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Your Geriatric Pet

First of all, when is your pet considered to be a geriatric patient? There is not one answer that fits all pets. A general guideline is as follows:

Cats (all) 10-13 years

Small dogs (<20#) 10-12 years

Medium dogs (21-50#) 8-10 years

Large dogs (51-90#) 5-8 years

Giant dogs (>91#) 4-7 years

The information below will outline some important areas that owners of geriatric pets should become familiar with in order to provide the highest quality of life for their pet. It is extremely important to report to your veterinarian any behavioral or physical changes that you have noticed in your geriatric pet.


As your pet ages, its nutritional needs change. It is important to continue to provide a well-balanced diet for your pet and change caloric intake as needed to maintain a healthy weight. It is recommended that a healthy geriatric pet eat a quality senior pet food. These diets differ from maintenance/adult formulas in that the senior formulations typically have fewer calories, increased fiber, decreased fat, lower protein content and lower salt levels. The altered protein and salt content help to reduce the workload on the kidneys and liver. If a specific problem is diagnosed in your pet (liver or kidney disease for example) your veterinarian may recommend a more specialized diet such as Purina NF.


How does a geriatric exam differ from a normal yearly physical exam? As your pet ages it is often necessary for it to be examined more regularly to detect early changes in physical/metabolic health. It is recommended, as part of the geriatric exam, to perform laboratory tests on your pet’s blood and urine. It is important to establish a baseline value for your pets to make it easier for your veterinarian to monitor changes in your pet’s health and catch problems early on. Early intervention can slow the progression of disease and improve your pet’s quality of life.


Many of us are very familiar with arthritis in humans but are unaware that arthritis also affects dogs and cats. Of course, as the aging process continues in your pet, the likelihood of arthritic changes causing discomfort increases. Some common signs of arthritis or joint pain in cats and dogs include:

Slow rising, especially after periods of rest

Reluctance to go up and down stairs

Reluctance to jump on couches, in the truck, etc.

Appetite decrease

Favoring of one limb, limping

Decreased muscle mass over the affected area

If your pet is exhibiting any of these signs, even intermittently, they are painful. A thorough physical exam and possibly x-rays will help us to assess your pet and implement a plan to decrease discomfort. There are many nutritional supplements and medications that will aid us in our goal of increasing your pet’s quality of life.


Dental health is important no matter the age of your pet. The risk of gum disease and associated disorders increases with age. Consult your veterinarian on some tips to improve your pet’s oral health.


As the body ages, so does the brain. Changes in your pet’s brain are similar to that of an elderly person. The effects of aging on the brain range from no effect to severe dementia. There are a wide range of signs associated with brain aging, including:

Disorientation: your pet may get stuck behind

furniture or exhibit a slower response time to sights

and sounds.

Activity changes: your pet may sleep more. Also,

your pet may become more restless at night.

Social interaction: your pet may not greet you at

the door anymore, or be less interested in playing

with you.

Anxiety: signs of anxiety include fear of sounds,

people or environments, a desire to be with

someone all of the time, or an increase in irritability.

Depression and apathy: disinterest in food, toys,

grooming, other pets and people can be a sign

of depression.

Learning and memory: the ability to adapt to new

environments or learn new tasks may be impaired

as your pet ages

A thorough physical & neurological exam and diagnostic testing are the first steps in determining a practical treatment protocol for your pet. Fortunately, there are medications and specialized diets that may improve the physical signs of brain aging and may even slow the progress of cognitive dysfunction in your pet.


If your pet has not been spayed or neutered there are several problems they may encounter.


Prostate cancer or infection: Watch for signs of

urinary difficulty or straining to have a

bowel movement

Testicular tumors: Watch for any change in size

or shape of the testicles or if one testicle is larger

than the other


Mammary (breast) tumors

Pyometra: this is an overwhelming infection in the

uterus and is more common in older (intact)

females. Signs of pyometra include: increased

thirst, inappetence, vaginal discharge, lethargy


Exercise is important for all of us to maintain healthy bones, muscle and stamina. It remains important in the geriatric pet. Frequent walks and playing with your pet not only provide exercise but also quality time shared with each other. If your pet has difficulty completing your normal walk, it may be time to slow down your pace or simply decrease the distance. There are other great ways to exercise your pet, too. Swimming is a wonderful, no impact form of exercise which a lot of dogs really enjoy. Ask your veterinarian for more ideas on exercising your pet.


As your pet ages, its sense of sight and hearing may diminish. Cataract formation is fairly common in dogs and rare in cats. Your veterinarian can determine whether or not your pet is developing cataracts. Hearing is another sense that may diminish with age. Typically, there is very little anyone can do to stop hearing loss but it is important that there aren’t any other factors contributing to it. Have your veterinarian do a thorough otic exam to rule out infections or inflammatory changes in your pet’s ears.


As our pets age, they are more susceptible to developing lumps just underneath the skin. Many of these lumps and bumps are benign, but can be potentially cancerous. It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian check out any lumps on your pet. We routinely recommend fine need aspiration and cytological exam to help rule out serious problems. Keep track of when you first noticed the lump and if it has changed in size, shape or consistency. These are important pieces of information to relay to your veterinarian.

Caring for a geriatric pet can be a rewarding experience for everyone. There are may things that you can do to increase your pet's quality of life in its golden years. Your veterinary staff is here to help you and your pet with the challenges of aging.

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