Our dogs and cats are generally considered senior when they reach seven to nine years. But the rate at which they actually age varies, depending on several factors besides how old they are.
At what age is your dog or cat considered a senior? There is no simple answer for every individual, but those that have reached seven to nine years old are generally accepted to have entered the “golden years” of their lives.
If you take the conventional perspective that one animal year equals seven human years, a seven- to nine-year-old dog or cat would be 49 to 63 years of age. This is the age range during which many humans start experiencing the ailments associated with getting older; it’s also true of many animals when they’re seven or over.
However, just like people, some animals exhibit physical signs of aging sooner than others, regardless of their age. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including faulty genetics, poor nutrition, environmental factors, trauma or other illnesses. Meanwhile, many other dogs and cats gracefully progress from adulthood into their golden years without obvious decline, thanks to good genes, a healthy diet, lack of stress and trauma, and few other existing ailments. Ultimately, however, an animal’s ability to recover from illness, heal from injury, and fight infection wanes with the passing years and the inevitable consequences of aging.
Dogs: Breed and size can make a difference
Although some breeds are known to develop more age-related health problems than others, the size of the dog also plays role in how soon in life these problems develop.
A common condition associated with adult and geriatric life stages, and one that affects a dog’s quality of life in a manner often visible to people, is osteoarthritis (OA). Arthritis is joint inflammation, but OA occurs with the development of degenerative changes in joint surfaces, causing pain, compromised mobility, and other clinical signs.
Large and giant-sized dogs are more prone to OA than small and medium canines, though any size of dog can be affected by painful joints. Larger dogs tend to experience OA discomfort earlier in life than smaller dogs, however, because their greater weight puts stress on joints and other tissues during day-to-day activity and exercise.
Some breeds are known to have OA due to their body conformation. Large and giant dogs like golden and Labrador retrievers, Rottweilers, mastiffs and great Danes commonly develop arthritis earlier in life due to hip and elbow dysplasia and traumatic ligament damage (cruciate tears, etc.). Longer-backed, shorter-legged breeds like the dachshund, Corgi and Bassett hound, are prone to arthritis pain in the small joints (facets) that connect their backbones (vertebrae), as well as other debilitating back problems. Small breeds like the Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian and Yorkshire terrier are genetically prone to luxating patella, where the kneecap slides out of place, compromises the stability of the knee joint, and leads to arthritis.
Though often associated with aging, periodontal disease is afflicting a growing number of much younger animals, often because of poor quality diets. Small dogs are more commonly affected by this condition, in which the teeth and their associated structures (gums, ligaments and the bone that supports the teeth, etc.) are damaged due to bacterial infection and inflammation (gingivitis). Veterinarians attribute this tendency to multiple factors. People often have more difficulty providing regular home dental care for small dogs. Gaining access to the mouth of a small dog can be challenging due to lack of compliance. Concern for injuring a small dog during tooth brushing also reduces people’s willingness to provide home dental care.
Larger dogs often exhibit more vigorous chewing habits. Chomping on a bone, carrot or rubber toy can have some positive benefits in keeping teeth cleaner and gums less inflamed.
Cats: obesity is a major factor
Cats have a more uniform body size when compared to the canine family with its wide variety of breeds, sizes and conformations.While a cat’s size and weight can vary somewhat depending on his breed or mix of breeds, his diet and level of activity have a bigger influence in how quickly he develops age-related issues. Cats living an indoor existence are often more sedentary than their outdoor counterparts. Reduced activity and 24/7 access to commercially available processed foods tend to pack on the pounds and cause cats to become overweight or obese, leading to many health problems often connected with old age: arthritis, heart and lung problems, diabetes mellitus, digestive problems, cancer, and other ailments. These problems can be avoided or minimized if the cat maintains a normal body condition score (BCS) throughout life. BCS is a grading scale by which your veterinarian can determine if your cat is too thin, too heavy, or just right.
Like dogs, cats (especially those that are overweight) are also prone to OA, but they are better able to disguise their mobility problems. Whereas a dog may obviously limp or be less able to perform during exercise, a cat’s clinical signs of OA may manifest as lethargy (sleeping more), difficulty jumping up to elevated surfaces, inappropriately urinating or defecating (as a result of discomfort while squatting to eliminate), and behavior changes such as aggression, hiding, etc.
A variety of internal organ diseases affect cats with age, including chronic renal failure (CRF), hyperthyroidism, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), pancreatitis and more. All are manageable provided they are diagnosed early and managed with an integrative approach. Like small dogs, cats develop periodontal disease earlier in life and require a concerted effort to keep their mouths healthy.
How can I slow aging?
In order to help ensure your dog or cat stays healthy into his senior years, it’s crucial that you collaborate with your veterinarian to create a senior-wellness strategy aiming to prevent or resolve elements before they become severe. Along with feeding a high quality species-appropriate diet, avoiding over-vaccination and minimizing stress, implement the strategies outlined in the sidebar above.
I recommend wellness exams for all animals, but juvenile, geriatric, and sick dogs and cats should be examined every six months, or as frequently as recommended by your veterinarian. Diagnostic testing (blood, urine and fecal tests, x-rays, ultrasound, etc.) to monitor organ system functions for any deviation from normal is a key aspect of promoting ideal health.
Regardless of your companion’s species, breed, size or age, it’s important to promote good health on a lifelong basis. By starting him off on the right paw when he’s young, you can help prevent age-related illnesses from developing before he turns seven – and keep him that way when he turns nine and beyond.