As animals enter their senior years, there’s a tendency among vets and pet owners to assume their needs are the same from the age of seven years. But this is a big mistake leading to poor decisions or missed opportunities to help animals live longer and better.
At Roundwood Vets we think differently and have developed a second age bracket, the “Geriatric Pet”, to allow you a better understanding of what is going on with your pet.
Growing old doesn’t have to be a burden and in this article, we’ll help you understand what the difference between senior and geriatric care is, and what you need to do for your pet at each life stage to make sure they are happy and healthy.
What is the difference between a senior and a geriatric pet?
The best way to understand this difference is to think about two people you know well. The first person is not a spring chicken any more, but remains a relatively fit, healthy 60-70 year old. They are independent, can make decisions for themselves, feed themselves, get around town without help from others and are still very active both physically and socially.
This person would be the equivalent of a “senior pet”.
We’re talking about the dog who is going grey in the muzzle and maybe seems a little stiff in the morning, but is otherwise happy to go for walks. They eat and drink well, can climb stairs and go to the toilet without problems. They still clearly enjoy life.
Senior pets are generally older than seven years but less than 12 years of age.
Now think of a very old person you know who is perhaps 80-100 years old. They may have dementia or perhaps they now need assistance walking. Their home has been modified to allow easier access to hard to manage places like the shower and toilet. They may now live in a bungalow because stairs are getting too hard, or even a nursing home. Their appetite is a fraction of what it was, and they tire easily. Their vision and hearing are significantly impaired and are now supported by aids. Other people may be responsible for cooking, cleaning and collecting the weekly grocery shopping.
This person is the human equivalent of a geriatric pet and, you’ll agree, is in a different category of care completely.
Now we’re talking about the dog or cat who sleeps for many hours a day. They struggle to walk very far may have developed soiling issues in the house. Due to failing vision and hearing, they may become anxious; with panting, whining and pacing behaviours all common. For this group, life is a little less rosy, but the good days outweigh the bad and for the most part life seems good enough. The crucial word in the past sentence is “seems”. These pets can be challenging to live with and can cost much in terms of money, time and emotional input.
We tend to think of small dogs and cat over the age of 12 years as being geriatric. For larger breed dogs (which do not live as long) the age limit might be 10 or 11 years.
Why is this difference important?
The reason we separate these two life stages is because each group has dramatically different needs and places different burdens on the caregiver (that’s you their lovely owner.)
Senior animals are generally still quite healthy and require very little additional care. Dental disease is the biggest threat to wellness for these cats and dogs. But aside from this, the important things are to make minor adjustments to food choice and portion size. Weight management is going to be a central pillar of health as pet’s get older and help to avoid many of the worse conditions that lurk further down the track for the fat pet. Arthritis, diabetes and cancers are all more likely for fat pets.
The changes we need to make are relatively minor and are mostly about monitoring health status more closely, so we pick up problems early.The changes we need to make are relatively minor and are mostly about monitoring health status more closely, so we pick up problems early.
Geriatric animals require an altogether different approach because these pets have more advanced problems happening and often more than one problem combined.
Pain management is crucial for this group of pets because pain levels can be very high as diseases are starting to enter a more advanced stage. Large breed dogs in this age range will almost all have very painful arthritis that is affecting their ability to walk and happiness. This may show up as sleeping more, bed wetting or self-soothing behaviours like licking the sire joints, pacing or whining.
Geriatric pets are also far more likely to be struggling with multiple health issues. It is not uncommon for a pet to present with arthritis, heart and dental issues. Each of which is taking its toll on health and vitality.
For you, as the owner of a geriatric pet, particularly one with multiple issues, then burden of care can be high. You’ll be committing more time, sleepless nights, more expense and often feel like you are riding an emotional roller coaster wondering if you are doing the right thing. Plus, if you have a bigger dog, then there is an increased physical burden too. You’ll be working those biceps and lower back muscles more when you are helping your pet to get into the car, into the bath or onto the bed.
What things must I be doing for my senior pet?
To keep your senior pet happy and healthy we recommend the following actions:
1. Change the diet to a lower calorie diet with reduced salt levels and high-quality controlled protein levels. This will help to reduce both weight gain and kidney problems.
2. Visit the vet every 6 months routinely to monitor health. We advise a full wellness assessment, blood pressure and urine test at this time to track any changes.
3. Deal with rotten teeth and address any small health concerns now, before they have the chance to balloon into major issues later.
What things must I be doing for my geriatric pet?
The biggest difference in our care for geriatric pets is the focus on support, pain management and quality of life. We start to consider the trade-offs we all must be willing to make to make sure our golden oldies have a great end to their days.
1. If a pet will eat it then it’s certainly better to offer a lower calorie diet with reduced salt levels and high-quality controlled protein levels. But if, for any reason, your pet won’t eat this food, then it’s better for them to eat something they enjoy because this will maintain their energy and muscle mass. It might not be the ideal food, but what’s the point in kidneys that work great, if you are too weak to get out of bed and enjoy life?
2. Focus on pain control and mobility as these are a huge factors for older pets. Almost all have painful arthritis or teeth. Dealing with this pain is one of the single best things you can do for your geriatric pet. If the teeth are rotten, then have the bad ones removed and watch their energy level and joy increase dramatically within days. If they struggle with arthritis, then the careful use of medication, acupuncture and laser therapy can make a massive impact on their mobility, happiness, energy level and quality of sleep. (If they sleep well, you sleep well!)
3. Visit the vet (or have our vet visit you – we offer in home care services for older pets) every six month to set up a plan to manage the issues your pet faces. And check in regularly to tweak the plan and monitor progress with our specially trained vet nurses. So many pet owners do not do this and just accept that old pets “slow down”. Sadly, this results in many geriatric pets living each day in unnecessary pain.
4. Adjust your home to improve life. For example, collars should be abandoned in favour of harnesses that remove pressure from the neck and allow you to help them move around easily. Using yoga matts on wood floors and grip tape on stairs can really help your geriatric pet to avoid painful and risky tumbles. Installing night lights near food, water and litter trays so pets can see in the dark helps with evening anxiety and home soiling. Using steps to help pets climb onto furniture or ramps to allow access to cars helps to reduce pain when walking. There are many modifications you can make that seem like small things to you but are of huge help to your old pet.
5. Manage any health issues on a merit basis. Sometimes we’ll have to consider whether larger problems are really worth tackling with surgery and medicine in the same way as if your pet were a young animal. Ethically we have to stop and ask the question, “Is this treatment really in the pet’s best interests? Or are there other options here to consider?”
We start to have discussions with you about what’s really important and try to guide you to do the best things that help your pet have as good a life as possible. The time remaining starts to get less important as we approach life’s sunset. Our emphasis shifts more to improving quality of life. (Which somewhat ironically – and happily - almost always improves life span too!)
6. Consider reassigning the budget. We are far less concerned about vaccines in this group of pets. For example, rather than spending money on boosters in a 14-year-old cat, better to spend it on medication to improve comfort and mobility.
Your next move as the owner of an older pet
The most important thing is to be aware which category your pet falls into. And then book in to see our team to find out what you need to do to restore or maintain optimal health.
In writing this article, we hope to have shed some light on the difference between senior and geriatric pets, plus given you some insight into how we think differently and designed our service differently to accommodate you and your older animal. We absolutely love to see a grey muzzle either in the practice or at home and especially so if its tail is still wagging furiously!
The truth is that most pets can live a great quality of life up to and including their last few days and hours with the right support and care from both you and us. So let’s partner up to make sure your grey muzzled one has the best care, regardless of age.
To book an appointment or learn about our senior pet care or geriatric hospice services then please contact us today on 020 8459 4729.