Here are seven steps to help your senior pet age gracefully and comfortably.

Is your companion slowing down? Are his senses not as sharp as they used to be? Maybe he’s eating less and is no longer meticulous about grooming. He might be struggling with the stairs, or having a few accidents in the house. If your dog or cat is older than seven, he is a senior now, and may simply be showing signs of aging.

The average canine lifespan is 13 years. This varies depending on the dog’s size, with many small breeds living well into their teens. Cats live 14 to 16 years on average. Cats and medium to large dogs generally start to show signs of aging between the ages of seven and 11, while small dogs may not show any visible signs until they’re ten. Whatever the case, as your animal companion gets older, you should be on the alert for symptoms that could indicate a health problem. At the same time, you should also look for ways to maintain his quality of life and help him adapt by keeping him as safe and comfortable as possible.

1. MOBILITY
Exercise wards off obesity in older animals and helps them stay limber and maintain their muscle mass. For dogs, veterinarian Dr. Thomas Bankstahl recommends activities like walking and swimming. He adds it’s often better to take several short walks through the day rather than a single long one. Swimming relieves the dog’s weight while giving his joints a better range of motion. You can also do gentle range of motion exercises with your dog or cat’s legs.

• Senior dogs and cats can benefit from a little help getting to high places such as furniture and beds. Use a pet ramp to help him get up to your lap or access his favorite spots.

• If you have a two-storey home, have a litter box available on each floor so your older cat doesn’t have to navigate stairs.

• A baby gate can keep older arthritic dogs from tackling the stairs.

• Dr. Bankstahl recommends an orthopedic bed or other padding to increase comfort while your dog or cat is resting.

• Slippery floor surfaces or rugs that slide easily underfoot can cause an older animal (or person!) to fall and injure himself. Rugs should have a rubber backing that prevents slippage. • Make sure your animal’s bed provides adequate protection from hard floor surfaces and is away from cold drafts.

2. HEARING
If your animal is losing his hearing, be careful not to startle him. Warn other people, especially children, not to approach him from behind or touch him while he is sleeping. This reduces the risk of getting bitten or scratched by an inadvertently frightened animal.

3. VISION
As sight declines, try to avoid making any big changes in your household environment. Blind cats and dogs can maneuver quite well as long as they remain in familiar surroundings. If you go away on vacation, have a pet sitter come to your home rather than take your dog or cat into a new environment. If you have an older dog, bring along a flashlight when you’re out with him at night, or use a leash with a built-in light.

4. NUTRITION
Obesity can worsen other aging problems, advises Dr. Bankstahl. A high quality diet made from lean, whole meat-based ingredients is best. Avoid low end foods filled with grains and carbohydrates – these can put on weight and may exacerbate other health problems. A holistic veterinarian can help you choose the right food for your senior based on his current condition and test results. All cats, especially older ones, benefit from eating a high quality canned food because its higher water content helps flush the kidneys.

Older cats can lose their sense of smell, which may cut down their enthusiasm for eating. Heating the food in the microwave for 20 seconds can bring out the fragrance and make it more appealing.

5. COAT AND SKIN
Groom your older animal regularly, especially if he is not able to do it himself anymore. This will help prevent mats and keep his coat in good condition. It also gives you a chance to check for any lumps, sores or other potential problems that may need to be examined and treated by a vet.

6. TEETH AND GUMS
All cats and dogs should have their teeth brushed daily throughout their lives, advises veterinarian Dr. Michelle Jack. This is especially important as they age. Proper dental care prevents bacteria from entering through the gums and potentially causing organ damage. A high quality diet also helps prevent dental problems as an animal ages.

7. MENTAL HEALTH
Mental exercise is just as important as physical activity, says Dr. Bankstahl. “Teach your old dog new tricks,” he says. Besides learning new commands, senior dogs can benefit from going to training classes. Both cats and dogs enjoy puzzle toys. If your canine friend is alone for much of the day, doggie daycare can offer a fun and stimulating environment.

Animals give you many years of companionship and unconditional love. You can repay this devotion by minimizing the effects of aging and giving your older companion the best possible quality of life for as long as he’s with you.

SENIOR HEALTH ISSUES
Kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and painful dental infections are most common medical issues in older cats, says Dr. Jack. Cats are also prone to certain cancers and may develop a thickened heart muscle. She adds that elderly dogs suffer from most of the same problems. They also tend to get hypothyroidism, in which thyroid function decreases. Leaky heart valves are another common problem in older canines.

Many of these problems are treatable, especially if caught early. Be alert for physical and behavioral changes. For example, stiffness going up and down stairs can signal arthritis, while acting “lost,” inappropriate vocalization, and not recognizing commands can indicate senility.

Dr. Bankstahl recommends you watch for these important physical signs: weight loss, changes in appetite, increased thirst or urination, breathing problems, coughing, difficulty getting up, weakness, and an unpleasant mouth odor. Also be alert for behavioral changes like accidents in the house, changes in sleep patterns, abnormal vocalizing, irritability, unresponsiveness and staring off into space.

If you observe any of these signs in your dog or cat, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Even if you don’t notice any symptoms, it’s a good idea to have senior animals examined every six months.

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