Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Normal Signs of Aging in Senior Cats and Dogs

Like most of us, our companions move a little slower as they age. While certain medical problems are more common as our friends grow older, many changes that take place are simply the signs of a more laid-back time of life and are not a cause for concern. Still others can be red flags that need further investigation. The normal changes of aging usually occur slowly over a period of years. Rapid alternations in your pet's physical or emotional state may be a sign of a medical problem and should promptly be evaluated by a holistic veterinarian.

Physiological Changes

Diminishing Eyes and Vision

Vision diminishes in our companions as they age, though usually not enough to cause them any significant problems. A common change as animals grow older is a clouding in the eyes called nuclear sclerosis. Cats and dogs with nuclear sclerosis usually see well despite the clouding. Cataracts and glaucoma are serious medical problems that can lead to blindness and are more common in certain breeds like cocker spaniels and poodles.

Hearing Loss

A decrease in hearing ability is normal as our companions age. In some instances, the loss of the ability to recognize sounds is severe and animals may become more aggressive. The aggressiveness is usually because they are startled when someone approaches since they cannot sense them until they are very close.
Hearing loss usually cannot be reversed, but changes in the way you interact with your companion can help. Teaching your companion hand signals, or to recognize that lights flashed on and off mean certain things will improve communication. Though hearing may decrease, sensitivity to vibration doesn't change so clapping hands or stomping on the floor can be used to get their attention. Also, make every attempt to approach your senior friend from a place where they can see you, rather than moving close to them while outside of their field of vision.

On a personal note, true hearing loss is different than what I call selective hearing loss - as when I want to walk in one direction and Dexter, my 13 year-old Rot-Shepard mix selectively doesn't hear me calling when he wants to go a different way!

Skin and Coat

Our companions go gray too! Older dogs will start to show gray hair around their muzzle and eyes. Cats are less likely to show gray than dogs, but both may experience a thinning and dullness of their coat as well as dryness and thinning of their skin. While these are normal changes of aging, they can be a sign of disease or nutritional deficiency. Fatty Acid supplements can help reduce itching and hair loss and keep coats full and shiny.
Calluses on the elbows are commonly seen in older dogs, especially large breeds. This is normal and giving your friend a soft and warm place to rest will help alleviate any discomfort.

Brittle Nails

Nails tend to become brittle and can break if allowed to grow too long. More frequent clipping is usually necessary because older animals tend to be less active and subsequently there is less wear on the nails through activity.

Teeth and Gum Disease

While some wear and yellowing of the teeth and retraction of the gums are normal as our companions age, dental problems including cavities and gum disease are common in older cats and dogs. Even by 3 years old 80% of dogs show signs of dental disorders. Routine dental care, including tooth brushing and professional cleanings will keep dental problems to a minimum, and it's never too late to start.

Hardening of Mammary and Prostate Glands

Hardening of the mammary glands is common in older female dogs and cats as the glandular tissue is replaced by fibrous tissue. Breast cancer is more common in unspayed dogs and changes other than a simple, generalized firming of the breast tissue or nipple should be evaluated. Prostrate enlargement is common in older unneutered males. It is rarely cancerous but can cause problems with urination or defecation.

Behavioral Changes

Other than desiring more downtime and rest, two common behavior changes are cognitive dysfunction and separation anxiety. Cognitive dysfunction is the animal equivalent of Alzheimer's disease, and separation anxiety is a general nervousness in your companion when they sense you are about to leave.

Older cats may spend less time grooming and a slight decrease in this behavior is a normal part of the aging process. However, if your cat begins to develop an unkempt appearance, stops grooming altogether, or becomes lethargic, a holistic veterinarian should evaluate him or her for an underlying medical problem.

Like people, older animals become somewhat set in their ways and do not like change. Keeping a steady routine is important, and changes around the house like moving furniture should be done gradually.

Reduced Activity

Our companions tend to be less active as they age. In most cases this slowing down is normal and simply the result of the desire to take life a little slower. However, decreased activity can be related to other problems like arthritis, which causes pain and decreases mobility, or the decrease in muscle mass that is a normal part of aging. Regular, though less strenuous activity will help keep joints loose and muscles strong.

Temperature Sensitivity

As our animals age their ability to regulate body temperature changes. This usually manifests as difficulty keeping a normal body temperature at extremes, for example in very hot or cold weather. It's important they have a warm place to rest when the temperature is cool, and a cool place when it is hot - please don't wait until your old dog starts panting excessively to move him into the shade.

Increased Thirst

Old dogs and cats will drink more water. This is partially due to a decrease in kidney function that is normal with aging. However, excessive thirst can be a sign of diabetes or renal failure and should be evaluated by your holistic veterinarian immediately.


Our companions truly do not want to soil in the house or outside of the litter box, but changes in bladder function and intestinal motility can make it difficult to hold urine and stool for longer periods of time. More frequent trips outside for your dog, or two litter boxes at opposite ends of the house or on different floors for your kitty can prevent accidents. If you have a contained yard area consider installing a pet door so your companion has access outside. Using doggie diapers, such as

PoochPants, can also be a solution for dogs who have to be inside for extended periods. HomeoPet's Leaks No More naturally helps tighten-up weak muscles to stop unwanted urinary leakage. Leaks No More is safe, effective, and as easy as placing the tasteless drops directly into the mouth, on food, or in water.


Changes in intestinal motility-the amount of time it takes for food to move through the digestive tract-can result in constipation and hard, sometimes painful bowel movements. Adding an

Essential Fatty Acid supplement, Enzymes, and Probiotics to your companions diet will improve the functioning of the intestinal system by helping it to better utilize the nutrients in food, and by assisting it in eliminating waste. Enzymes and Probiotics also aid in the elimination of hairballs in cats. A change in diet, including the addition of bran or psyllium may also be helpful. Be certain plenty of fresh filtered water is always available.

Other Important Changes To Watch For

Nutritional Requirements

This topic is frequently overlooked, but incredibly important to the well-being of a senior dog or cat. Like us, as our companions age their calorie requirements decrease-dramatically! Basal energy requirements decrease by about 20% because of a general slowing of bodily functions. Decreased activity diminishes energy needs by another 10% to 20%. If calorie intake remains the same, obesity results. As for us, obesity is a major health problem for older dogs and cats. Feeding a high quality diet and using proper portion control is key to keeping weight in check. Consult with your holistic veterinarian on the best diet and proper feeding amount.

Changes You Don't See

We don't see many changes that occur in older animals, yet knowledge of them is important so we can understand what is normal and what may be a problem.

The functioning of the immune system of older animals decreases and they may become more prone to infections. It is important to address those little cuts and scraps that were not a problem when they were younger. The addition of colostrum to a senior's diet can be very beneficial in supporting the immune system. Bovine colostrum was used in the United States, and around the world, to treat immune disorders prior to the discovery of sulfa drugs and antibiotics. Herbal tinctures, such as Animals Apawthecary's IO Immune Blend, boost the immune system without compromising digestive flora and can be used systemically to treat many low grade infections.

Heart function decreases, and while generally not a problem because activity level has decreased, strenuous activity like when they were younger should be avoided. Exercise in extreme heat and cold should also be avoided due to older animals' temperature sensitivity. Ask your holistic vet about Best For Your Pet's Kidney & Heart Glandular.
Lung volume and function decrease, and like a decrease in heart function is generally not a problem, however, very strenuous activity should be avoided.

Kidney and liver function also decrease which leads to a decrease in the ability to remove impurities and waste products from the blood. Like other changes of aging, these are not usually a problem unless an illness stresses their body.

Animals' Apawthecary's Dandelion/Milk Thistle Tincture stimulates and protects liver function in an animal showing signs of liver stress or toxicity. Their Detox Blend gently assists the body in correcting chronic skin problems and other imbalances that may be related to liver dysfunction or poor waste elimination. Detox Blend is safe for long-term use. Additionally, Animals' Apawthecary's Senior Blend strengthens functions of the nervous, digestive, circulatory, and immune systems of older cats and dogs. It is often used as a tonic in animals with diminished kidney function.

Please Note: Kidney stones, renal failure and other urinary problems can be life threatening so it is imperative that you consult with your holistic veterinarian if you suspect any of these conditions.

A Final Word

Get Regular Check Ups

The symptoms of many medical problems can present as normal changes of aging when in their early stages. It's important for our senior companions to visit the holistic veterinarian every 6 months in order to diagnose and treat any problems before they get too far along.

Slowing Down with Grace

Aging gracefully is as important to our companions as it is to us. Knowing what is normal and what is a potential problem can help us maintain a very high quality of life for our senior friends. Keeping our companions mentally and physically active helps ward off the impact of old age and keeps them dancing gracefully into their golden years.

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