How do I know whether to be concerned by my pet’s ageing?
Just like us, when pets reach a certain age they begin to slow down, and they become more susceptible to certain health concerns and illnesses. It’s important to remember that age itself is not a disease – disease comes with age. We generally think of pets approaching their senior years at the age of eight, although this can vary with size, weight, breed and species.
As with all veterinary healthcare, prevention is better than cure, and in the case of ageing, the earlier we can identify a problem, the less damage it can cause and the better the prognosis. We aren’t advising owners of pets approaching the age of eight to be overly concerned, or to be watching their pets like hawks for any sign of changes in their health or behaviour.
But being aware of what type of changes are likely indicators of what diseases is definitely a good place to be. You may notice that your pet is less active than they used to be, that their mobility is reduced, or that their eating and sleeping habits have changed. But all of these can be symptoms of various different problems, and can fluctuate over time. We particularly recommend bringing your pet in for annual senior health checks once they reach their golden years. By bringing them in to see us annually, we’re taking responsibility for noticing any changes out of your hands, and hopefully getting a headstart on any problems that may arise.
What’s the best diet for a senior pet?
Owners of pets who are approaching their golden years often have questions about diet, and the difference between standard diets and those created specifically for senior pets. As our patients get older their requirements change. Generally, they’re not as active as they were and, very much like humans, their muscles will start to deteriorate. What they need is really good quality protein, to help them to retain lean muscle mass – which is a great indicator of general health. However, excess protein puts stress on the body by creating more waste product.
That’s where senior diets come in. They are created with high quality protein, which makes it easier for the body to extract the benefits, with very little excess and waste. They will also be lower in salt. While this provides health benefits, it means that transitioning to a senior diet may be difficult, as your pet will be conditioned to think of salt as appetising, just like humans! Break them into their new diet gently and don’t be put off if they seem to be enjoying dinner time less than usual – their tastebuds will adjust to the new normal.Introduce the new food over seven to 10 days, mixing it with their old food and increasing the proportion of the senior diet as you go.
While those benefits may sound attractive to pets of all ages, remember that young pets will need more calories. That means that if you feed them a senior diet, which has high amounts of protein concentrated in less calories, a younger pet will be left with either more protein than they need, or not enough calories. However, the same goes in reverse for your senior pet – if you keep them on their normal diet but just cut their portions, that means they’ll be intaking less of the protein, vitamins and minerals that their diet usually provides them with.
How can I tell if my senior pet is a healthy weight?
We recommend to all of our patients that they have a check with our nurses every six months, which will include a weight check. Weighing a pet at home can present clear challenges – and we recommend that if you are giving this a go, weighing yourself holding your pet and then without them, then calculating the difference, can be a good approach. You can judge their weight by touching and stroking them. Running your hands along their chest, can you feel their ribs by applying gentle pressure? If you can feel them easily, that could mean they’re underweight. If you have to push quite hard or you can’t feel them at all, they could be overweight.
Another method of judging weight is by looking at your pet from above. They should nip in at the waist before going out again at the hips. If this shape is dramatic, again they may be underweight, whereas if they are more of an oblong, that could indicate they are overweight. To get a greater sense of change, it can be beneficial to check these things at intervals. For example, you could have a stroking session where you focus on weight indicators at a time when they’re typically most relaxed, such as in front of the tv on a Sunday evening.
Another great way to monitor any changes is to take a picture of your pet against a plain backdrop at monthly intervals. These pics can be compared against each other to work out if and how body shape has changed – and can even be taken to your vet as an accurate indicator of change.