Caring for Elderly Pets

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

Is your furbaby starting to grey around the muzzle or slow down the pace of their daily life? You might be starting to wonder what is the best way to look after your senior citizen. 

Even though age is only a number, with increased age comes more health concerns. The good news is, if you are aware of the problems your four-legged friend may face, there is a lot you can change about their lifestyle to ensure they live many more quality years to come.

Dr Joanna has written about this topic in more depth in her book ‘Old Dog Love: A Common Sense Guide to Caring For Your Senior Dog‘, available on Amazon

How Old is Elderly?

There’s a common belief that dogs age roughly seven human years for each year of their life. Whereas cats age about 12 human years per year until the age of two, and then about four human years for every year after that.

However, a new study has revealed that dogs age in an inversely exponential manner. This means, similar to cats, they age much quicker in the first few years of their lives, then aging gradually slows down as they increase in years. However, this rate is considerably different between small and large breed dogs.

So, when are pets considered elderly? An average-sized dog will reach their senior years at about seven years old, whereas a large breed dog may be elderly around the age of five, and a small breed dog may reach their senior years at about eight or nine. Cats on the other hand start showing the signs of age around ten or eleven years old. 

Nevertheless, lifestyle and genetic makeup play a big role in how your furbaby ages, so it is important to ensure they have an active and healthy lifestyle throughout their entire lives, and not just consider making changes when they hit old age.

What Happens When a Pet Ages?

When your pet ages, certain bodily functions don’t work quite so well anymore. These aren’t diseases as such, but simply the result of aging and include: 

  • Senses: The five senses include sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste, and unfortunately not all of these remain as sharp as they used to be when your pet was younger.
  • Digestion and metabolism: In elderly pets, the gastrointestinal system slows down, as well as the metabolism of nutrients in the body. This means a different approach to nutrition needs to be taken to ensure your furry friend still remains fit and trim.
  • Mental Health: Sometimes the mental capacity of golden oldies deteriorates, leading to wandering behaviours and forgetting previous training, such as how to use a litterbox or knowing to toilet outside.
  • Bladder Control: The urethral sphincter, which is a muscular band that closes the bladder, can become leaky in elderly pets (especially dogs). This results in accidental urine leakage, particularly when extra pressure is placed on the bladder, such as when lying down.

Caring for the Lifestyle of Elderly Pets

To keep your senior pet in tip top condition, you might want to consider some basic lifestyle changes to make his life a little easier and comfortable. 


You should still walk your elderly dog but remember that he might not be as mobile as he once was. Allow him to take the lead. If he is still happy to go for runs and hikes, great. But if he clearly struggles, then don’t push him.

This is the same for playing in the garden. Throwing and retrieving toys, as well as playing tug-of-war might put excess strain on old joints, causing painful arthritis flare ups as the joints begin to deteriorate. But there are great enrichment games that you can play with your dog which doesn’t involve exacerbating any joints. For example, you can play scent and search games, such as hiding a favourite toy somewhere, or sprinkling tiny treats around the garden, and encouraging your pet to search for them.

The same goes for cats. Jumping up on high surfaces, chasing a toy mouse or laser pointer, or using a scratch post might put excess strain on older joints. But hiding food and encouraging searching for it or offering novel objects (such as a box – all cats love playing in a box!) introduce an element of excitement and exercise without discomfort.


Grooming is a greatly underappreciated past time. Not only will it make your pet’s coat look beautiful, but it is really great for your elderly pet’s health. 

Brushing the coat with a gentle brush helps to disperse the natural oils along the hair to improve the shine and waterproofing of the coat. It also is therapeutic, as brushing improves the blood flow to the skin, improving the health of the skin, and reducing areas of inflammation and pain.

An occasional wash with warm water also helps to soothe sore joints and achy muscles, but remember not to let your pet get cold after a bath. Drying them with a warm hairdryer is also soothing (as long as your pet doesn’t struggle too much!).

While grooming your pet, don’t forget to occasionally keep your four-legged friend’s nails cut to an appropriate length. Dogs and cats walk around less in their old age, and don’t wear down nails as well as they did when they were younger. This results in them catching or twisting toes, which can be sore if the toes are arthritic.


Now is the time you might want to start thinking about how to improve your old timer’s comfort too. Jumping up and down can put major strain on worn out joints, so ramps can be extremely helpful. Ramps are available as fold away plastic items for the car, to help your dog get in and out when he goes on a walk, as well as furniture items to help your dog or cat to get on sofas and beds (if you allow him there!).

Beds for senior pets are also different to beds for younger dogs and cats. An orthopaedic bed goes a long way to improving their comfort. It should be thick and contain orthopaedic foam to mould around your furbaby’s creaky joints. It should also be made from a fabric which doesn’t allow claws to catch in the thread. This can be extremely sore, especially for older cats with sharp claws who struggle to use a scratching post any more to keep them short.

Finally, consider buying a senior cat litterbox for your feline friend. Some older cats struggle to step over the high edges of normal litterboxes, and as a result, they do their business next to the box out of sheer desperation to go. They know they are meant to use the box, but it just is too difficult. A senior cat litter box has one lowered side, so your elderly kitty can walk straight in with ease.

Nutrition for Elderly Pets

Senior pet food can be quite overwhelming. You are likely to be faced with loads of choice in your local pet store and choosing one can be confusing. But it is important to take the plunge and move your older pet over to a senior food, as an elderly pet has completely different dietary requirements than a younger pet.

Senior pet food tends to differ from adult pet food in the following ways:

  • Lower calorie content: Senior pets are generally less active and require less calories to maintain a healthy weight. It is important that you don’t let your old timer pile on the pounds, as excess weight puts strain on the joints, and vital organs such as the heart.
  • Improved digestibility and probiotics: As already mentioned, seniors can struggle with their ability to digest food. So senior food is usually more palatable, gentler on the stomach, and full of probiotics to promote a healthy gut.
  • Omega oils: Omega oils are essential fatty acids, which aid in improving the health of the heart, brain, kidneys and joints. They are also natural anti-inflammatories, and so if your furbaby is struggling with arthritis, they can be very beneficial.

You might also want to add in health supplements to keep your oldie in tip top condition. These can be in the form of a powder food topper, a chewy treat, or daily capsules. Health supplements can contain ingredients such as glucosamine and chondroitin, to improve joint health, herbs such as milk thistle or green lipped mussel, or omega oils to improve overall vitality.

Caring for the Health of Elderly Pets

As your pet ages, he is likely to become more susceptible to certain ailments. Therefore, it is important to regularly take them to your vet for senior wellness checks. These are general consultations which happen once or twice a year, to ensure that any problems are caught early on, giving your pet the best chance of staying as healthy as possible.

A senior wellness check might include a physical examination, as well as a blood test and blood pressure examination. 

Common ailments which might be picked up include:

  • Obesity: Weight management can be difficult in elderly pets as they become less active, however your vet is a valuable source for advice when it comes to optimising your pet’s weight. 
  • Joint conditions: Arthritis is a common degenerative condition of hips, elbows, wrists and stifles, especially if your pet has had a trauma to the joint, been overweight, or has genetic joint issues. Arthritis is when the joint cartilage, joint fluid and bones under the cartilage degenerate, resulting in a painful joint with poor movement.
  • Eye conditions: There are several conditions of the eye which might result in your four-legged friend losing their sight. The retina is at the back of the eye and converts light into a nerve signal to the brain. Retinal degeneration can happen with age, and cause night blindness before total blindness. Cataracts can also develop within the lenses of the eyes. These are opacities which prevent the light from reaching the back of the eye. A similar condition called nuclear sclerosis can also form in the lens. This looks like a cataract, except light can get through it, and your pet will still be able to see, except with just a bit of a haze.
  • Heart conditions: The heart is a vital organ which pumps blood around the body, but age can result in the valves inside becoming leaky in dogs, or the heart muscle to malfunction in cats leading to disruptions in the blood flow.
  • Kidney conditions: The kidneys filter out waste products. They can tolerate a great deal of damage and kidney disease often only becomes apparent when they are over 70% damaged. This is why it is important to pick up issues early.
  • Lumps: It can be a bit scary to find a lump. While many lumps are benign and non-harmful, cancerous lumps are more common with age. The sooner a lump is investigated, the higher the chance of a better prognosis.

Take Home Message

Looking after a golden oldie can be so rewarding, and the senior years of your pet’s life can be some of the best. But the latter years require a slight lifestyle change for your pet to ensure he stays in tip-top shape and live many years to come.