Caring for Elderly Pets

Older pets have special health needs and may require more attention and care than younger pets.

The small amount of extra looking after that they need will be well rewarded, in continuing good health for them, and years of companionship for you.

Conditions they can face depends on how well they have been throughout their lifetime, as well as their specific breed. For some breeds, there are inevitable conditions, but for others, it can be a real mixed bag of what you may face (if anything).

How Old Is Elderly?

This depends on the breed and on the individual pet – larger breeds tend to age more rapidly than smaller ones.

In general, ‘elderly’ means over eight years old for a medium-sized dog, five years old for a larger dog and eight years old for a cat.

Why Elderly Pets Have Special Health Needs

As dogs and cats grow older, their organs may become less efficient and they may be less able to resist infections and other diseases.

As a responsible pet owner, you will want your pet to remain healthy and active for as long as possible, so you should be aware of any condition that might need your veterinary surgeon’s attention.

They can also face issues with their joints (just like humans!), such as arthritis or pain. They do use their joints a lot in their younger years, so it is probably inevitable as they become unable to do as much exercise. The same applies to sight and hearing.

Dietary Needs of Elderly Pets

There are several reasons why a special diet may be needed in an elderly pet.

He or she may be less active than a younger animal, and therefore may need fewer calories. The digestive organs may become less efficient in digestion and absorption, and a highly digestible diet may need to be fed.

Phosphorus and protein content may need to be decreased if your pet has kidney problems.

Caring for the Health of Elderly Pets

Health problems associated with older pets include:

  • Arthritis
  • Circulatory problems
  • Ear infections
  • Hearing, sight and smell disorders
  • Dental problems
  • Incontinence
  • Weight
  • Kidney disease

An assessment of your pet should be made regularly to make sure its appearance and behaviour are normal.

If your pet refuses food, is unduly reluctant to go out, is in pain or has a problem urinating or passing motions, you should seek the advice of your veterinary surgeon. There are also a number of specific health problems that you should watch for with an elderly dog or cat.

As your pet gets older, arthritis may develop in its joints. This may mean that your pet becomes less active. Dogs with arthritis should still be exercised, but not excessively, as that can make their arthritis worse, and they may need a diet containing fewer calories to prevent them from gaining weight.

Older pets are more susceptible to diseases of the heart and lungs. Alert your veterinary surgeon at once if you notice signs such as coughing, wheezing, breathing difficulties, or weakness.

Ear infections can occur, especially in dogs. Signs of ear infections to look for include discharge from the ear, persistent head shaking, or pawing of the ear.

Hearing, sight and smell can all become less acute with age, and you may need to make allowances for these changes. For instance, your dog may not obey you simply because it does not hear a command. Eye problems such as infections, cataracts, decreased night vision, or even blindness can also occur.

Watch for signs such as discharge from the eyes, or signs of impaired sight, such as bumping into furniture.

A disease of the gums can not only lead to loss of teeth but may also cause a more serious problem if bacteria enter the bloodstream through the inflamed gums. Examine your pet’s teeth and gums regularly, and ask your veterinary surgeon’s advice if the teeth or gums do not look healthy.

Urinary incontinence can be a problem in elderly animals, and even a pet that has been house-trained for years may suddenly urinate in an inappropriate place. This is sometimes due to problems with the part of the nervous system that controls the bladder, but it also can be due to disorders of the urinary tract, prostate, or other body systems.

If a pet suddenly becomes incontinent or starts to urinate more frequently than it had previously, consult your veterinary surgeon.

Finally, don’t forget that regular vaccination is just as important in older dogs and cats as in younger ones.


Being overweight or being underweight can be a problem in older pets. A quick way to check your pet’s weight is to feel the ribs with the flat of your palm. If you can feel the ribs only with difficulty, weight loss is needed.

If the ribs feel very prominent, or if they can be easily seen in a short haired dog or cat, your pet needs to put on some weight.

Obesity can be a problem in elderly pets. It may be due to the dog or cat being less active and therefore burning up fewer calories. Extra body weight can cause or worsen many other health problems for your pet.

If your pet is overweight, its weight should be corrected by feeding a calorie controlled diet and possibly by increasing the amount of exercise.

If your pet is too thin, have your veterinary surgeon check that there are no underlying health problems contributing to its weight loss. As the sense of smell and taste lose acuity and the digestive tract becomes less efficient in some older pets, they may need to be fed a very palatable, highly digestible diet.

Kidney Changes

Elderly pets may have reduced efficiency of kidney function. The kidneys process and eliminate body waste products, especially the products of protein metabolism, into the urine.

Your veterinarian can tell you if your pet should be on a diet specially designed for kidney problems. These diets contain a low phosphorus level (to slow down the progression of the disease) and a lower protein level to reduce the build-up of harmful waste products in the blood.

Reduced Appetites

Elderly pets sometimes have poor appetites and may need to be tempted to eat. The following tips may be helpful in enticing your pet to eat:

  • Feed on a little and often basis, dividing the daily food allowance into two to four small meals.
  • Warm the food gently, to just below body temperature.
  • Leave the food down for about 10 – 15 minutes and then remove it. Your pet is more likely to eat fresh food.
  • Make sure your pet has a quiet, undisturbed place to eat its meals.

Mineral and Vitamin Requirements

Under certain circumstances, the vitamin and mineral needs of elderly pets may be different from those of younger animals.

Some of the special diets have their mineral and vitamin content carefully adjusted to help provide the appropriate balance for elderly pets who have failing kidney or heart function.

Feeding your Elderly Pet

The dietary needs of elderly pets vary from individual to individual. Because some elderly pets have special dietary needs, your veterinary surgeon may decide to prescribe a special diet.