’ve been feeding your pet a high-quality food and controlling its weight from day one, it may be time to shift your pet’s food. While veterinarians generally recommend transitioning to a senior diet after age seven, the exact time to shift will differ by breed, the pet’s activity level, underlying health and other nutritional needs, so ask your vet. There are many commercial and vet-based foods available today that have been created to meet the unique needs of older pets. Example: Prescription diet foods that contain ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin and high-quality omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce pain in dogs with arthritis. There are hundreds of dog foods out there to pick from, which can be confusing and overwhelming at times. It’s most important to consult your veterinarian about the brand of food, make sure it’s not grain-free and ensure that a veterinarian and/or veterinary nutritionist is on staff at the company. I always feel comfortable recommending foods from Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet and Purina. 

I recommend only veterinary-­approved supplements for specific disease conditions, such as Dasuquin for arthritis, fish oil for dermatological or other inflammatory conditions, and Denamarin (silymarin and SAMe) for liver disease.

Changes in your pet’s thirst level and urination. Increases in thirst and urination—dogs asking to go out more or “peeing a river” or cats that soak their litter boxes or go outside of the box—are not signs of aging, but rather of illness. It could be a urinary tract infection that needs to be treated with an ­antibiotic, or it could be diabetes, kidney stones, a hormone imbalance or another problem. These are ­problems that can occur at any age but become more common with age.

Weight loss or gain. When older cats and dogs lose enough weight that you can suddenly feel their ribs or pelvic bones, it suggests disease. Dogs and cats that once were healthy eaters and now nibble instead of gobble or lose interest in eating may be showing signs of kidney or heart disease, pain, hair balls in cats or other problems. Important: Measure out and track how much your pet eats so you can tell if changes in eating patterns are occurring. 

Weight gain is more a sign of overfeeding and overeating and too little exercise, and it can predispose pets to develop other problems as they age, such as increases in blood pressure and arthritis. Note: Just like with people, the leaner your dog is without being emaciated, the longer it will live. 

Lack of grooming or overgrooming by cats. Cats groom on a daily basis because it feels good and it keeps their coats shiny and healthy. If a cat stops grooming and its fur becomes matted or it is grooming only one side of its body or just the front and not the back, it means the cat is in pain and can’t reach certain spots anymore. It may have ­arthritis, a back issue, kidney disease or even constipation. Overgrooming, on the other hand, to the extent that it causes bald spots can be due to anxiety, mites or other infestations or an
infection. 

Limping, stiffness, not being able to jump, decreased interest in play or activity, irritability. Symptoms like these that come on gradually can be signs of arthritis or disc disease. Sudden onset of these symptoms could indicate Lyme disease or cancer, which can happen at any age. Get your pet checked out for illnesses that can be treated with medications and alternative remedies such as supplements, chiropractic and acupuncture. Note: Take videos at home of your pet to show your vet how it is behaving.

Look for assistive aids for older pets: Purchase a well-padded or even orthopedic bed to soothe the pet’s achy bones and joints…and raised bowls so they don’t strain their necks reaching down to eat or drink. To save your back, consider stairs and ramps to help your dog walk into cars and onto beds and couches. These products are widely available online and in pet stores. Also: For dogs that have trouble getting up off the floor or who need assistance walking, purchase a special harness such as the GingerLead Dog Support and Rehabilitation Harness ($35.95 to $65.95, depending on the size of your pet, GingerLead.com) or Help ’Em Up Mobility Harness ($75 to $125, HelpEmUp.com). And for those whose hind legs are compromised, consider a Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair ($149 to $429, HandicappedPets.com). For dogs that don’t have a firm grip on the floor and are at risk for slipping, try nonslip ToeGrips ($34.99, ToeGrips.com) or put mats on the floor. 

Cognitive changes and senility. Not every older pet develops cognitive changes or dementia. There’s no one test to diagnose cognitive changes, so other diseases such as brain ­disorders, hearing and vision loss, and high blood pressure should be ruled out first. ­Specific behaviors to look for include soiling in the house, staring at walls, confusion and disorientation, not recognizing people, changes in sleep levels, pacing at night and less ­interaction with family members. There is no cure for cognitive changes, but they can be managed with supplements and the drug Anipryl (selegiline, used to help control symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in humans) that slows down cognitive loss in some pets if it’s given early in the disease course. 

Research by Purina shows that dogs fed special vet-prescribed, cognitive-enhancing diets are more engaged and alert. When mental sharpness returns, dogs often return to playing with their owners and have more energy. Diets to help slow down the progression of senility contain ingredients such as fish oil, antioxidants, B vitamins and ­arginine, an amino acid shown to enhance brain function. Two examples of these prescription options are Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets NC NeuroCare and Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d.

Cataracts. Despite common belief, age actually is not a common factor for cataracts. Instead, I see that condition more frequently in dogs with a genetic base or after development of diabetes.