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Caring for Elderly and Disabled Pets: A Guide for Pet Parents

A senior dog on a beach with waves crashing peacefully in the background.

Basic Needs of Elderly Pets
Common Health Issues of Elderly Pets and Their Remedies
Mobility Issues
Incontinence
Inability to Regulate Body Temperature
Behavioral Changes
Diet and Nutrition For Elderly Pets
Individual Pet Nutritional Needs
Supplements 
Exercise For Elderly Pets 
Grooming For Elderly Pets 
Home Modifications For Elderly or Disabled Pets 
Financial Resources For Elderly or Disabled Pets 

 

The age a pet is considered elderly depends on several matters and therefore can greatly vary. Generally speaking, a dog will be considered “senior” at seven years old. But, of course, it depends on their size, breed, health status, and other important factors. Larger dogs, for instance, tend to have shorter life spans and may be considered senior before their smaller counterparts.  

Cats are generally considered senior at 11 years old—and super-senior at 15 years old and upward. They can even go on to live to 30 years, depending on the circumstances. Indoor cats, for instance, have significantly longer life expectancies than their outdoor counterparts.  

Understanding when pets are approaching or in their senior years will help pet parents better provide their furry friends with the appropriate care. Continue reading to see what role you can play in ensuring your pet a happy and healthy senior life.

 

Basic Needs of Elderly Pets

Senior pets tend to have different basic needs than their younger counterparts, such as planning to bring home a puppy or caring for a kitten. Not only may they require more time and support than before, but they could also have needs specific to certain health issues that they’ve developed.

General tips for taking care of your elderly pet’s basic needs include: 

  • Schedule regular checkups with your Veterinarian: As your pet gets older, veterinary checkups should become more regular. If your pet is diagnosed with any condition, the chances of visiting the vet more often are increased. Make sure you have a quality vet lined up for when you and your pet need them most.  
  • Feed your pet quality food: If there’s any age where quality food matters most, it’s old age. To ensure a happy and healthy later life, give your pet quality food and treats.  
  • Watch for signs of older age: While your pet won’t be able to verbally pet tell you when their bones are stiff or they’re feeling tired, other signs will be present. Whether they’re walking slower than they used to or sleeping more often, know what the signs are in your pet and act accordingly.  
  • Provide consistent companionship: Unlike mid-aged pets that can be left alone for 4 or so hours, their older counterparts may require more consistent companionship. For one, they may have certain conditions that require checking up on—but it can also comfort them to stay closer to you in their later years.  

 

Common Health Issues of Elderly Pets and Their Remedies

Just like humans, health issues are far and wide in elderly pets. Luckily, a lot of these health issues present in elderly pets are treatable. Typically everything from arthritis to incontinence has a solution available. Whether your pet is experiencing difficulty walking or controlling their bladder, learn about what you can do below.

These are perhaps the most common health issues noticed in elderly pets: 

  • Mobility issues
  • Incontinence
  • Inability to regulate body temperature 
  • Behavioral changes  

Mobility Issues

Mobility issues are one of the most commonly associated signs of old age in a pet. Luckily, there are many ways to accommodate your older pet’s disabilities and make their life a bit more comfortable. First, we’ll go over the signs of mobility issues and then suggest some solutions. 

Below are the signs of arthritis and mobility issues:  

  • Limping
  • Difficulty sitting or standing 
  • Sleeping more 
  • Seeming to have stiff or sore joints 
  • Hesitancy to jump, run, or climb stairs 
  • Weight gain 
  • Decreased activity or interest in play 
  • Attitude or behavior changes (including increased irritability) 
  • Decreased alertness 

Below are tips for accommodating your senior pet’s mobility issues:  

  • Raise the food bowl: While raising the food bowl is generally a good practice for any pet—especially dogs—it is recommended for those reaching their senior years. Their decreased mobility makes it harder to lower their heads to a bowl placed on the ground. Raising their food and water bowls so that they sit just below their head is an easy and effective way to save them some trouble.
  • Add more water bowls: Adding a few more water bowls around the house is a great way to ensure your pet stays hydrated without having to exert too much energy. One water bowl on the opposite side of the house  could mean a lot of walking for stiff and sore older pets.
  • Consider toe grips or no-slip socks: Toe grips and no-slip socks make it easier for pets to walk around, especially on wood or tile flooring. These  provide traction on otherwise smooth and slippery ground.
  • Upgrade their bedding: Your pet’s stiff and sore joints are sure to benefit from comfortable and soft bedding. Consider buying your pet a bed designed for arthritis or other mobility issues.
  • Consider medication: Lastly, you may wish to try medication if your pet’s mobility is causing them a considerable amount of pain. Always consult with your veterinarian before putting them on any medication or supplement though.

Incontinence 

Incontinence is a common health issue among senior pets—dogs and cats alike. Some potential causes for the loss of bladder control include hormonal imbalance, spinal and neurological problems, or simply degeneration with age. It’s important to remember that pets should never be punished for those wet patches. Any pet stains can always be cleaned up, but negative training may be harder to undo. The best thing you can do is be more accommodating to your furry friend.  

Below are tips on how to deal with incontinence in your senior pets: 

  • Utilize doggy doors or pee pads: For pets  having trouble controlling their bladder, doggy doors and pee pads can be helpful. While pee pads are often a quicker, more affordable fix, doggy doors require less cleanup. Whether you decide to train your older dog to use pee pads or install a doggy door, both are good options. 
  • Use diapers, liners, or other garments: For some cats and dogs, diapers or liners may be the better solution. If your pet has considerable trouble controlling their bladder, try these options instead.
  • Switch to tile or sealed hardwood floors: If your pet can’t make it outside, you may want to consider flooring options that make it easy to clean up potty accidents. Tile or sealed hardwood floors are both good options for pets with incontinence. The downside, however,  is some older pets may experience trouble walking on these floor types.
  • Look for an upgraded litter box: Older cats with mobility issues may have trouble stepping into their litter box, prompting them to go potty in other areas around the house. If your cat has mobility issues, look for a litter box with a lower entry point. These allow your pet to walk right in the box without  jumping.
  • Try stain and odor removers: While the other options are good preventatives, if accidents have already been occurring, it’s time to look into stain and odor removers.

Inability to Regulate Body Temperature

Older pets can’t regulate their body temperature like they used to. Whether it's snowing or there’s a heatwave, you’ll want to stay on top of their wellbeing during any sort of extreme temperatures or weather. Try to keep your senior pet warm, dry, and indoors during inclement weather, except when exercising or using the bathroom.  

Tips for temperature regulation in senior pets: 

  • Keep the thermostat at a comfortable range: If you have an elderly pet that is sensitive to the temperature, simply keep the thermostat at a comfortable range.
  • Provide plenty of blankets: If you can’t adjust the temperature too much in your unit, use blankets instead. Anytime your pet seems noticeably cold, throw a blanket over them to help keep warm.
  • Use coats: Put a coat on your pet in the colder months. Anytime you go for a walk or simply let them outside to go potty, a coat will help keep them insulated and warm.  

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral changes in older dogs, or other pets for that matter, are not unheard of. These can happen for various reasons—from physical pain to neurological diseases. Just as humans can experience cognitive dysfunction, so can their pets. As pets get older, changes in their physical wellbeing can also bring down their mental wellbeing.  

Below are some of the behavioral changes that may occur in older pets:

  • Increased reaction to sounds
  • Increased vocalization
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Decreased interaction with humans
  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased response to commands
  • Increased aggressive or protective behavior
  • Increased anxiety
  • Incontinence
  • Decreased self-hygiene or grooming
  • Repetitive activity
  • Increased wandering
  • Change in sleep cycles 

Tips for handling behavior changes in senior pets:

  • Routine vet visits: Vet visits aren’t just for checking in on your pet’s physical health. Tell your vet about any behavioral changes you’ve noticed in your furry friend and what you can do about it.
  • White noise: Certain sounds, such as white noise, may be helpful for pets with anxiety or irritability. Try this out next time your pet is panicking, excessively barking, or otherwise showing unwanted behavioral changes.

 

Diet and Nutrition for Elderly Pets

Just like humans, pets’ nutritional requirements change and evolve as they get older. To ensure your pet a healthy and happy life, keeping up with their dietary needs will be key. Though genes and luck play a role, the care you put into feeding your pet is just as important.

While no gold standard for feeding senior pets exists, there are general guidelines to follow. Below we’ll discuss individual pet nutritional needs and supplement use.  

Individual Pet Nutritional Needs

Senior pets need an age-appropriate diet just as much as puppies or kittens . Since there is no single formula for the perfect senior pet food, always reach out to your vet to decide what’s best. Conduct some research with them to determine whether to put your furry friend on a diet higher in fats or proteins, or discover other nutrition and supplement tips.

  • Adjust their diet slowly: The best way to adjust your pet’s new nutritional needs is gradually. Don’t make any major changes overnight. If you must change foods, wean them off of their current kibble by feeding ratios of both. Changing your pet’s food too quickly might spur stomach aches and diarrhea, so it’s best to take it slow.
    • On the first day, combine ¾ cup of their old food with ¼ of their new food. On the second day, go half-and-half. On the third day, combine ¼ of their old food with ¾ of their new food. By the fourth day, you should be able to feed them only the new food.
  • Consider medications they may need: Certain conditions may prompt pets to need medications, which are typically taken when eating. Always consult with your vet about which medications are right for your pet. Double-check refills: Always pick up your refills on time and double-check to make sure they’re exactly what your pet was prescribed.  
  • Set up a schedule: You should set up a time(s) of day for both feeding and medications. It’s important to keep to this schedule to ensure your pet has a comfortable day.

Supplements

Just like humans, our senior pets can also benefit from  supplements. . For instance, glucosamine may help support cartilage in the joints of older dogs. Of course, you should always consult with your vet before introducing your pet to any supplements.

Below are a few types of supplements and their uses for your senior pet:

  • Pre- and probiotics: There are both pre- and probiotics for dogs and pre- and probiotics for cats. In both types of pets, these supplements are thought to support the digestive system, aiding in proper digestion.
  • Calming: There are also calming supplements for cats and calming supplements for dogs. These are made with ingredients such as chamomile and L-Tryptophan and are thought to soothe pets in tense or stressful situations such as travel, grooming, thunderstorms, and fireworks.
  • Skin and coat: Skin and coat supplements for dogs use fatty acids to support their skin and coat health. These work in the same way as fish oil supplements for humans.
  • Hip and joint: Some supplements are specifically designed to support a dog's hips and joints. They blend glucosamine with other essential ingredients to provide a supplement that aids in healthy joints and supports overall flexibility and mobility.
  • Urinary tract support: Urinary tract support supplements are available for cats. These are made with ingredients such as cranberry extract and are thought to support your cat’s urinary tract. 

 

Exercise for Elderly Pets

Elderly pets need exercise like any other pet. However, as they get older, exercise becomes tougher. Flexibility and mobility are other issues that put a damper on proper exercise. Luckily, there are all kinds of ways to exercise your pet that don’t involve the usual walking and running.

Below are a few exercises for elderly pets: 

  • Low-impact exercises: While you’ll still want to get in some short daily walks, pet parents should try swimming or yoga with their dogs instead. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise for older dogs.
  • Training and socializing: You can also try training and socializing with your older dog regularly. An old dog is never too old to learn new tricks or make new friends. When socializing your older dog, try keeping them around other dogs their age. This way, they won’t have to worry about all the puppy antics but still enjoy their daily dose of exercise and socialization.  

 

Grooming for Elderly Pets

While any pet can benefit from regular grooming, elderly ones often require it  consistently and frequently. Daily brushing or combing poses many benefits to your pet’s life, especially for dogs and cats with certain types of coats. Australian Shepherd dogs and Himalayan cats, for example, are prone to matting, making grooming a core requirement of their care.

Regular grooming removes loose hair and even stimulates blood circulation. This results in healthy skin and coat, and therefore a healthy pet. As long as you have the right grooming products, taking care of your pet’s coat at home can be easy.

For older cats, nails are another top priority. If your senior cat has stopped using their scratching post as often as they once did, you’ll need to fill in and perform the nail care. Nails should be checked regularly and trimmed when needed.

Below are other tips for grooming your elderly cat or dog

  • Use soft, no-skid surfaces: Soft, no-skid surfaces help your pet stay still while you groom them. Try using a carpet or even the grass outdoors to avoid slipping and sliding.
  • Choose softer, gentler brushes: As pets get older, their skin gets weaker and more sensitive. Always make sure to use soft, gentle brushes and be patient as you groom them.
  • Keep grooming sessions short: Try to keep grooming sessions as brief as possible. Fifteen minutes or less is a good standard. Because older pets tend to become more sensitive, you’ll want to minimize their discomfort.
  • Be mindful of the weather: Older pets may be more sensitive to high or low temperatures. In the colder months, let your pet’s hair grow out a little longer. In the hotter months, it’s best to cut it shorter.
  • Check the eyes, ears, and mouth: Never forget to check your pet’s eyes, ears, and mouth. Remove any debris that’s collected around their eyes, clean out their ears regularly (especially after swimming), and brush their teeth if you notice any tartar building up. Pet ear and eye wipes work well for the ears and eyes, while a toothbrush and toothpaste work for their teeth. 

 

Home Modifications for Elderly or Disabled Pets

It can often be challenging for an elderly or disabled pet to navigate their home. While you may have all the intentions to make it a loving sanctuary for your furry friend, everything from stairs to wood floors can present obstacles for them. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to modify your home to their needs.

Below are some of the various home modifications you may wish to make for your pet:

  • Make it easy for them to go outside: Elderly or disabled pets may need to go to the bathroom more frequently than their younger counterparts. Offering quick access to the outdoors could save your pet from a potty accident and your flooring from stains.
  • Think about retractable gates and containment options: Whether it’s the home gym with its range of equipment or the workshop and its collection of sharp tools,  some areas of your house are not as safe for your pet.   As they get older, you may not want your pet entering rooms with slippery flooring or stairs. There are various housing containment solutions for these problems, such as retractable gates, crates, and pens.
  • Add pet ramps: If there are areas of your home your pet needs to enter, but stairs are the only way of getting there, add pet ramps. These can be placed both indoors and outdoors on stairs, steep or rocky areas outside, and on couches or beds.
  • Modify the flooring: You may also want to modify the flooring of your home. As a simple way to start, try adding rugs to wood or tile floors. While you won’t have to cover every area of your home in carpet, you will want to make the areas your pet frequents walkable.
  • Outdoor modifications: Modifications won’t be limited to the inside of your home for some pets. If they frequent the outdoors, you’ll also want to consider how you can accommodate their needs outside as well. For older or disabled dogs, you’ll want to eliminate hills, artificial turf, or remove stairs if possible.
  • Security system with a camera: If you need to be out of the home for periods of time, a security system with a camera can be very useful. This technology helps provide some peace of mind that your pet is okay while you’re away.

 

Financial Resources for Elderly or Disabled Pets

Caring for pets can come with certain expected costs, but caring for elderly or disabled pets can add additional (and at times unanticipated) expenses that can push the boundaries of your budget. If you find that you are strapped for funds, below is a list of financial resources for your elderly or disabled pets:

  • Handicapped Pets Foundation: The Handicapped Pets Foundation is a nonprofit organization that serves elderly and disabled pets alike. They are particularly known for donating wheelchairs to pets in need.
  • Gunnar’s Wheels: Gunnar’s Wheels is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing animals with disabilities with wheels to move forward. You can reach them through their Facebook page.
  • Hailey’s Wheels For Life: Hailey’s Wheels For Life is a non-profit organization based out of Australia that provides financial assistance to pets in need. You can also reach this organization through its Facebook page.
  • Waggle: Waggle is a crowdfunding website specifically designed for supporting and financing pets’ needs.
  • The Pet Fund: The Pet Fund is a nonprofit organization that provides financial help to pet parents whose pet requires urgent care.
  • CareCredit: CareCredit offers healthcare financing options, as well as pet insurance through Pets Best.
  • RedRover Relief: RedRover Relief provides financial assistance in the form of grants and other resources to pet owners or rescuers whose pets need urgent medical attention.
  • Dogs on Deployment: Dogs on Deployment provides financial assistance specifically to qualifying service members and veterans.  

 

 

Pets 101 - Health & Wellness | Four Paws

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