Senior Pets: Helping Our Aging Residents

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I must admit, when I started working in shelter medicine, I was concerned that I would soon be running a rest home for geriatric cats and dogs. Fortunately, there are a lot of other people that recognize the amazing gift of adopting older pets. Older pets have generally gone through the troublesome training period and have settled into their routine, personality and habits. Take it from someone that has fostered a number of older pets in my home─I think it benefits me as much as the dog or cat.

There is a saying in veterinary medicine: “Age is not a disease.

For example, we recently had an 18-year-old cat named Morgan le Fay that had some tartar on her teeth, but otherwise had no detectable disease. That said, there are still some diseases that older pets are prone to developing. Just like older people, they are more prone to arthritis and decreased mobility as they age.
It used to be that when a geriatric pet was surrendered to a shelter that pet would be deemed unadoptable. No one wanted to adopt an elderly pet when there were so many young pets available. However, this just isn’t the case anymore. Willamette Humane Society and other shelters have made a lot of headway with spay and neuter programs, which have actually reduced the amount of younger animals available at shelters.
Reducing the number of young animals allows us to shift our focus to the older animals that are coming through our doors. We can now perform in-house bloodwork to look for diseases before anesthesia for much-needed procedures. We are also able to offer dental services for older dogs and cats that may be suffering from infection and pain in their mouths. We can offer specialized diets, pain medications, physical therapy and alternative treatments to help older pets have a more comfortable life.
Just like health care for humans, there are many new ways to help older pets have a great quality of life into their senior years. We now have safe pain medications, joint supplements, surgical interventions, physical therapy, acupuncture and even cold laser therapy.
One of my first fosters for Willamette Humane Society was a stray Yorkshire Terrier mix named Benji. But he obviously had some issues. The little guy had lost a lot of his hair due to fleas, he moved a little slow and he had some terrible teeth. We estimated him to be about 10-years-old, placing him definitely in the senior category. He was overwhelmed by being in the shelter so I decided to take him home for some time with my pack.
Benji had settled himself into the new routine, and in about 24 hours, came out of his shell. But there was still progress to be made in his journey to health. It turns out that Benji also had a heart murmur, which we were able to have assessed by a veterinary cardiologist. Fortunately, he was okay for anesthesia.


We performed a dental procedure to remove most of Benji’s remaining teeth. But he was able to keep one of his lower canines, giving him a distinctive snaggletooth appearance that we all found endearing.
After a few weeks, Benji was all tuned-up and was ready for adoption… though I was worried. Would anyone want to adopt this old guy with his snaggletooth, heart murmur and back issues?
But within a week, an older woman and her daughter came in and fell in love with Benji and his unique smile. All he ever wanted was someone to sit with day in and day out, and this family wanted just that kind of dog. Older pets have a lot to offer and I love that so many people are open to loving these pets.
The long and short of my story is that if you have an older pet that is slowing down, don’t ignore it and chalk it up to age. There are likely things that you can do with the guidance of your veterinarian that can help your pet age gracefully.
Or if you’re at the point in your life where you can adopt an animal into your home, give the older ones a chance. There’s no guarantee how long you’ll have your pet whether you adopt young or old, but you’ll have an amazing reward when you add an old cat or dog into your home.  Here are three essential tips for taking care of your own senior pet at home: 

  • Note any behavior changes your pet exhibits. For example, if your furry friend is slowing down, scheduling time with the veterinarian to determine the cause is an important step.
  • Remember that diet needs change with age. Older pets often need food that is easy to digest, as well as key nutrients to keep them healthy.
  • Focus on routine dental health with the help of your vet. Though it is important at any stage of a pet’s life, aging pets should be treated to routine dental care to keep them healthy and comfortable.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Brief Paws.