As your pets get older, their needs and abilities may change. Here’s how you can enjoy their companionship while helping them age gracefully.

By Hannah Harper
June 10, 2020
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Increase your vet visits.

A 7-plus-year-old dog or an 11-plus-year-old cat should be seeing a veterinarian about twice a year to track mobility and monitor any preexisting ailments. Terri Bright, PhD, director of Behavior Services at MSPCA-Angell in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggests taking note of your pet’s abilities and behaviors so you can catch progressing conditions: “Any signs of behavioral changes should be followed by a thorough veterinary checkup—blood, urine, physiological changes.” At the appointment, your vet should be looking at the full body health, watching how the animal moves around, testing joints for sensitivities, and tracking previous concerns, says Bright.

Make lifestyle adjustments.

Loss of muscle mass and arthritis are common in older cats and dogs; your once-athletic friend may now have trouble running up stairs, jumping up, bending down, or walking on tile or hardwood floors without slipping. Consider making some changes around the house to fit her needs—lay down extra rugs in hallways and common spaces, set up her bed on the main floor, purchase a litter box with lower sides. Food accessibility is also important: Does your Great Dane need an elevated feeder to reduce neck pain? Does your tabby cat need her dish moved off the counter and onto the floor? These small tweaks can improve quality of life.

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Keep them mentally engaged.

Similar to how people can experience disorientation or cognitive decline as they age, senior pets can suffer from cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). The best way to slow the decline is to keep your pet mentally engaged. Puzzle toys, which encourage your dog or cat to “solve” a problem to unlock a treat, are great for mind play. If physically able, dogs can find stimulation in agility or nose-work classes (the latter harness your dog’s ability to detect scent), while cats benefit from games that tap into their hunter-prey drive. For instance, try placing your cat’s food in several containers around the house during mealtimes for them to “hunt” and find, says Natalie Marks, DVM, medical director of VCA Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago.

Expect behavioral changes.

As your pet ages, she may develop certain behaviors that weren’t there before. New signs of aggression or anxiety are often related to the physical changes your pet is experiencing. “If a dog can’t see well anymore, he might be afraid of walking down stairs. If a cat can’t hear as well, she might be nervous about someone coming up behind her, and swat,” says Bright. On the other hand, if your pet is exhibiting confusion or antisocial behavior—sleeping in strange places, pacing at night, hiding—that may be a sign of cognitive troubles.

Consider alternative therapies.

For pets with joint pain or arthritis, pain management is key. Now, there are pet physical therapy centers that offer everything from aqua therapy (think underwater treadmills and pools) to massage and acupuncture. “Acupuncture is great for pain relief, improving blood flow, and relaxation.… Most dogs fall asleep after,” says Dr. Marks. She also recommends talking to your vet about supplements like fish oil, which might help reduce inflammation.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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